Your politics are destroying you, but that doesn’t make politics bad. In the last post, I argued that politics are about working towards the best for our common life together. So arguing against polarized or venomous politics is different than saying we shouldn’t care about politics. Following James K.A. Smith, I want to continue arguing that politics matter way more than we imagine, but in a completely different way than we imagine.
So much of our political engagement seems to be focused on gaining power and then using that power to accomplish our goals. I think we take it for granted that this is simply the way things work. I also think we need to pay attention to the ways our political processes shape us. We imagine that politics, religion, family life, etc. all occupy separate spaces, separate regions. So I can be a Christian or Buddhist in one space, a Republican or Democrat in another, and single or married in another. But Smith alerts us to the dangers of trying to spatialize our view of politics (amongst other things). He says simply: “Theological wisdom about the political begins when we stop asking where and start asking how” (Awaiting the King, 19).“Politics matter way more than we imagine, but in a completely different way than we imagine. Beyond asking who we’re trying to get into power, we need to ask how our political approach itself shapes us.”
Obviously the Republican and Democratic platforms are different and members of those groups are reaching for different goals. But take a break from that type of thinking for a moment. Think less about what you’d like to see happen in terms of platform goals in some separate political sphere. Think instead about the current political process, and ask how that is shaping you.
When you take a group of people who want to see different political goals accomplished and set them apart as “the other political party” or “those crazy Conservatives/Liberals” or some worse label, what is that doing to the way you engage with the people around you? If you’re a Republican, do you have many Democrat friends with whom you can gracious talk politics? If you’re a Democrat, do you have many Republican friends like this? If not, shouldn’t that concern us? If so, you’re already subverting the hyper-partisanship that we’ve come to equate with “politics.”
We need gracious and nuanced conversations about specific, important issues. I have these kinds of conversations with my family, neighbors, and my church family fairly often. They can be awkward, and they’re not passionless conversations, but I feel genuinely uplifted during and after. Contrast that with our dug in polarization where we lump half of our neighbors into a camp that we simply dismiss or attack as though they’re idiots? Every time we allow ourselves to speak or post in these ways, we’re forfeiting a part of our souls.“Our political engagement seems to be focused on gaining power and then using that power to accomplish our goals. But take a minute to ask how that type of political process is shaping you. It has a bigger impact than you think.”
The how of our political engagement matters. The problem is not that we’re polarized. That’s more a symptom. The problem is that we’re so willing to lump people together and discard all of their views. We’re committed to a small “us,” which makes it helpful to rally against a “them.” From my vantage point in California, it’s hard to imagine anything Governor Newsom could do that my Republican friends would applaud. It’s hard to imagine anything President Trump could do that my Democratic friends would applaud. I’m not saying there aren’t principled reasons why we oppose certain actions, I’m just saying we’ve created a system in which half of our country doesn’t seem willing or even able to root for and work alongside the other half of the country.
It’s hard to build something with people you’ve spent months or years demonizing.“You can have right theology but be a jackass about it. And that makes you wrong. In the same way, you can have great political goals and beliefs and be a jackass about it. And that makes you wrong.”
To be clear, here are some things I haven’t said. I haven’t said you shouldn’t hold firm opinions or convictions. I haven’t said you shouldn’t align with a political party. I haven’t denied the possibility that a person could look at a single political party and believe deeply that it aligns more with biblical truth than another party.
What I am saying is this: the way we engage in politics matters. If you are pro-vitriol, then by all means spread vitriol in the way you post and talk about politics. But if you’re anti-vitriol, rethink the way you’re promoting your good cause or the candidate you admire. If you believe nuance and decency are genuine goods for society, then don’t ignore them when you talk about politics and hope that these traits will magically characterize the rest of society.
From the beginning, we’ve argued that you can have right theology but be a jackass about it. And that makes you wrong. In the same way, you can have great political goals and beliefs and be a jackass about it. And that makes you wrong.
I’m tempted to say that all of our politics right now are wrong in this way. But I know that isn’t true. The loudest, least sensitive, least nuanced, most jackassy voices get the most press. Don’t let that draw you in as though that’s just what we’ve got to do in 2020. Let’s subvert that. Let’s bring back human dignity. Let’s bring the fruit of the Spirit back to our politics, and every other part of life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23).