Why Novelists Should NOT Keep Their Politics & Religion to Themselves

by Mike Duran · 8 comments

In a recent post entitled The Non-Partisan Author,  Dan Balow, President of Gilead Publishing, expressed what is a fairly common sentiment about writers keeping their mouths shut regarding politics.

The political environment has been toxic for author branding since the Internet debuted over 20 years ago, but has gotten significantly worse and more dangerous as social media grows in the last decade. When expressing opinions became as easy as a mouse-click “like,” authors entered a danger-zone.

Unless your author brand includes political commentary, or a focused societal issue, it is probably best to stay away from political expression in your communication. Even a “like” can be a problem to some of your followers who might leave you because they disagree.

The divisive political environment across the entire world makes it tempting to express yourself and take sides, simply because you so easily can.

But again, unless your author brand focuses on political interplay, or a focused societal issue, it would be wise to consider refraining from commenting on them.

Balow’s stance on this issue is uncontroversial. Many writers adopt this position, choosing to simply shut up about politics altogether. Why? Well, mostly to sell books. Which is also Balow’s bottom line:

The question is simply this; do you want to sell books to anyone and everyone, or just to those who agree with you on everything?

While some might quibble with this, labeling the “Non-Partisan Author” as a sellout, I don’t have a huge problem with the approach. I mean, in the public sphere, we are constantly navigating our interactions with others. Whether it’s your workplace or your neighborhood, sometimes it’s simply better to keep your opinions to yourself. Nothing wrong with this. I don’t need to air my thoughts about everything to everyone I meet. Same could apply to the novelist. Besides, I want to write books that entertain, scare, or inspire, not preach and propagandize.

Nevertheless, a couple very important things are worth considering here. One has to do with religion and the other has to do with social / political conservatism and the state of the art industry.

First, does “non-partisanship” apply to one’s religious beliefs, specifically Christian beliefs? Talking religion can be just as volatile as talking politics. So should the Christian novelist keep her mouth shut about her beliefs in order to not offend someone and sell more books? Yes, talking politics will lose you readers. But at some point, talking religion will cost you readers, too! Compounding this are the biblical injunctions for believers to not put their light under a bushel, but to speak up, testify, and proclaim the good news. No, I’m not talking about turning our fiction into a religious tract. However, there’s some things that novelists should not be silent about. Their religion may be one of them.

As a Christian, and a publisher of Christian fiction, Balow is already branded. Which is why I appreciated novelist Jon Del Aroz’s response to Balow’s thoughts in a lively post entitled The Trad Pub Mindset on Christianity.

It’s interesting seeing this [opinion] from a Christian literary agent/author. Already, with the branding of Christian, he has turned off a large segment of the population who doesn’t want any reminder of Christ or God in their lives. That’s already a controversial stand, and unfortunately when it comes to artistry, that brand has come with a scarlet letter of “L” for lame when it comes to the entertainment market. It may not be warranted, but it is what people see from the outside, and if the concern is about turning off a large swath of the market, that would be the first step to avoid. If you’re labeled a Christian Author, and published by a Christian Publisher, you have that brand riding with you, you have that divisiveness built into your career. You’ll be expected to be in a corner with the other lame Christians, not to be out in the world or in public discourse, because you should only be talking in Church about such things. That’s what the world tells us. 

…This mindset comes from the relentless push by secular society that good Christians should “turn the other cheek” by never speaking out. It’s what led to a complete decay morally and culturally of our society over the last few generations, as every few with any sense of artistry have been willing to stand up for Christ, produce good work, and say “hey, we’re on a wrong path.”  Part of it is because of the non-believer or Churchian induced guilt trip that we should be turning the other cheek, the other part of it is a fear of turning off people who don’t agree as Mr. Balow mentioned. 

The fear is what forces people to stay silent.

I’m pretty sure Balow would not suggest that a believer turns the other cheek (meaning “keep their religion to themselves”) in order to sell books. In fact, he admits that some social / political issues require us to speak up. Balow again:

There are some societal problems where any reasonable Christian or moral person should stand united.

Human trafficking is evil and wrong.

Child pornography is evil and wrong.

Killing people for their religion is evil and wrong.

Terrorism is evil and wrong.

We could come up with many more with very little thought.

But this still doesn’t mean you should venture into the political arena.

So some social / political issues ARE worth engaging. In fact, this may be especially true for the Christian novelist. Will taking a stand cause you to lose some readers? Probably. Is it worth it? Depends. Perhaps it simply comes down to what beliefs and causes one values as important enough to possibly lose readers over. I mean, speaking up about the abortion industry might cost me readers. But not speaking at all may, in the long run, cost me more.

Which brings me to my second observation:  The state of the art industry may demand that novelists who are socially / politically conservative actually need to speak up more.

It doesn’t require a close look to see that the arts — film, fiction, music, etc. — are largely driven by liberals and liberal causes. Just recently, I read about an alternative band, The Lumineers, who donated all the profits from their show to Planned Parenthood. Of course, most of the reportage was celebratory. Did they lose fans over this? Maybe. I have one of their albums and frankly, after this, don’t plan on buying another. Either way, I’m guessing that the band’s gesture did nothing significant to damage their fanbase. If anything, they gained some new pro-choice followers. But really, this is fairly typical of the music industry and their love for liberal politicians and liberal causes. Likewise, the predominance of progressive ideology in the publishing industry has been well-documented. (If you read one thing on this subject, read THIS.) A good example is the ongoing controversy about the Hugo Awards. The “battle lines” are largely drawn between those of more liberal and conservative stripe. The controversy arose when conservatives simply started pushing back, challenging the gatekeepers’ cheer-leading for liberal causes, censoring of conservative voices, and actively promoting “message” driven fiction.

My point: If conservatives and Christians DON’T speak up and push back, culture, politics, and the arts industry will continue their slide into the proverbial gutter. Remaining “non-partisan” may be good in the short term; it may enable you to attract more fans and sell more books. But in the long term, what is our “silence” doing for culture, religious freedom, the Gospel, etc.? The fact is, that the silence of conservative Christian artists is hurting the industry, the culture, and the Church. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we use our art as a megaphone for our beliefs, but that we not live in constant fear that our careers are toast if we let on about our convictions. Doing that just empowers the System.

You see, the suggestion that novelists remain silent on politics or religion is mostly aimed at conservatives. Liberals don’t really fear speaking up… because liberalism is the predominant ideological climate. Speaking in favor of gay marriage, abortion rights, open borders, gender fluidity, and free health care is not controversial in creative circles. Speaking against them often is. And this is exactly what conservatives have NOT done enough of.

All this to say, building a readership and marketing yourself is obviously a tenuous thing. Like many walks of public life, the broader the audience, the more we must temper what we say. To what degree we temper our opinions is another story. Either way, people come to fiction, film and music for what it does for them, not the political, ideological views of the artists. Of course, some of those views may or may not expand their audience. Still, a good story, well told, trumps ones political affiliation. As such, my stories are not political or religious tracts. I want to entertain, surprise, scare, and inspire readers. I don’t want to preach or propagandize through my stories. Yes, my worldview will come out. But at this stage in the game, I agree with Del Arroz that silence — whether it concerns politics or religion — may be costing us far more than just a drop in readership.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Travis Perry April 10, 2017 at 11:01 AM

Agreed.

There is a long history of science fiction writers commenting on politics, often with very little subtlety. If H.G. Wells, George Orwell, Robert A. Heinlein, and many, many others can put blunt social commentary into stories, it seems strange that you and I and writers like us should have to be very careful to omit discussion of political topics.

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Michael April 10, 2017 at 4:40 PM

I can see both sides of the argument too. However, it should be noted that most people read to be entertained and escape the world, not pull the world into their read.

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Travis Perry April 11, 2017 at 8:43 AM

As a genre, the entertainment in science fiction in particular often comes from giving people strange thoughts or new perspectives on real things. Avoiding controversy is something you will find in a certain type of entertainment, but I have always enjoyed stories of the “make you think” variety. You know (to stick to movies), Avatar–which commented on corporate greed and cultural destruction; Minority Report on crime, punishment, and destiny; the Matrix on the nature of reality with a definite approval of cultural non-conformity; Mad Max: Fury Road in which the psycho bad guy is a religious leader and his troops fanatical cultists. And so on. Over and over again, entertainment contains either subtle or strong political/social commentary.

I would not say we all ought to go forth and be as political as possible. But there is no particular reason to shy away from politics either.

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Benita J. Prins April 11, 2017 at 5:43 AM

I agree with Michael; both sides make valid points, but most readers are trying to escape real life for a while. In the current political climate, I’d also hazard that they’re trying to escape politics. If that’s so, they probably won’t go for HG Wells or similar authors. I believe that general fiction should be subtler about political commentary.

Author social media is a whole other can of worms, and I would say political posting there should be kept to a minimum if not nonexistent. Further, I think there’s a danger in drawing too many similarities between declaring our religion and declaring our politics. Politics are nowhere near on par with the importance of religion. Having the right politics won’t save your soul.

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Sally Apokedak April 11, 2017 at 9:33 AM

I touched on a similar topic today on my blog. Well, I mentioned it very lightly. But here’s something I didn’t put on my blog, simply because I didn’t think of it last night: an editor with a Christian publisher told me last year that they wanted books with no overt Christian content and they wanted authors with no ties to Christianity on their websites. When readers googled the authors, there should be nothing on the Internet to show them to be Christian.

Well, screw that, then. Why would I have my authors publish with Christian imprint that pays shite? If they can’t have Christian content in their books and no one can know they are Christians, they might as well not take on the poor advances and poor royalties and poor sales that the Christian imprint is offering. They might as well just publish with general market publishers.

I am against the Christian ghetto of Christian publishing, and yet I really want to start my own publishing company. One where authors can be thoughtful politically, which stems from their religious beliefs.

Only 20% of the country is liberal (give or take a few–I think NY Times puts it at between 18 and 27%) and yet they run the country because they own Hollywood, NY publishing, the media, and our schools (from kindergarten to graduate school).

I don’t care if I’m in prison five years from now for hate speech. I’ve repented of my silence. And I’m not being silent anymore. I could care less if I never sell another book. You can’t serve both God and mammon.

I haven’t read Dan’s article, but from your quote, it looks like he forgot to mention that abortion is a sinful, evil thing and that letting children decide their genders is a sinful evil thing and that homosexual marriage is a sinful evil thing and that feminism is a sinful evil thing. It’s not good calling pedophilia sinful today. Everyone agrees today. But ten years from now we will be afraid to say that pedophilia is sinful. Because today we were afraid to call out transgenderism and yesterday we were afraid to call out homosexual marriage and the day before that we were afraid to call out feminism.

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Mike Duran April 12, 2017 at 8:48 AM

Thanks for your comment, Sally. I have never been “silent,” but I am definitely feeling the need to not be afraid to speak up abymore. You’re right — that silence will only lead to less freedom. I can see a certain wisdom in refraining from sharing all your beliefs and opinions. (Although the idea of a Christian publisher requesting all Christian content be scrubbed from social media seems weird.) As I’m currently writing general market, I purposely do not label my stuff “Christian” and am not heavy-handed with political and religious content. However, in other social media platforms, I’m pretty straightforward about my beliefs.

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Misti / Carradee April 13, 2017 at 9:26 AM

I’d say how an author should handle it depends on what you’re writing and your target audience. Under the modern labels, I qualify as “aromantic asexual”—the extreme end of the spectrum. I have a blatant post about that on my blog.

I also notice that a number of theological arguments common in the modern US ultimately rely on self-referential definitions or interpretations—and this happens on both sides of the spectrum.

As a simple example, consider the “natural use” of Romans 1. I’ve never seen a definition or explanation of that which does not make assumptions about what must’ve been intended by the context—and then the term is use as part of the proof that context used to define it means what the speaker says it does. That’s circular. Rome of that time held cultural, relational, and sexual dynamics and attitudes completely foreign to us today, so thinking he was speaking of a concept compatible with how we think today is an assumption. That assumption could be warranted, but the common arguments for and against that premise tend to have huge holes—but it’s entirely possible to support either side of the debate with equal strength. The crux tends to be differing beliefs about which verses are descriptive (illustrating a specific application of a broad concept) vs. which are proscriptive (defining a specific context that has a specific application).

I’ve found that seeking to build an argument supporting the opposing side of an argument can be very useful in finding my own assumptions and points of disconnect that need bridging to be able to support my own side in a way that makes sense to someone who disagrees. After all, if your supports for your argument only make sense to people who already agree with you, what good are they? Echo chambers aren’t Proverbs 27:17.

(I am presupposing a context of actual discussion, where both parties are interested in paying attention to the other.)

As a reader, I find it useful to have a clue where the writer is coming from, worldview-wise. Even if their faith isn’t explicitly in a person’s writing, it will affect their writing. That’s true for all of us.

If you just see the writing and don’t know the premises, then you’re seeing application, which can have multiple possible causes. If you see the premises and not the application, then you’re just getting the theory, which can have multiple possible applications. Both theory and application are heavily influenced by definition, connotation, and whatever hierarchy importance the writer vs. reader put on things.

Blending the theory and the application gives a more accurate view of how the writer thinks—but how the writer handles both also says much about their personality and goal for writing. Sometimes, the underlying points are explicitly put in the fiction (as seems to be the case with Patricia Briggs). Sometimes, the application is the underlying goal (as seems to be the case with Shanna Swendson).

So…should novelists announce their worldview to the world? I say it depends on their goals.

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Jessi L. Roberts April 14, 2017 at 2:39 PM

One reason I’ve never stayed completely silent about my views is because I believe if people know I hold certain beliefs, it forces them to realize that those who hold those beliefs are not a stereotype. For example, it seems that some people think others who support (or refuse to support) certain things must be racist, which isn’t true. By exposing my views, I can let people realize, “She supports X, but she’s not a (insert stereotype insult here) like I thought all people who support X were.”
However, I will not get into politics on my blog, and I avoid posting them on Twitter, though I will reply to political posts there. I keep most of my politics on my facebook profile. This means that casual fans likely won’t know my deeper political views, but if more serious fans dig, they’ll find out what I believe.
The one exception to politics on the blog or Twitter is stuff related to books, such as posts about diversity in books, my annoyance with media that’s doing something politically correct, or other things related to this.
I think it’s important for readers who don’t agree with the author, or just don’t want to see the politics, to have a place to connect with the author where they can find info on the author’s latest books without having to wade through fifty political posts before they figure out when the author’s next book is coming out. There’s a big difference between authors losing fans because the fans are intolerant and losing fans because the author’s posts are downright annoying. I recently unfollowed an author, not because he tweeted things I disagree with, but because he regularly tweets or retweets over a DOZEN things I disagree with a day. Even if I agreed with the guy, there’s no way I can keep up with Twitter if someone’s posting that much. To me, this is a very good example of how not to do politics as an author.
To me, one of the biggest issues with people who get into politics is when they attack the opposition. I’m fine with reading books by an author I disagree with, but if an author attacks me, my friends who believe a certain way, or tells me if I don’t vote the right way I’m a bad person, I get turned off fast.

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