I had a tentative epiphany last night during the presidential debate, and I want to see if others think I’m on the right track. People who know me know that I stay reasonably informed about national and international issues, and I have strong (but sometimes subtle) opinions about these issues. I believe these issues are important, and that America especially needs to use its power and wealth in the world to promote good and wise practices among all nations. Don’t get me wrong.
But this election, and the rise of Donald Trump especially, has convinced me that our collective obsession with federal politics has become destructive. What I see slowly evolving and growing is an unhealthy synergy (no, not a “conspiracy”) between national media outlets, the power of the two national political parties, the increasing power of the office of the president, and a dissolution of local community ties (see Robert Bellah et al.). For their part, national media and the political parties have every reason to draw as much attention as possible to presidential and federal politics. A populace with fewer other substantive matters to consider (there’s always sports and entertainment to get away from substance) gets swept up in the drama of presidential and federal politics. That drama is heightened by focusing on the so-called hot-button issues (a disturbing metaphor, to be sure). What could seem more important than whether our nation upholds Roe v. Wade or changes our morays about homosexuality and transgender people, or how we deal with immigration, or manage the economy (as if it is under anyone’s control), or use our military? We define federal politics along contested two-option questions, which naturally reflects and plays into our two-party system.
The effect of this existential attention on federal politics is an artificial division of the public into red and blue, or what I think is more accurate, urbane mentality and rural mentality (regardless of where one lives). Christian churches have played into this dynamic and been played by it. While they began to do so early on in the Cold War, Conservative evangelical leaders, conspiring with republican operatives in the 1970s, added the edge of divine decree to the already over-charged nature of federal politics. Leftist Christians had been moving in that direction for a long time, showering too much attention on national and international politics. The over-importance acceded to the national level probably owes much to Christendom and the legacy of Christianity enjoying the privilege of world-domination.
Again, the concerns of developing nations seeking liberation, of warfare, of US civil rights issues, and of abortion are all undoubtedly very important. I cannot blame Christians for searching for God’s will on these issues. Climate change is the latest, and in some respects the greatest, of the global issues that bear on us all.
But the effect of bringing faith and politics together at just these highly contested federal and international political issues has been to divide the church into red and blue churches, or again, urbane and rural-minded churches. And what makes no sense here is that as individuals–watching the news and campaigns with all our passions and outrages, dumping it all onto the flames of Facebook and Twitter–we are hardly in a position to do anything about any of these issues. Even as congregations, our power is highly limited.
So it is not that the issues don’t matter; it’s that the ratio of our attention to and passions for them compared to our power to affect them is massively skewed. And that attention and passion is creating useless division within the church that feeds our political and media machines.
So let us very much affirm the relevance of faith to politics, and of politics to faith. Traditional religions are not solely concerned with politics, but they are indelibly also concerned with politics. But let’s refocus our attention on the political issues in our own communities, where we can actually use our personal connections, our public spaces and profiles, and our volunteer initiative to effect real change. There is no reason evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics (and others, but I cite those who are generally most divided about federal politics) can’t work together to welcome immigrants, to help people in prison and seeking a new life after, to encourage and aid those in poverty, to encourage alternatives to abortion, to counteract racism, to fight sex trafficking and sexual abuse–who is not for these things? Why do we all feel we need to have Caesar on our side to do them? And yes, let us engage in political lobbying: we should have local, pan-denominational political convocations to question our local officials and those running for office on these issues.
I will be frank: I cannot make sense of anyone voting for Donald Trump. I can understand certain issues of concern that motivate some in that direction, but that’s about it. I know Trump supporters feel the same way about those voting for Hilary Clinton–but I cannot otherwise understand how it is they feel that way. Initially I was primed to seek dialogue between Christians on this vote, because it seemed to me such an outrage that we could be of such divided minds on this.
But now I’m willing to give that up. I believe we’ll find that, if we talk about other important but localized matters that we can actually affect, we will find that there is much unity of mind already. And the church can lead the way toward creating a new public space that is a haven from mostly pointless political division and a renewed staging ground for local political care.
In Jesus, God became incarnate in the provincial town of Galilee, not in Rome. Let us come together to find God’s reign locally.