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Without Question, It's Worse

Simply put, I’ll state right up front, from my limited perspective in this rural corner of Iowa, it’s worse than simply talking past each other.  There’s little question we are not talking to or with each other.  Moreover, even when polite—and many times that is not the case—we’re not having respectful conversations.  Try as I might, especially in the months since the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States, despite concerted efforts to have such conversations, I’ve largely failed.  Undoubtedly, some (maybe most) of that is my fault, but any dialogue takes two to transpire and so the blame is likely not entirely just mine to bear. 

Granted, many of these “conversations” have occurred online via the treacherous virtual reality known as Facebook (FB).  Maybe that’s my first mistake, can a healthy dialogue take place on social media?  This popular platform, as well as Twitter (among other digital means), are often considered key culprits in the erosion of our collective civil discourse.  Nevertheless, I persist.  For better or worse, FB has assumed a central, albeit virtual, “place” in our public life.  Among the countless timeline posts about kids or favorite sports teams (not to mention Plexus promotions or the latest recipe discoveries), is the occasional contribution to political commentary.  Granted, at least in my case, they may be more frequently than most.

Recently, an old high school friend said they didn’t understand what I was trying to accomplish with these various FB posts regarding the president and/or evangelicals.  I’d estimate around a quarter of my timeline content, if even that much, explores one or the other topic (the two, in my view, are bound together rather closely these days given 81% of white evangelicals cast a vote in favor of Trump).  While receiving considerable encouragement along the way as I post and comment on FB, I’ve also been told in no uncertain terms I’m a Trump “hater,” a leftist, generally lack context or simply have lost perspective in my self-righteous effort to shame family and friends.  I figure that sort of criticism goes with the territory; should it? 

Now, I too post my share of family stuff and a variety of innocuous material regarding either my beloved Seattle Seahawks or Kansas Jayhawks (go hawks), but I’m a political junkie, to be sure.  In addition to be a life-long, card carrying Republican, and generally of a conservative ideological bent, I’m a trained political scientist.  First and foremost, however, I’m a follower of Jesus, who cares deeply about public life or the classic notion of politics and, in particular, the witness of Christ’s bride, the church.

My persistence—some critics say I’m obsessed—in raising these concerns, of spotlighting what I see as the blind spots of evangelical participation in public life, was recently affirmed as I listened to a sermon series at my home church.  As I sat in the sanctuary, only a few weeks ago, I was reminded Paul challenged the members of the early church at Ephesus (the first sixteen verses of chapter 4) to live a life worthy of their calling; they each possessed different gifts, as do we.  This word of God spoke to me.  In essence, I thought, that is what I’m trying to do as a faculty member and dean of the social sciences where I teach and serve as well as in my broader public life, even on FB: faithfully follow God’s call.

The (Sorry) State of Political Discourse in America

Before saying anything more, let me first set the stage by making a few observations on two unremarkable, albeit illustrative YouTube clips that, if nothing else, epitomize much of what passes for contemporary political commentary.  Unsurprisingly, it matters not whether this discourse originates from the left or right of the partisan and/or ideological spectrum.  Both sides are culpable and complicit in the current state of affairs.

In some ways, it’s hard to say what the goal or purpose of either video clip really is.  In many ways, they’ve each in their own way become, sadly, a form or kind of entertainment?  Neither the shorter CNN clip nor the somewhat longer Sean Hannity monologue are educational in any serious sense of that word.  Let’s briefly consider each of them, in turn, after which I’ll take some time to address (in the next section) the question of bias, and (in the section after that) questions of audience, rhetorical tools, and what, if anything, is worthy of compliment or, more likely (hint, hint), criticism.  I’ll offer some final thoughts, then, in a concluding section.

The CNN roundtable discussion was at best a three-on-one debate that is better described as a shouting match, a much too common occurrence for such formats.  Hosted by anchor Kate Boldaun (who I must confess I was unfamiliar with; our family doesn’t subscribe to cable and I seldom, if ever, watch CNN), the argument centered on unnamed sources in a story late last spring over whether President Trump inadvertently, and possibly quite carelessly, divulged classified information to two Russian diplomats visiting the White House Oval Office. 

The subject of Boldaun’s roundtable while important was less of an issue for me than the way in which the topic was discussed.  It had all the earmarks and echoes, not to mention subtly, of cable shows like Hardball or, formerly, The McLaughlin Group, may it rest in peace.  Exchanges like these are, simply put, decidedly unhelpful.  It recalls the epic 2004 Jon Stewart takedown of Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson where the Comedy Central star pleaded with the Crossfire hosts to just stop…because they were hurting America!  Unfortunately, his advice has not been heeded by producers and participants on such shows.  Truth be told, those who tune-in to such drivel deserve to be admonished too; without an audience, there’d be no market.

A secondary concern for me is the purveyor of this particular YouTube clip.  As troubling, and unwittingly ironic, as Boldaun’s CNN International program “State of America” might be, The PolitiStick describes itself as a team of movement conservatives that will “hit back at the news makers and news breakers for their bias, corruption, and dishonesty.”  In my estimation, The PolitiStick constitutes a growing number of fringe organizations or endeavors representative of more extreme views in society than the mass middle of America where most citizens reside.

Not only has the 24/7 news cycle given rise to a need—airtime must be filled—but the increased competition for eyeballs, page views and/or click throughs clearly heightens an understandable temptation to highlight those who are willing to say the most outlandish and controversial things.  Moreover, the digital age and cyberspace has provided an opportunity for the shrillest voices and most unhinged among us to easily communicate their message.  The PolitiStick, somewhat predictably, revels in their bias and irreverence.

This leads to another observation, one that is depicted even more effectively by the second video clip of FOX news featuring Sean Hannity.  It captures nicely what U.S. Senator Ben Sasse has aptly dubbed “weaponizing distrust” and animates the ubiquitous charge of fake news these days.  All broadcast organizations have a bias, even FOX, but many citizens no longer believe journalists can report day-to-day happenings or developments in an objective or neutral fashion.  Is that still possible?  Call me naïve, but I believe it is.  There should be a shared reservoir of facts even in the midst of an onslaught of opinion.   Bias is not the same thing as fake news, which are stories made up out of whole cloth with no interest or intention other than in sowing confusion and spreading disinformation.

Charitably, even Hannity’s opening monologue on the Russia collusion story in the wake of the revelation/allegation of Donald Trump, Jr.’s involvement isn’t fake news, despite being terribly one-sided and not surprisingly partisan (Philip Bump at The Washington Post wrote an even-handed and wonderfully balanced response to the “Clinton and Ukraine did it, too” excuse).  Sadly, more than anything else, Hannity is weaponizing distrust.  If my experience is typical, you only have to read the letters to the editor section of any local or regional paper to see these false or misleading narratives repeated with some regularity.

The Question of Bias

This leads to one last comment, before taking up the task of answering who the audience might be for these respective video clips, the rhetorical tools employed in each one and some constructive criticism, particularly, of the Hannity monologue.  The observations that follow build on the usual conceptualization of bias as well as the claim that FOX (to say nothing of Breitbart or InfoWars) is not as fair and balanced as they like to say.  This contention is likely to get me in trouble with my fellow Republicans, conservatives and, ostensibly, a great many evangelicals.  What’s new? 

It is but one example of why I’m often referred to as a RINO (Republican in name only).  In my defense, I’d submit that all followers of Jesus should be so labelled.  Here’s what I’m getting at.  Are we’re honestly heeding the advice, of sorts,  Vice President Mike Pence offers where we are to be Christians, conservatives and Republicans, in that order?  It seems to me, if we are, that all evangelicals would be RINOs of a sort given their ultimate loyalty lies elsewhere as citizens first and foremost of God’s kingdom. 

But back to FOX news.  Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying the other three MSM networks are any better, some might argue they are worse, but that’s beside the point.  Carl Trueman at Westminster Theological Seminary wrote a delightful little book a few years back called: Republocrat—Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (2010).  Among his considerations, he devoted a chapter to media bias and playfully entitled it “The Not-so-Fantastic Mr. Fox” in light of a box office hit at the time as well as the assumed go-to news source for Christians.

His point is not, as some assume, to pick on FOX; rather it is to suggest evangelical viewers temper their enthusiasm.  Trueman was surprised to find upon arriving in the U.S. (he’s a native of Great Britain), that many new-found friends and congregants were advising him that there was only one place to get the unvarnished truth.  Eager to see and hear this for himself, Trueman soon discovered otherwise and subsequently argues “not that Christians abandon one biased news channel for another; rather it is Christians above all people [who] should take seriously their responsibility as citizens and make every effort to find out as much as they can about the issues that matter.”  This requires more than a single source or vantage point. 

As importantly, all citizen consumers of the news need to recognize every outlet has a bias, one that goes beyond partisan or ideological predispositions.  We must not forget that the media is an economic enterprise, a business with a bottom-line.  Structural bias is inherent in the news as a consequence of the standard practices of journalism.  Patterns of coverage that consistently appear in reporting are the result of built-in limitations, constraints and demands associated with delivering the news (an instructive exercise is to contrast and compare the PBS News Hour on the local public channel to the same-day coverage on any of the big four commercial networks—ABC, CBS, FOX or NBC).

Structural bias, in other words, is a consequence of the medium itself.  It appears differently in electronic or digital formats than it does in print and is especially important when it comes to television/cable news since this is where most people get their information.  The sources of structural bias include: corporate influence, entertainment values (including the demand for interesting visuals,) time limitations, and the definition of what is newsworthy.  While partisan and ideological biases are not to be dismissed, they are not the only source of distortion.  Bias of this structural variety, while less often understood if even acknowledged by most viewers, is an important reality to keep in mind too.

Audience, Rhetoric, Oh My…

As far as the target audience of these two video clips, both the CNN and FOX segments seem primarily focused on viewers who are of a like-mind.  This suggests the goal of these efforts may well be one of affirmation or reinforcement; it is clearly not one of persuasion.  The problem of “talking past each other” is complicated to begin with by the fact that in many cases the two sides aren’t even talking to each other.  Increasingly, this is reflective of a dynamic that’s been described as “the big sort.”  First coined by journalist Bill Bishop in his 2008 book of the same name, it describes a phenomenon whereby Americans are choosing to associate, more so than ever, with people who are largely like themselves.

This becomes problematic in perpetuating the myth of a so-called culture war.  As Morris Fiorina and his colleagues have demonstrated rather persuasively in their research findings, even when it comes to the most polarizing issues of the day (think abortion or gay marriage), the vast majority of the public is closely divided, not deeply divided.  The distribution of beliefs present as a normal bell curve as opposed to a bi-modal division of views, which would be expected in a more polarized environment.  It’s not that political elites aren’t engaged in a culture war, they are, but the extent or scale is far less prevalent than most would assume given much of the media coverage and political discourse.

The apparent dilemma—and why things are likely worse, or soon will be, than simply talking past one another—is found in that these perceptions of a culture war may well become a self-fulfilling prophecy, of sorts.  If those holding differing positions on some of our most pressing or contentious problems never encounter or interact with anyone on “the wrong side” (this hilarious yet pointed op-ed is well worth the read), in other words, if the two sides don’t talk, aren’t in relationship, how will either one ever discover that on many issues they are not as far apart as they’ve been led to believe or have assumed all along? 

And if the myth of a polarized America isn’t bad enough, James Davison Hunter reminds us culture wars precede civil warsBefore the Shooting Begins (1994) makes an argument that rings true as much today as it did two decades ago, maybe more.  A conflict of this severity remains quite unlikely, but it should not be considered an impossiblility and events over the first few months of the Trump administration suggest as much.

The rhetorical tools employed in each of these video clips appear to emphasize pathos, almost to the exclusion of logos or ethos.  Emotion, characterized by anger or hate, seems to drive much of the discourse as opposed to logic or expertise.  Moreover, Hannity’s monologue epitomizes a classic example of an argument based on redirection.  Not wanting to take on squarely the poor judgment, if not ethical lapse, displayed by Donald Trump Jr. in agree to meet with a Russian attorney who supposedly had dirt to dish on his father’s presidential campaign opponent, Hannity shifts his audience’s attention to the alleged malfeasance and misdeeds of Hillary Clinton as well as those working on her behalf.

Ed Stezter, who works with Lifeway Research and is a regular contributor to Christianity Today, recently speculated on why Christians are unable to critique President Trump.  Given so many (especially evangelicals) voted for him, he suspects this reveals a kind of “Rorshach test” where many Christians, rather than take the president to task, prefer to focus on the sins or misdeed of others out of a misguided sense of loyalty. 

In addition to arguments of redirection or loyalty (such as Hannity utilized), the worst kind, in Stetzer’s view is when Christians engage in arguments of deduction.  These can be particularly pernicious because of their potentially idolatrous nature.  Deductive arguments, of course, move from a general statement to a specific instance.  If the premise is that Trump is correct, then what he says or does must be right.  As Stetzer writes, “If you have elevated President Trump…to a level that you will not speak out when egregious, divisive errors are made, then you are showing the world your god is not the King of Kings, but a commander-in-chief.”   

Not surprisingly, I found very little, if anything, worth complimenting in either of the videos.  As my observations/comments above should make clear, however, there is much deserving of criticism in both the CNN and FOX clips.  Some might take exception with what is viewed as my disproportionate focus on FOX and Hannity, seeing as I’m supposed to engage this respectful conversation from the right of center.  Let me explain.  It has always seemed to me that the beginning of a healthy discourse must start with me or my side.  Removing the plank from our eye before zeroing in on the speck in someone else’s eye, seems prudent if not wise, not to mention biblical (Matthew 5:7).

It’s not the first time, nor will it likely be the last, that I take Republicans or conservatives or evangelicals to task.  These are my people and as such I should have more to say to them in levelling constructive, yet loving, criticism.  Without question, it isn’t always received (or possibly delivered) in that way, whether on Facebook or face-to-face, but that is my intention.  Confrontation, while seldom, if ever, pleasant or enjoyable, can nevertheless be civil and is often necessary.  If nothing else, the church and its members should be modelling for the wider world how to better disagree.  I’m not confident we do that as often or as well as we should be.

Engaging Democracy: Living Into this Reality

So, even though I believe things are worse than simply talking past each other, I’m still hopeful and (most days) encouraged by efforts to maintain a faithful presence in an increasingly post-Christian culture.  I’ve always liked the dual meaning of the phrase, engaging democracy.  Not only does it reference the importance of participating in the political process, it as importantly raises the prospects of making the democratic experience more attractive or appealing.  For that to happen, however, we must at a minimum reform our political discourse. 

Consider the following questions: are evangelical Christians more likely to be considered part of the problem or part of the solution today when it comes to engaging democracy?  Are we known by our love or have we let the world press us into its political mold?  Are we more concerned about claiming our rights or known for fulfilling our responsibilities?  Are we truly and honestly concerned about who our neighbor is and how they are doing?  While many followers of Jesus answer such inquires in the affirmative, I’m not sure I can always and I’m fairly certain that is the case for a vast majority of fellow believers.  It is but one reason why I eagerly anticipate next month’s subtopic, as subsequent conversation partners explore the prospects of a Christian political discourse.

Virtue, of course, remains a vitally important element in this grand experiment of American democracy, but is it government’s responsibility to make its citizens good?  No, of course not.  Among the various members of civil society, none is more important than the church, in my estimation.  The much-maligned separation of church and state is a good thing in so far as each institution performs its respective role: the church contributing to the common good and the state maintaining the sovereignty of each sphere—business, education, family—in society. In the words of WW2 German martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “the church is only the church when it exists for others.”

I suspect the bitter division in the church today comes down to the latent split in American evangelicalism that has emerged ever more clearly over the past several months and gets highlighted by tragic events such as Charlottesville, among others.  On the one hand, there are many of my friends and family as well as VP Pence and the evangelical advisory council (e.g., Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Paula White, etc.) who tend to stand with the president.  On the other hand, I find greater affinity with the message of Noel Castellanos, Russel Moore and Scott Arbeiter (not to mention 160 Wheaton College professors) who are quicker to dissent, if not condemn, Trump.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, hope remains.  There is no good reason, it seems to me, more of us shouldn’t heed the guidance provided by Jeremiah 29 and seek the peace and prosperity of the “city” by living in the midst of those who do not share our faith, yet serving them faithfully nonetheless. Evangelical followers of Jesus might increasingly feel like aliens or foreigners in our own land, but given our status as sojourners—not to mention citizens of heaven—should this matter?  Must we demand to take our country back (whatever that means) or do we simply live into a new reality as exiles actively awaiting the redemption and recreation of all things? 

As N.T. Wright provocatively posits, Jesus “saw as pagan corruption the very desire to fight paganism.”  In my view, engaging democracy is part and parcel of living responsibly in the world, while still not being part of it.  In other words, being wise as a serpent, yet gentle as a dove.  It is, as this concluding section suggests, about maintaining a faithful presence in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic country (re: James Davison Hunter’s argument in To Change the World). 

Besides, the light is winning.  Sure, darkness surges from time to time, but the advance of the kingdom is assured.  Since launching this restorative project, as recorded in Luke 4 (i.e., the so-called Nazareth Manifesto), the light shines in and through the countless partial and imperfect efforts of kingdom citizens, who through the power of the spirit reflect Jesus—the Light of the world—into the various crooks and crannies of a broken and hurting creation. 

As his disciples, followers of Jesus are to be doing on earth as is done in heaven, right?  At a minimum, then, evangelical discourse ought to do better.  In demanding more, it is critical we learn how to disagree well.  Moreover, this means we must be mindful of public life as we go about the work of bringing heaven to earth, because Christians are saved for, not from, a wary world that is closely watching us.

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