The 2016 election cycle promises to be one of the most acrimonious of my lifetime. Even though civil political discourse has been broken for some time now, the hateful, mean-spirited dialog has already extended well beyond the traditional “politics of personal destruction.” As a Christian, I wish I could say that those who self-identify as followers of Jesus will be a beacon of more compassionate and civil dialog between the candidates and their parties. However, the reality is very different, with several popular Christian leaders already demonstrating a complete willingness to participate in the worst forms of fearmongering and bellicosity. In such times, I find it necessary to take a step back and remind myself of a few things.
William T. Cavenaugh, in his book Theopolitical Imaginations (T&T Clark, 2003), warned that too frequently the nation state has come to function in a way that invites seeing it as an alternative soteriology to that offered by the gospel. Just consider some of the narrative being deployed by political operatives. In many ways, those narratives can be reduced to “We are in really big trouble and the only way to move forward safely is through government headed by me (or my party).” The manufacture of discontent with the “way things are,” the stoking of fear of those not like us, and the promise that only “my party’s way” will enable us to recapture our “former greatness” – these are the rhetorical tools used to communicate, and where possible inculcate, faith in their version of this alternative soteriology.
As James Davidson Hunter writes in To Change the World, over the past 30 years, there has been “a tendency toward the politicization of nearly everything” ([Oxford University Press, 2010], 101) Since we live in a multicultural world wherein different cultures are motivated by different values, Hunter notes, politics seems to offer a way to reinforce social consensus through law. Along these lines, a colleague once pointed out an interesting historical correlation. If you look at congressional voting patterns prior to the mid-1980s, the surest indicator of how a given member of congress would vote was their religious affiliation. If Catholic, they would vote as a Catholic; if Southern Baptists, then like Southern Baptists. After the mid-1980s, though, the surest indicator of voting patterns shifted to party affiliation. In other words, political ideological commitments came to trump a person’s theological commitments. Or, more likely, they simply lost the ability to separate them, confusing their political commitments with their faith commitments.
So, the question becomes: how do we as Christians participate in the political process in such a way as to avoid the conflation of our faith and ideological commitments? And how do we resist the immediacy the political process seems to offer, that is, how do we resist trusting it as an alternative soteriology? First, perhaps one of the surest indications that we have confused our ideology with our faith arises when we make comments like this one: “A serious Christian couldn’t vote for ___________” (fill in the blank with the party with which you most disagree).
Simply put, no politician holds positions that are not, in some ways, at odds with the public life to which God calls us. Different followers of Jesus will come to different conclusions about the priority to be given to different kinds of public policy and their overall importance. The first step to preventing faith/ideology conflation is to recognize that those in the other “party” are neither demons nor my “party-mates” angels.
Second, we require a critical balance between seeing government as an alternative means of salvation on the one hand and seeing it as always a problem on the other. God ordained human governments and they have a role to play in ordering our public life. Yet, the hope of the world is Jesus and God has chosen the church as the ones who preach Christ and the salvation he brings to the world — a salvation that is holistic and includes all aspects of human existence. There are points of correlation with goods that can be mediated to us through government, but they can never replace the relationship building that God expects to be realized through local congregations.
Uncivil discourse will be the model we see most in this election cycle. But, may it be the case that the church serves increasingly as a model of civil discourse, a place where different voices can come together, a place where the best arguments of both sides are heard and respected. May we become the ones who undermine uncivil discourse, rather than the ones who participate in it!