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« A Work in Progress | Main | Beyond Confirmation Bias »

Whad'Ya Know

To borrow from the title of my conversation partner’s blog post, I’m “hard pressed” to find many disagreements with her thoughtful commentary, which is an encouraging consequence, or at least, should be.  Right?  Finding common ground is a good thing, isn’t it?  Then, again, I suppose not everyone would be happy to hear a Republican and Democrat agreeing about something.  A certain skepticism would likely arise at this discovery.  Why?  Well, there must be more to the story—so goes the suspicion these days—which reminds me of a tale I haven’t told for a while, but seems worth recounting now.

I’ve previously confessed my status as a political junkie, but have yet to share that not too long ago I actually sought public office—House District 4 in the Iowa General Assembly.  For the most part, it proved to be a fantastic experience, albeit an unsuccessful one ultimately (too many straight-ticket voters).  There’s no question I learned a lot.  My campaign clearly informs my teaching and classroom instruction in the only way experiential learning can.  Despite losing, I have few regrets about throwing my hat-in-the-ring, though individual members of my family probably feel differently, as they too were affected by some of the false accusations unfairly directed at me.

Relationships 101

The specific story I’m recalling happened back during the spring of 2016 amid Orange City’s annual Tulip Festival (Breng ons een bezoek), which also coincided with the closing weeks of GOP primary election.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I had nothing to do with the pairing of conversation partners, that was entirely the doing of this project’s host, though I did have to smile when I learned Kim Van Es would represent the other side of the aisle, so-to-speak, in this opening exchange over the need to reform political discourse.  Here’s why.  As I wrote in a campaign blog entry at the time (21st of May)—

The final day of Tulip Festival is in full swing and I just got done scrubbing streets (and staying dry for the most part...can't say that Ian [our youngest son] was so lucky, though I don't think he was trying to keep from getting wet).  Anyway, this post is being written because it has come to my attention an opponent is going to try to make hay about one particular contribution I received recently (the first financial disclosure deadline was this past Thursday…and it's all a matter of public record).  To be honest, it really has been quite gratifying and encouraging to see the kind of support I've gotten thus far from family and friends alike.

So, here's the issue.  Really the non-issue in my view.  Among the more than 70+ gifts that have been given to Team VanDerWerff, one of them was from my friend and colleague Kim Van Es and her husband Jerry.  Kim is an English instructor at Northwestern and I'd put her up against any of my colleagues in terms of commitment and care for our students.  When she first started at NWC, I'm guessing 12-15 years ago, we actually shared an office suite briefly.  Since then we've served on task forces and search committees together.  Among her many accomplishments, Kim was central to getting the college's highly successful First Year Seminar off the ground.  Moreover, years ago, Jerry was briefly my doctor when he was still practicing medicine in the local Orange City clinic.

The problem, according to some people, is that I accepted a donation from someone who happens to be the head of the Sioux County Democrats.  [It’s not as if she cut a check on the local party account!]  Quite honestly, I don't think of Kim in that way, at least that is not her chief or primary identity to me.  She's a tireless worker, a thoughtful colleague, a runner, and a fierce advocate for students.  She and Jerry, as I say, are most importantly my friends.

I'd like to think that their [personal/monetary] support exemplifies the fact that I'm able and willing to work with someone who doesn't necessarily agree with me on everything; yet we nevertheless carry on a relationship that is marked by mutual respect. In my estimation, this is but one small example of what is wrong with politics today.  If someone happens to be on the "wrong side" or in the "other party" then that apparently disqualifies them from being in any sort of relationship with me.  Are those with whom we disagree no longer our neighbors or our colleagues or our friends?  I really don't think so.  It shouldn't be that way and it is my belief that a majority of Sioux County citizens agree.

[Note: as fate, would have it; immediately after drafting this post I headed up to the Little White Store to work a shift at the cash register selling poffertjes--if you haven't had the pleasure, of eating poffertjes or working in the Little White Store, you're missing out. Well, no sooner had I taken my position alongside other volunteers…guess who shows up to make the tiny Dutch delight?  Yep, Kim and Jerry Van Es.]

Those of us who call Sioux County home have to live and work together, it seems to me. We really should be able to get along despite our differences and for the most part, I think we do.  This is why I think I'll be a good representative.  We need individuals in the Iowa General Assembly, working on our behalf, who will do so in a winsome manner; in a way that conveys not only our work ethic, but the welcoming attitude, even-handedness, and faithful presence characterizing so many of the good citizens of Sioux County.  There is no question relationships matter and I intend to serve with that in mind.

So, while my conversation partner and I each claim partisan and ideological commitments that render us on separate sides of many issues, it would seem our approach to engaging democracy as well as our attitude towards political discourse is quite similar.  That’s good to know.  It also suggests this perception of a deeply divided society as opposed to one more closely separated is, indeed, quite possibly a culture war myth.  And yet, as I argued in my first post, such a (mis)perception may become a self-fulfilling prophecy if American citizens fail to appreciate they are not as far apart or polarized as is often thought.  In fact, our social media habits or practices may be making matters worse by inadvertently fueling extremism.

Reiterating Three Points

So, let me briefly acknowledge that I find little to disagree with concerning the “three problems” Professor Van Es highlights.  There is no question that the line between fact and opinion has been blurred beyond distinction.  Information literacy is an increasingly important ability to possess in this digital age, especially when those who are charged with informing us often make things more complicated by conflating news and commentary.  I concur that this is reflected in student writing and thinking, but I fear this is a problem not just confined to those who are undergrads; I’ve seen too many older (and supposedly wiser) citizens every bit as confused or contradictory in the “expert evidence” relied upon or the logic employ in their arguments made on Facebook or elsewhere.

Secondly, the diversionary tactics employed in much of the political discourse today (and in each of the video clips, particularly the Hannity monologue) is very much in keeping with the arguments of redirection that (Ed Stetzer identified and) so many family and friends tend to default to out of what I can only assume is a misguided sense of loyalty.  This allegiance is one of the more worrisome aspects regarding the continuing evangelical support of the president quite honestly.  Consider the PRRI/RNS survey findings below—

If I had a quarter for every individual who has said in response to some sort of Trump offense, well what about—“fill-in-the-blank”—I’d be rich.  What happened in order for evangelicals to go from having the greatest qualms with a politician’s personal indiscretions to being the most accepting of such foibles?  Did this become necessary because of the GOP stand bearer?  It represents a moral relativism at its finest (that is, worst) and is a Machiavellian commitment to the ends justifying the means that would be terrific if it weren’t so tragic. 

The realization that somewhere around 3:5 of the president’s remaining supporters (his approval numbers hover in the mid-to-upper 30 percent range) say there is nothing Trump could say or do that would dissuade them from supporting him is alarming.  It also suggests why political discourse has become so difficult and persuasion, essentially, impossible.

When sites as varied as Charisma and Vox are making the same point regarding how we are potentially “selling our souls” or diminishing our standing, there might be something to these concerns.  It stands to reason that included among unreserved Trump backers, undoubtedly, are a fair number of evangelicals.  But isn’t this kind of allegiance only supposed to be reserved for the king of kings, not the commander-in-chief?

Finally, the politics of personal destruction, as its been called, are clearly on the rise.  I’m not sure I’d characterize my own electoral experience in such dire terms; at the same time, there were more than one person who commented on the unprecedented contentious nature of the campaign.  Much of that had to do with attacks of a personal nature.  In my estimation, this is simply a symptom of an eroding political discourse, one in need of reform.  It does seem to me that too much of what passes for disagreement on Facebook or other social media platforms masquerades as thinly veiled attacks as opposed to genuine arguments.  Those with whom one disagrees become “leftists” or “brainwashed” or “haters” as opposed to brothers or sisters in Christ whose faith (and lived experience) informs their politics differently.

I’ve not read the article by David Niose referenced in my conversation partner’s post, but the title alone hints at the precarious condition in which public dialogue finds itself today.  The “dangerously anti-intellectual” state of affairs is reminiscent of Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995).  Not surprisingly, given our roles at an institution of higher education, Kim and I both place a premium on the life of the mind.  As a review of Noll’s classic work noted, when it first came out—

The enormous weight evangelicals put on the experience of conversion, understood as a onetime, life-changing event, has…drawn energies away from intellectual concerns.  If one believes that the central religious drama takes place in an immediate, emotionally charged experience of God's grace, then one is not likely to devote attention to more difficult, indirect or mundane ways in which God may be known.  Nor is one likely to ponder how the converted life might be lived out in institutional settings or in the arenas of politics, the arts and the sciences (emphasis mine).

The lack of civil discourse or the need to reform political discourse is but a symptom of a deeper root cause it would appear.  Sadly, despite considerable energy and effort in the years since Noll first challenged the evangelical community, much work remains and some gains may have been lost recently.

This is a minor quibble, but if there is a question I thought Kim might address more fully, given her own disciplinary training, it would have been the particular use of rhetorical tools in the political discourse on display in the CNN and FOX news (i.e., Hannity) video clips.  Actually, I’d enjoy hearing what she thinks the ideal balance or proper relationship between logos, pathos and ethos should be, that is, if such an association even exists.  Another, hopefully better, question is: are the sacrificing of logic/expertise on the altar of emotion but one indication of this so-called scandal of the evangelical mind?

On balance, however, I largely agree with my Northwestern colleague in our assessment of the appalling examples or reports provided for us to examine and evaluate.  Sadly, what we see in each of these video clips is far too common, even routine.  They are anything but an exception to the rule. 

Yes, A More Excellent Way

It seems to me engaging democracy, not just participating in politics, but doing so in a way that makes public life more attractive or appealing is an expression of the more excellent way my conversation partner longs for.  Let me make a final observation, implicitly referenced in Kim’s initial post.  Her title comes from Paul’s second letter to the early church of Corinth (chapter 4, verses 8-12)—

8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

So again, while things can seem a bit gloomy at present given the tenor and tone of public life we are not to be crushed, or in despair; we’ve not been abandoned or destroyed.  As Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase of The Message: “What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us. While we’re going through the worst, you’re getting in on the best!”

Granted, evangelicals hardly experience what could be called persecution, in the truest sense of the term.  The challenges increasingly faced today are much closer to the trial and mockery end of the spectrum than the prospect of torture or murder.  As bad as things have gotten, whether real or perceived, we’re not living in some sort of Rwandian or Syrian reality.  Even in decline, as political discourse worsens, it is a far cry from oppression.  The old children’s rhyme remains as true today as ever—sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.

An important caveat in the growing frequency with which Christians are crying foul or claiming they’re being singled out, if not persecuted, it often (not always) seems to me this is the result of behaving in a way that brings about a well-earned and deserving rebuke.  Many evangelicals may well be correct in their assessment, but the way they go about making their argument or conveying their message is, in a word, mean.  A certain arrogance or self-righteousness is too often worn as a badge of honor, comforted by 2 (two…? Sorry, couldn’t resist) Corinthians 4:8-12.  But here’s the problem, the world may well despise us because of following Jesus, but the world should never hate Jesus because of what we say or do in his name.

As such, it starts with how we speak to and about others.  Not only must the tongue be tamed, but our tone needs to reflect the fruit of the spirit, not the tenor of the times.  Evangelicals, myself included, cannot let the world press us into its political mold (Romans 12:2).

Let me close by saying as problematic and unfit as the president may be, the presidency deserves our respect.  While not necessarily surprised, it remains fascinating to me how frustrated some Facebook friends get over my continued criticism of Trump (a member of the so-called #19Percent, I’ve been admittedly relentless in highlighting his failures and foibles, not to mention the continued cover provided for the president by some prominent evangelicals).  It seems incomprehensible to my critics that I’m simultaneously submitting to the governing authority, as Romans 13 encourages, and repeatedly taking Trump to task.

The hope found in the whole sweep of scripture captures what citizens of heaven should be about; why we are saved.   What this means in terms of reforming political discourse must begin by acknowledging that we, as N.T. Wright so clearly reminds us, “have all but lost the ability conceptually—never mind practically—to affirm that rulers are corrupt and to be confronted yet are God-given and to be obeyed.”  Comply and oppose.  Not one or the other, but both-and: confront and obey.  This is likely going to require discernment and discretion as well as result in a fair amount of tension.

In my estimation, condemnation came much too quickly and easily for evangelicals when the occupant of the White House was not a preferred candidate.  This reality has been replaced by a reticence to criticize the current president who, if he wasn’t the GOP stand bearer, would be roundly called to task given much of what he’s done (or failed to do) was denounced in the actions of his predecessors.  Trump, of course, enjoyed the overwhelming backing of Christian conservatives with roughly 81 percent of white evangelicals casting a ballot for the celebrity outsider.  While that vote is defensible, if debatable; more importantly, it was 10 months ago, so what explains the continued support now?

Truth be told, at the end of the day, Trump is not the problem!  Not really.  He clearly is not the cause of our current state of affairs or the increasingly suspect quality of contemporary political discourse.  No, Trump is the consequence of what plagues us.  Removing him from office, then (whether by losing reelection, resignation, or impeachment), would not address that which has given rise to Trumpism.  For that to happen, to begin the arduous process of diagnosing root causes and not just symptoms, we must learn once again to engage one another and to enter into relationships and conversations with those who do not share our political views, especially when they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

This, it would seem, entails engaging democracy in a more excellent way.  Whad’ya know…

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Reader Comments (2)

Both of our conversation partners dislike President Trump and feel many evangelicals are misguided, misinformed, or blindly loyal. Do we really have both sides of the aisle represented here? Also wanted to point out that words do hurt me, often more than sticks and stones.

September 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterWayne Kooiker

Wayne raises a fair point (Hi Wayne), but the fact that Kim and I agree doesn't mean we're not on either side of the aisle. She's a Democrat, actually the party's county chair. I'm a life-long Republican, and active in our local party, grassroots efforts. I can't speak for Kim, but I suspect she may be a center-left Democrat and I'm a center-right GOP member. That leaves us closer to each other than some of today's most active partisans and on occasion it means we're more likely to find common ground. If the evidence for having both sides represented means we have to disagree on everything, well, I'd suggest that is what is, in part, wrong with our politics and why, among other things, we need to reform our political discourse. As far as words hurting, I'd agree, but the point remains that white evangelicals today are not persecuted necessarily, they simply may be losing their privileged place in society.

September 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJeff VanDerWerff

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