Election Reflections: How to Fix Our Unfriendly Politics

Election Reflections: How to Fix Our Unfriendly Politics

Well, this year we vote. At some point, perhaps in the early morning hours of the day after the election, perhaps not for several days, we will find out who has been selected by our Electoral College system to serve as President for the next four years. I expect that the winner will not fulfill all the promises they have made. Nor will their presidency be as apocalyptic as the prophets of doom have predicted. Both of these candidates have virtues that are worthy of our admiration, and weaknesses that merit our concern. Nonetheless, based on the deluge of Facebook posts by my friends, I expect that while somewhere around a third of you will be ecstatic over the result, another third will be bitterly disappointed.

But this post isn’t really about who is President for the next four years. We’ll all survive that. This post is about our friends, our neighbors, the stranger we see on the street, the person driving in front of you whose bumper sticker you disagree with. It’s about all of us. For no matter who wins this election, the last election, the next election — most of us will still be here. There is an old saying that we get the government we deserve. And frankly, based on the vitriol and animosity I have seen in social media surrounding this year’s presidential campaign, we don’t deserve much.

The Facebooking of Politics

I have heard friends accuse friends of being bigots and racists because of who they are voting for. I have seen friends accuse friends of being “uninformed, misinformed, communists or opposed to this country’s values” if we vote for specific candidates. I have seen friends accuse friends of being haters, homophobes, misogynists, etc., if they vote for others. I have seen friends “unfriend” friends. Frankly, I’ve been tempted to unfriend some folks myself, although I have resisted the urge. I don’t know if we are reflecting the polarization of Washington, or if the Beltway reflects the hatred and spite of the American citizenry.

Here’s what I rarely, if ever, observed: People truly listening. People asking questions of people who view the world differently than them. People seeking to understand.

To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, it’s not that we have tried to engage in gracious, thoughtful political dialogue and found it wanting — it’s that we have found it difficult and not tried. We have told people what they think rather than asking them. We have refused to believe their reasons, choosing to trust our own stereotypes. We haven’t listened to their stories — we’ve made them shallow caricatures in a story of our own creation.

I expect I have noticed this acutely the past several years during the 2008 and 2012 elections, because those were the first elections when so many of us were on Facebook in a presidential election year. But of course, politics, not to mention religion, has been a taboo topic of discussion for years, long before the Internet. It is tragic that those two disciplines that capture the depths of human values and meaning — religion and politics — are considered off-limits for many of our conversations. I expect much of this revolves around our need to be right, and our fear of people who see the world differently.

I’ve given this a lot of thought, as a friend of mine has continually jabbed at supporters of the other candidate, goading them to respond to some of the more troublesome aspects of their candidate’s platform. Always done in a shaming, blaming way. Not surprisingly, no one took my friend up on the offer to explain.

But let me make a few friendly suggestions about how we might do this better four years from now.

The Wisdom of Listening

First, ask questions. And listen. Really listen. Don’t just wait for the person you disagree with to take a breath so you can shoot down their position. Listen seeking to understand. Assume that they are a person of good faith rather than an evil, bigoted hater. Don’t tell them why they’re wrong. Try to understand why they view the world the way they do. Affirm aspects of their values and perspectives that you can respect and admire, even if you might view things differently. Make it safe for them to share their deepest hopes and fears with you. In the Old Testament, Proverbs 18:13 says, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (ESV). Are we practicing the wisdom of listening?

You will find that when you have asked questions, listened actively seeking to understand, and affirmed common ground, that you will develop trust. You will also have created a space where they may ask you questions and give you the same respect that you have shown them. They may even be willing to express respect for some of your values and vision.

Confession Is Good for the Soul

Then, admit to them the concerns you have about your own candidate/party, acknowledging that candidates, like the rest of humanity, have their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Then, and only then, might they feel safe enough to address the weaknesses in their candidate/party that trouble you. Few of us embrace the entire platform of the candidate we vote for. You may not change your friend’s vote. But you will have deepened a friendship. And opened a mind. You cannot wait for them to take the first step; you have to do it.

And whoever wins this election, be open to the possibility that some of their policies, all of which have been informed by advisors and embraced by close to half the population, might actually succeed. Hope and pray for the success of the candidate, even if you’re skeptical. Be more concerned about the good of the country than the success or failure of political parties.

When we remain open to the virtues and vision of our elected officials’ leadership, they may be more willing to listen to our legitimate concerns about those who might get left behind by their policies.

And maybe, just maybe, this sort of political engagement will catch on.

Left, Right, and Christ

Left, Right, and Christ

CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.

Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.

The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment

An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.

Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.

The use of Scripture in political arguments

While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.

Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.

At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.

The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.