Out of Sorts
Four years ago, as another American election cycle staggered toward its exhausting conclusion, I wrote a post called “Do These Politics Make Me Look Christian?” I had just returned from a trip to Pennsylvania, as it happened, and had gotten a whole new level of insight into US political culture and discourse during an election season.
Reading the post again, with four years of a Trump White House in the rear-view mirror, I wouldn’t change anything substantive. I am still amazed at how eager Christians are to define themselves by their political attachments as opposed to, say, their allegiance to Christ and his kingdom. I am still bemused at how Canadians and other non-Americans seem to vicariously live through American political theatre. I am still troubled by how politics has become a perverse combination of entertainment and ideological warfare rather than something like an attempt to find practical solutions to common problems that we have to negotiate together
Speaking of ideological warfare, this is one aspect of our political culture that has undoubtedly gotten worse over the last four years. It is becoming something of a truism to say that twenty-first century life is one of ever-increasing polarization. Richard Beck recently addressed this in a series of posts under the heading “Heroism, Hostility and Politics” (parts one, two, and three). Increasingly, he says, politics is the realm where we seek meaning, identity, and moral heroism. Politics becomes a space not to negotiate issues, necessarily, but our feelings about issues and, more particularly, our feelings about those who differ from us. Beck describes our discourse in this context as a form of “moral sorting”:
Affective polarization is one force behind the great tribalization of American politics. In this tribal landscape, political issues aren’t debated to seek common ground or solutions. Issues become identity markers, social tools we use to figure out which political team you’re on. We’ve all witnessed this moral sorting on social media. An event crashes into our collective consciousness and we watch the two tribes predictably array themselves on either side of the emerging debate. This moral sorting explains why our political debates, whether at the family reunion or on social media, have become so unproductive. We’ve stopping seeking solutions. We’re picking teams and declaring our allegiances.
I suspect I’m hardly alone in recognizing the “moral sorting” that Beck describes. I have friends who are both very politically conservative and very politically liberal. I often feel “out of sorts,” as it were. It’s rare that anyone ever breaks ranks on any issue. Privately, perhaps, but certainly never publicly. There’s too much at stake, not least our very identities! This is particularly tempting in the hollowed-out landscape of post-Christendom. In the absence of any broadly accepted shared meaning, or where Christian faith is sequestered harmlessly in the attic where we keep the “private beliefs people are allowed to have about stuff that doesn’t matter,” politics rushes in to offer us a narrative of purpose, heroism, and identity.
Beck thinks we should expect more of ourselves as followers of Jesus. So do I.
As a Canadian, I’m obviously not voting on November 3. I’m not sure I’ll even be watching, although I suppose it will be difficult not to cast an occasional glance south of the border Tuesday night. But I found myself nodding along with Beck’s advice to his American Christian sisters and brothers, not least because I know that Americans are hardly the only ones that are prone to these temptations. These are human tendencies, not American ones. All of us who call ourselves Christians should heed his words, in my view, whenever and wherever we happen to be voting:
And so, brothers and sisters, let me call us to some spiritual reflection and labor this election season. Our political holy wars are a sign that something dark is at work in our hearts and nation. I fear that, in our post-Christian world, worldview defense, affective polarization, and tribalism will become our new normal and constant temptations demanding of us an energetic spiritual response. As followers of Jesus, we know what to do. This is a struggle we are familiar with. Our weapons in this battle are the ones we learned in Sunday School. Mercy, self-control, kindness, joy, hope, peace-making, forgiveness, humility, and love. We fight to leaven our faith with these virtues.
Let us leaven our politics as well.
I have had a few conversations that were about “finding solutions” and not just “declaring allegiances and picking teams”. These are few and far between but so refreshing. I pray I would be one that display the virtues listed.
Glad to hear you’ve had a few good and refreshing political conversations. These are indeed notable for their relative rarity.
Used to be our particular sect of Christianity was our “team” and everyone else be dammed, not any more. Now days it’s proclaimed from those same pulpits that any and all religious beliefs(Hindu-Islam-Catholic-Mormon-Judaism) will get you through the pearly gates with or without Jesus Christ. Christianity has become so watered-down that it’s really irrelevant in post-modern times, so it’s no wonder that people are flocking to and responding to the loud call to political tribalism which satisfies a need to belong to the “right” side. …there’s no antagonist in Christianity anymore.
I can’t say that I long for the days when our hostilities were between denominations rather than political ideologies! Perhaps the deeper issue is our persistent human need to have an antagonist to define ourselves against.
Having said that, I certainly see the trends you identify. Christianity is often portrayed as a pretty limp ethical agenda and not much more. Many people don’t find this appealing or urgent in any way.
I recently heard on a podcast the following: “Jesus performed a great miracle when he extolled us to render onto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. Essentially he provided the division of Church and State.” I think that when Church and State become intertwined (Republican’s and Christians being an example), we all suffer. I think that true Christianity offers great hope to the world – we are to love our enemies, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc…. now that is great news!!!!
Well said, Jimmy.
As St. Paul tells us, we are at war with principalities, not people. Trump cannot condemn me, the democrats cannot save me.
My understanding of the Holy Spirit tells me that we are clearly suffering (collectively as world cultures) from a deeply ingrained spiritual malaise, that only worship in Christ; with Christ and our most honest efforts to be Christ to others, can remedy.
Share Christ in Word, Sacrament and in worship with one another as often as you able. Our, “ableness” in this regard is only of Christ if we make these endeavors our first priority in life.
God bless you all in the great struggles that have only just begun and are yet to come. Leave worldly politics behind and come to Christ.
Let his Love in you, made manifest through you, surrendering yourself to His will, be your politic.
It is the only politic that is true. It is the only politic that can save us all.
“A deeply ingrained spiritual malaise.” Yes, that certainly sounds right. Thanks for this.
As an aside, I wrote this last comment while listening to the sublime genius of the, Wes Montgomery Trio.
Who knows what heaven holds in store for us but I suspect there will be precious little of the rock music I grew up on and adored.
I’m pretty sure there will be a lot of great Jazz though. 🙂
You may be right. Perhaps heaven will have a refining effect on my musical tastes 🙂