On Thursday, November 10, 2016, my classroom at John Brown University teemed with a palpable sense of both quiet fervor and also numb disbelief. Later I learned many students had watched the election results together, one group applauding and cheering as the outcome became more certain, another shrinking from disappointment to fear to anguish. On our campus—a distinctly Christian environment with low levels of political engagement—such a polarized response was unusual.
I’d come to class ready to discuss and analyze one of the most unusual elections in American history, but was instead met with an unnerving mix of trauma and elation.
There is little to suggest that the 2020 presidential election will yield less tension and conflict than 2016. If anything, the political atmosphere has become more toxic over the last several years. This should concern Christians. Our country’s extreme political climate might tempt us to adopt its hostile rhetoric and dehumanizing tones, rendering us indistinguishable from the world. Or we might be tempted to abandon political engagement altogether, fatigued by the rancor and fed up by the partisan stalemate.
There is little to suggest that the 2020 presidential election will yield less tension and conflict than 2016.
But neither option will suffice for those of us called to be in the world for the sake of the kingdom. We must forge a better path for a healthier, Christ-centered political engagement.
Polarization, Negative Partisanship, and Other Dangers
There are many potential obstacles to a Christ-centered political engagement. Polarization is a big one. Opinions have become more extreme in both directions of the political spectrum, and there are seemingly fewer moderate voices in the conversation. Political scientists believe the steady increase in polarization over the past several decades is a result of social sorting, media echo chambers, and more distinct political parties, to name a few.
Political scientists also debate how much of the polarization stems from actual ideological disputes. For decades researchers have known that the average American isn’t especially ideological—their opinions aren’t constrained to consistent positions. A better explanation for polarization, then, has to do with partisanship: people attach to political parties, and as parties have grown more distinct, people have been more prone to view politics as simply a game to be won. So less emphasis is placed on policy achievements and reforms than on making sure my “team” beats the other.
Related to this is the rise of negative partisanship, or seeking your opponent’s demise more than your own success. Negative partisanship involves actively rooting against your political competition for no other reason than to watch them lose. This is a growing phenomenon, the Pew Research Center reports, with a majority of both Democrats and also Republicans exhibiting tendencies consistent with negative partisanship.
In the American system, where governmental institutions require deliberation and compromise, this is concerning. But negative partisanship poses deeper problems for Christians, tempting us to diminish our fellow citizens. Jesus decidedly did not say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, unless they belong to the other political party.”
Clear demographic changes are also underway with respect to religion. As Ryan Burge has noted, for the first time ever there are more “nones”—those not identifying with a religious tradition—than either evangelical Christians, mainline Protestants, or Catholics in America. Moreover, there is a generational divide in religiosity, including among white evangelicals, whom Michael Gerson has said are on the brink of a “demographic abyss.”
These realities—combined with research showing that politics shapes religious identity throughout people’s lives (rather than the other way around)—means it’s vital we think more carefully about how our faith informs our politics. With the 2020 election just a year away, it’s incumbent on the church to reflect on how our political approach can be more shaped by Christ than by cable news, lest our witness be further hijacked, subsumed, or mutated by the toxic political climate around us.
With the 2020 election just a year away, it’s incumbent on the church to reflect on how our political approach can be more shaped by Christ than by cable news.
Better Political Engagement
How can Christians prepare for 2020 and beyond? Let me suggest three markers of a better political engagement.
First, we must hold fast to God’s declaration in Genesis 1:27 that every person is made in his image. The imago Dei is more than a theological statement about creation. It tells us that our attitudes toward others should reflect the love God for them, acknowledging their inherent dignity as created beings. Importantly, remembering the imago Dei does not mean we must agree with others. Christians are called to speak truth into a corrupted world. But we can do this in ways that don’t diminish human dignity.
Second, we should listen—really listen—to our perceived opponents. John Inazu has written eloquently about how, in order for a pluralist society to thrive, citizens must seek to understand perspectives and views we believe are wrong. No, this doesn’t mean Christians should be “squishy” on meaningful matters. But our belief that God is the author of truth should free us to genuinely hear from others, to wrestle with their views, and to engage their reasoning with humility and grace. We should be slow to ascribe the worst motives to those holding views we find misguided. Just as we have received immeasurable grace when we did nothing to deserve it, so we should be quick to extend grace to those with whom we disagree.
Finally, we must put politics in its rightful place and not let it dominate our actions, relationships, or priorities. Political affiliation is not our identity. We are to be Christians first in thought, word, and deed. No matter how often you hear commentators declare 2020 “the most important election of our lifetime,” don’t buy into the perspective that the stakes of any one election are greater than the stakes of a compromised witness that besmirches the name of Jesus. Our hope is eternal, which is infinitely longer than four years in the White House or 30 years on the Supreme Court. In light of this magnificent hope, it makes little sense to panic over cultural setbacks or to compromise convictions to better compete in contemporary political battles. Losing political battles changes nothing about where we stand in eternity. Our hope is wholly in Christ.
No matter how many times you hear commentators declare 2020 ‘the most important election of our lifetime,’ don’t buy into the perspective that the stakes of any one election are greater than the stakes of a compromised witness that besmirches the name of Jesus.
It’s hard to do politics well in these challenging times. For Christians called to be salt and light in a dark and decaying world, it’s even harder. But the challenging reality of politics shouldn’t lead us to give up on it.
Christians should take political engagement seriously for the sake of the kingdom, to seek justice, to defend the defenseless, and to love our neighbors. But whereas much political engagement today stems from fear, anger, and even despair, ours should stem from our identity in Christ. It should reflect our confidence that whatever happens in the state of earthly affairs, and regardless of temporal wins and losses, the King of glory remains on his throne.