It’s hygge season again: that Danish concept that, several years ago, caught on in the United States. You practice hygge when you light candles, when you drape warm throws over the back of your couch, when you make warm milk, and when you decide it’s time for the shearling slippers. Hygge is the chilly-weather contentment and coziness of a home.
It’s election season again. And, as usual, Christians lament the condition of political homelessness. This prompts a question: What kind of political home should Christians seek?
In practical terms, the complaint of the politically homeless is that neither of the two major political parties consistently reflect Christian convictions. In the United States, a long-entrenched two-party system worsens the problem as does geographic and ideological sorting of party supporters. The politically homeless point to decisions within both the Republican and Democratic parties that exclude members with atypical views. But, for the most part, Christians have not been actually expelled from political parties or civic and advocacy groups. Political homelessness is, instead, experienced as feeling out of step, failing to find one’s people, absorbing the unwelcoming comment or cue that signals that a space was not made for you. For the politically homeless, politics is a space without hygge.
What kind of political home should Christians seek?
But hygge is only one of many ways of giving a mood to a home. On visits to Taipei, where members of my extended family live, I am always struck by the multistory buildings that line the city’s streets. A restaurant or other storefront occupies the ground floor while a family dwelling sits above. In the evenings, one can see children hunched over school books at restaurant tables while their parents work, neighbors meet for meals, and business goes on. These household spaces reflect diversity and activity more than they do unity and refuge.
Different languages also signal different conceptions of the home. Some, including the Danish, have a distinct term for home that connotes a place of origin and belonging. But other languages collapse the terms for “house” and “home.” In those cultures where the ideas of house and home are conflated, the term conveys a larger, more diverse array of relationships and structures—workshops, farm land, or buildings rather than only a private space.
The expansive household stands as a better metaphor for Christian engagement in politics than does home as refuge. Christians are sojourners who are also tasked with seeking the peace of the cities to which they are called. Building up and sustaining a political community is part of that peace. And a political community is as much a household, a place of work, an oikos, as it is a home. It is, as Abraham Kuyper described, a “the social structure in which we live,” held together with “anchors and tie-beams.”
The expansive household stands as a better metaphor for Christian engagement in politics than does home as refuge.
Several years ago, the Center for Public Justice piloted a program to promote the practice of political discipleship. The project, drawing inspiration from Vincent Bacote’s book The Political Disciple, built on a foundational understanding of political community as created by God for good and sustained and redeemed by God’s love and action. The Great Commission of evangelism is to be paired, as Bacote explains, with the Great Commission contained in the creation mandate, to exercise stewardship and authority in the earth. Political discipleship moves past questions of whether one should engage in politics or which party to join and toward the task of how, through politics, citizens build suitable social structures for ourselves and others, brick by brick, beam by beam: places to live together, places to work together, places to be.
Since 2019, political discipleship groups from New Jersey to Houston to Phoenix have presented testimony, met with state representatives, and petitioned the attorneys general of their respective states. Nearly every group leader has had something to celebrate; nearly all of them also said that the work was hard, perhaps unexpectedly so. Engaging in political discipleship can feel like running a race for which one has not trained. This is, in part, because our political lives have succumbed to distortions similar to those that have affected the exclusively hyggish household: an overemphasis on consumption, rendering home-work invisible.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the household has shifted from a site of economic activity to a place oriented toward retreat and consumption. At first, work moved out of the household and into the factory; then into the office park. The suburban home, segregated in space away from these places of work, was exalted as an American ideal. In her book Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, historian Elaine Tyler May argues that by the 1950s, furnishing one’s house with furniture, appliances, and a television lent meaning to the work of the breadwinner, shaped the role of the ideal housewife, and was how children fit in with their friends. “Consumerism,” she observes, “provided a means for assimilation into the American way of life.”
Early in 2019, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg offered supporters a toolkit featuring different logos for each state as well as a design system that each voter could customize to his or her own personal brand. This marketing effort reflects a sense that establishing a political home is a consumer pursuit. In this frame, voters are on a quest for the right candidate, the right bundle of positions, the right images by which to precisely express their own distinct identity. Politics as consumption in an individualistic age looks like this: a striving for personalization while actually hewing closely to a larger cultural brand. On Mayor Pete’s site, you could choose from one of nine official (surely focus-group-tested) branding colors, mixing and matching as you saw fit. Creativity, sort of.
Political discipleship requires a different kind of formation. At its heart, it requires being shaped and reshaped by Scripture and the practices of the church, a topic covered beautifully by authors Tish Harrison Warren in the pages of Christianity Today and Kaitlyn Schiess in her recent book the Liturgy of Politics. Schiess points out how, for example, the Christian practice of hospitality reforms and reorients one’s affections toward the well-being of one’s neighbors, including migrants and immigrants, and away from personal or in-group selfishness. If Christians are to participate in politics well, it will not be by keeping up with the political Joneses or by tweaking their own personal political branding, but rather by honing distinct community practices and identities and offering to the larger political community the fruits of this effort, no matter how irregular it appears from the perspective of dominant political brands. This is simpler than it sounds: we need to do good work together; we need to pursue the common good with particular people in a particular place.
Political discipleship requires a different kind of formation. At its heart, it requires being shaped and reshaped by Scripture and the practices of the church.
At the same time that consumerism shaped the modern household ideal, the true work of the home was rendered invisible. In a move that picked up steam throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, the work that was necessary to sustain domestic life was classified as women’s work, which came to be defined not as “work” at all. Several years ago, Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee developed a calculator to account for the work performed in the home, often by women. Assessing the time spent on child care, home maintenance, cooking, and scheduling, Gbowee estimated that the value of unpaid work by women in the typical US household to exceed men’s by $7,300.
The same distortion pervades our political imagination. Political engagement involves true work that goes unseen or has been framed as not work. There is the work of thinking slowly, sifting through the political ideas that we received off the shelf, the biases we bring to any decision. As psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman notes, judging well and counteracting cognitive bias is a painstaking task. How do you do this? It takes work. “Little can be achieved,” says Kahneman, “without considerable investment of effort.” There is also the work of hearing well the ideas and needs of others—an essential component of political hospitality that moves beyond toleration. Christians, writes Richard Mouw, should be “getting clear about what [others] actually believe and care about. This often takes work, but it is necessary work.”
Finally, simply being and acting together as community requires work. When no one takes responsibility to bring and keep a community together, meetings meander without structure or stop happening at all. No one knows who is doing what. Key stakeholders are excluded or find themselves polarized against one another. Confusion reigns. Drift sets in. The fact that valuable work is required to build community, including political community, is often most evident when it is missing.
The fact that valuable work is required to build community, including political community, is often most evident when it is missing.
Jen Pollock Michel’s Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home is one of several recent volumes that reclaims the good work of the home. Her observations offer wisdom for our political situation. “Home is shared human work,” she writes. We know that this work matters because God undertakes it in metaphor throughout Scripture: groaning in childbirth, shepherding a flock, cleaning a house. When we undertake home-work, we pursue a God-given calling. We also embrace our creatureliness. We eat and, therefore, must do the dishes. We make plans and decisions in time and, therefore, coordinate schedules and write agendas.
Dan Carter, a pastor based in western Michigan, noted that the work of a political discipleship group convened around the problem of affordable housing “required babysitters and sacrifices of time.” He and members of his church researched options and existing laws, consulted with community experts, and ultimately called for inclusion of the lowest-income households in the city’s housing plan. Other groups spent significant effort working to bridge the divergent ideological perspectives of libertarians and proponents of a more activist state. For others, it was no small task to simply decide, as a group, where to begin. This work is work and what stable political communities require. Brick by brick, beam by beam, groups contributed their labor to building political houses that could accommodate both themselves and their neighbors.
As the dust settles from this big and deeply contentious political season, many Christians will continue to feel politically homeless. Christians will continue to feel at odds with and, at times, unwelcome in some major political parties and institutions. But the work of politics will remain. Human rights and human dignity continue to deserve defense, housing needs to be built, education systems and a public health infrastructure require support.
Rather than waiting, Goldilocks-style, for a political home that suits one just right, Christians should look for a different type of place in politics.
Rather than waiting, Goldilocks-style, for a political home that suits one just right, Christians should look for a different type of place in politics. As the political philosopher Danielle Allen suggests, “the goal of democratic politics should not be the achievement of ‘oneness’—total agreement or consensus or spiritual affinity—but of wholeness, the coherence and integrity of a consolidated . . . but differentiated body.” To participate in politics well will require acknowledgment that political work is work and a collective work at that. The mandate to steward and exercise authority was given by God to humanity together, not to a select few. We are all political animals—not just some of us. Toward this end, Christians are called not to be politically homeless but rather political homemakers and housebuilders, working to maintain a social structure within which the diverse members and activities in our society can flourish together.