After hearing Doris Kearns Goodwin speak at Messiah College last week, Dale and I decided to watch the movie “Lincoln” again, which was based in part on Goodwin’s book about Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals. One of the things that is clear from the movie (and presumably the book too, although I haven’t read it) is that the political partisanship and inflammatory rhetoric characterizing politics today is nothing new. I suppose I should find that comforting, but I don’t.
I haven’t been watching TV news programs much lately, and I’ve been muting the TV when certain political commercials come on. I’m tired of the political rancor, partisanship, obstructionism, lies, distortions, hypocrisy, fear-mongering, and doomsday talk. I really hate how much money is spent on supporting this kind of behavior and the entire election process when so many real human needs are not met. My political leanings would tend to blame one side more than the other, but I know that’s not fair.
My spiritual ancestors didn’t participate in the political system – they didn’t vote or run for office because they believed that “those who were responsible for the political life were evil men [due to persecution of their ancestors]; thus politics were evil, and thus the Christian must have nothing to do with such matters” (Morris Sider, Brethren in Christ historian). Another person put it this way: “I hold that the position most consistent with the life and teaching of Jesus is to refrain from direct political, partisan participation in government and in the affairs of the state” (Roy Sider, former bishop). Politics were also associated with buying votes, unrealistic promises and unsavory activities, all of which sound familiar to our contemporary ears.
I, on the other hand, have voted in almost every election since I’ve been old enough to vote, primaries and off-year elections included, because I believe it is one of the responsibilities of being a citizen of a participatory democracy. My view is more in line with that of the late Martin Schrag, a Brethren in Christ theologian, who said of Christians, “We are called to minister to the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and prisoners. One way to do so is by political involvement….” I both benefit from and want to influence the policies of the state and country I call home, and one of the ways I can speak into the system is by voting. But there are days – and lately it feels like weeks, months and even years – when I wonder whether my ancestors were right not to participate as I observe how badly the political system seems to be working. When so many on both sides of the political spectrum lie and distort and attack their opponents in completely unfair ways, and seem completely unable or unwilling to work together in meaningful and productive ways even on issues where there is a lot of bipartisan and popular agreement, do I really want to participate or be associated with either major party?
So here are some of the “lessons” I’ve been trying to teach myself in the waning days of this election season:
1. While I know that elections do matter, I try to remind myself repeatedly that getting the “right” person elected doesn’t matter nearly as much as I am sometimes tempted to think, and it will not bring in any utopian kingdom. Life will go on. Of course, it’s interesting to rewind the clock and imagine what the U. S. might be like if, for example, John Kennedy had not been assassinated, or Lyndon Johnson had not escalated the Vietnam War, or George W. Bush had not invaded Iraq in 2003. Chances are, however, that something else would have happened to keep us second-guessing in later years. So to put all our hopes in the election of one person, or even one party, doesn’t seem entirely sensible.
2. God is not a Democrat or a Republican. I might be inclined to think that my understanding of biblical principles is in line with one party more than the other, but it’s really much more complicated than that. No one party has a corner on the truth, and implying that people who identify with the other party are somehow less intelligent, or less Christian, or less thoughtful is not helpful or even true.
3. Lately, as I’ve been so completely frustrated with politics and election rhetoric, I’ve had to ask myself to what extent I contribute to the partisanship. When I comment on or “like” something even remotely “political” that someone has posted on Facebook, will others interpret that as a sign that I am against them if they disagree or will they see some inconsistency in that comment with the way I live my life? I know I am offended when someone posts a link to something I consider extremely mean-spirited (comparing certain politicians to Hitler, for example) and then soon after the same person posts an image of a Bible verse about kindness. I can’t help having an attack of cognitive dissonance, and then I wonder whether I sometimes cause cognitive dissonance in others.
4. At the same time, I sometimes feel like a coward when I don’t speak up for what I believe because I am afraid of being misunderstood or attacked. I have deep respect and admiration for those who are able to continue to engage in dialogue even when the conversation takes a difficult turn. Regardless of how the election turns out today, I’d like to be a little more courageous about speaking out on behalf of values and principles that are important to me even when doing so might be uncomfortable and risky.
I will vote today, not just because I always do, but because I believe it’s one of my privileges and responsibilities as a citizen of the United States, and because sometimes elections really do make a difference. I will be thankful that I am able to vote freely for the candidates of my choice. But I will not assume that the world as we know it will end or the kingdom will come if this or that candidate is elected or not elected. And I will continue to try to live my own life according to the same values I expect from others, including elected officials.