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A Work in Progress

Again, I’m struck by the similarity of my conversation partner’s criticisms.  To begin with, I fully agree that many citizens, Christian or otherwise, must work a little harder than they presently do at getting beyond their own confirmation bias.  We’re all guilty of this, myself included.  This, then, is important; it seems to me the church should be at the forefront in leading efforts to counteract such tendencies, especially among members of its own flock.  Sadly, I’m not sure many parishioners or congregants are willing to acknowledge the problem, that is, if they are even aware of it in the first place.

As I’ve claimed in my earlier posts, evangelicals must learn to disagree well or, at least, better; not just with those who consider “lost” but also—maybe especially—with fellow believers who happen to hold a different position or belong to another party.  There is nothing inherently wrong with disagreeing, but how we go about doing so matters to our witness and it should start with a willingness to recognize and concede that there is, in fact, political disagreement within the body of Christ.

I’d also like to second Kim’s call to “speak out when false information is presented as true.”  Obviously, we should do so as respectfully and thoughtfully as possible, keeping in mind that we may have misunderstand or misread something we’ve heard or seen, but speaking out is as necessary as it is perilous.  Few people like confrontation (and it is probably wise to avoid those who revel in conflict), but I’d contend it is required if we truly love others.  I’m often shocked at the easiness with which friends or family members pass along misinformation and falsehoods via email or Facebook.  Many times, the story or “news” item seems to me too fantastic to be true—and yet it does appear to confirm the predisposition or bias of the sender/poster as well as many of the recipients/readers presumably.  A quick investigation of one fact-checking organization or another (e.g., Politifact or Snopes, to name but two) usually bears out the exaggerated claim, clear-cut distortion or out-n-out lie.

What’s disheartening is that this is a digital form of gossip, made all the worse by the ease with which it can be disseminated so broadly.  On the few occasions where I’ve attempted to set the record straight, the reply of the offending party has been not unlike the response Kim reported.  Even when it has been appreciated, I have my doubts as to whether the individual went to the same effort to communicate the truth as opposed to simply keeping it to themselves.  Once I sent my reply/correction to the entire list of email recipients only to have some accuse me of being insensitive or, worse, passive-aggressive, despite what I thought were my best efforts to do so gently.  Sigh. 

I would like to reassure my friend and conversation partner that we are also on the same page when it comes to engaging democracy and being in, but not of, the world.  I almost hesitate to admit that we agree yet again (shucks), but more on why in just a moment.  Before doing so, there is no question in my mind that Kim is correct in observing an otherworldliness, almost a modern-day Gnosticism, animating much of contemporary religious (if not Christian) outlook and practice.  This is wrong-headed.  We are saved for, not from, the world.  Being “of” the world in my view is when we are acting and operating politically, and otherwise, in the same ways that the world does.  Yes, live into the messy reality that is the brokenness of humanity, but do not do so on the world’s terms.

Prior to saying a bit about how we might move forward—some practical suggestions, albeit rather modest proposals—and the extent to which Christians, as Harold Heie is interested in exploring, “have resources for working together across political differences that offer an alternative to the current appalling state of political discourse,” let me offer one final comment related to this on-going agreement with my conversation partner.  A mutual friend of both Kim and mine, one of the few comments received thus far (come on people), noted that:

“Both…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?”

I acknowledged in my reply that this was a far point and yet I wonder if the premise of the question implicitly reveals the current dilemma of public life and the necessity of reconsidering what engaging democracy entails?  The fact that my conversation partner and I agree doesn't mean we're not on either side of the aisle.  Kim's a Democrat, the county chair for her party.  I'm a life-long Republican, active in our local, grassroots efforts, having even sought the nomination of my party.  I suspect Kim may be a center-left Democrat; I'm a center-right member of the GOP.  That likely leaves us closer to each other than some of today's more zealous partisans and on occasion it means we're more likely to find common ground.  

Here’s the point: if the evidence for having both sides represented means we must disagree on everything, well, I'd suggest that is what is, in part, wrong with our politics.  It is also clearly why, among other things, we need to reform our political discourse.  This suggests, as I initially claimed in my first post, that the current state of affairs is worse than simply talking past one another.

Moving Forward: Three Simple Suggestions

The story, and witness, of Kim’s friend Jaci is as encouraging as it is, sadly, elusive.  I’d like to hope such examples are more common than we know, but I’m not optimistic.  If anything, I fear they are more than likely the exception that proves the rule.  A recent, and damning, post by Rod Dreher at the American Conservative highlights what we’re up against as well as unpacking somewhat the nature of the problem.  Too many citizens it would seem, evangelicals included, exhibit a “malleable innocence” whereby party largely trumps (no pun intended) all other commitments or convictions and results in a rather telling tribalism.

This is problematic, not the least, because of American evangelicalism’s increasingly close ties to the Republican party.  What does the logic of collective action currently say about where we place our ultimate loyalty?  Clearly, it wasn’t with or in Obama or Clinton, but should it be with anyone on the GOP’s side, let alone Trump?  The less of two evils, remains evil.  Moreover, does declining trust in the government, even despair regarding the future, warrant an anxiety that spills over into an unreasonably bleak, if not terrifying, outlook?  Is God no longer in control?  Who is in charge and running the world, to say nothing of the United States?  Has the sovereign Lord and true king been forgotten?  Such forgetfulness betrays a post-modern form of idolatry by (mis)placing our confidence in a party or a president.

Current behavior suggests that evangelicals have succumbed to the tempting deceit that we are responsible for how history turns out or that the God of history cannot accomplish this task without us.  If this reality isn’t bad enough, we are increasingly viewed by those both inside and outside the subculture as hypocritical, homophobic, judgmental, anti-intellectual and negative, to name but a few of the perceptions (e.g., check out books such as these: unChristian or You Lost Me, the later which is captured in the video clip above).  As Philip Yancey’s decidedly pointed yet pertinent question asks: “why does the word evangelical threaten so many people in our culture?”  Unfortunately, the answer is found all too easily in the countless examples where we have inadvertently, if not unintentionally, made the good news of the gospel sound or seem anything like it should.

In seeking the welfare of the city or honestly asking who is our neighbor, followers of Jesus who are citizens of heaven (as much as they are of any nation state) need live in a way that is more biblically consistent.  Consequently, it would seem evangelicals should be much more politically inconsistent, at least as far as partisan and ideologically commitments go.  Practically speaking, this leads to the following three suggestions or modest proposals:

1.   Criticism should be lodged primarily with one’s own party first and foremost.

2.   Learning to listen as well as engage those in the other party is essential.

3.   Maintaining a critical distance, or independence, from either party is necessary.

This advice is more likely to resonate with those readers who recall that Christians ought to represent a new way of engaging democracy by letting their public life preach, so-to-speak.  Finding common ground or a middle way is much more challenging than simply “going with the flow” or categorically rejecting everything out of hand.  Instead, the more difficult task might involve exercising discernment, employing imagination, or even being willing to compromise. 

It is here where partisan loyalties and ideological convictions may need to be sacrificed on the altar of Christian commitment to the kingdom of God.  Again, to be biblically consistent will require followers of Jesus to be politically inconsistent on occasion.   Moreover, there may be times, for instance, where an individual is called to confront their own party specifically or the governing authorities generally, but it is equally possible where collaboration with someone from another party or partnering with the state is entirely appropriate. 

Christian political discourse can’t be simply about being polite or nice.  Sure, we should be civil, and of course respectful, but confrontation in and of itself is not wrong.  There are things we should be angry about, but in our efforts to do something about it—to act—this anger should not cause us to sin.  In fact, I’d contend the overwhelming evangelical association with the GOP is not only unbalanced, but unhealthy.  It has become idolatrous in that it has created a kind of amnesia.  Whose, are we?  Why, are we saved?  Evangelicals have failed to maintain a proper or critical distance from power and it has clouded our judgement as well as the ability to offer a critique of our own side.  The admonition to be in, but not of, the world appears to have been turned on its head.

Given the current political climate, marked as it is by a bitter, ongoing culture war (regardless of its scale or whether, as some say, it is in its final throes if not already lost), it is critical for those who engage the process to do so with a certain civility.  Do not misunderstand, evangelicals as much as any other citizen “have a right and a responsibility to disagree, to debate, to persuade someone that they are out to lunch.”  The troubling fact, however, is as Rich Mouw perfectly characterizes: those who are highly committed are not very civil and those who are decidedly civil are not very committed.   Where are these citizens of heaven who are not one or the other, but both: highly committed and decidedly civil? 

A new creation, or re-creation, is fully underway.  It is a redemptive project demanding reconciliation, and all that requires, which at a minimum deserves a pride of place in this restorative effort.  Followers of Jesus, then, have a job to do.  This means telling, as well as living into, a forgotten story of how God became king in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  As such, demonstrations of love are as important, if not more so, than a disciplined defense of the faith.  This involves abiding by the mission, template, or paradigm that was the life and death of Jesus: “just as the father sent me, I send you” (John 20:21)!   Citizens of heaven must live in, even as they attempt not to become part of, the world.  Failure to engage this world will render ineffective and possibly moot, any “good news” the church might want to offer so-called pagans.

Resources and Reform (as well as Repentance)

Political discourse needs reforming, and I believe and would like to think the Christian faith has something to offer this possibility, but we are dealing with a symptom of a much deeper and more rooted problem.  From prescient voices, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to recent prophetic warnings like those of Michael Spencer (the “internet monk,” may he rest in peace) and David Fitch, there appears to be a coming evangelical collapse.  Are there the necessary resources to address how we go about engaging democracy in ways that are more fruitful and faithful?  Necessity, as some say, is the mother of all invention.

How evangelicals act in public life is, in the end, what really matters.  Efforts to “take back America” or “Make America Great Again” rather than be the church that exemplifies a new way of being human seem far more typical today in the hue and cry that characterizes the culture wars.  It is counterproductive, to say the least, if those ostensibly working on behalf of God’s kingdom do so by means that fail to correspond with the message of Jesus.  As N.T. Wright observes, “it is no good announcing love and peace if [one] makes angry, violent war to achieve it.”   This is no less true when it comes to the culture wars.  These figurative battles matter, not the least because politics is meant to prevent literal shooting wars (which are preceded by culture wars gone wrong), but how one fights matters too.  The church, a key institution for cultivating the virtue necessary in this grand experiment called American democracy, is not currently up to the task.  It has been rendered ineffective and irrelevant as the result of both external forces and internal heresies.  Bad religion has contributed to bad politics.  For the sake of the state as well as society, the church must first get its own house in order.

Citizens of heaven should be for the world much as Jesus was for Israel.  The zeal with which this is to be pursued, however, must undergo a transformation not unlike Saul experienced on the road to Tarsus.  This is where the culture wars have seemingly gotten so far off track.  There is little question culture warriors possess passion, but in their efforts to “take a stand for Jesus” they often do more harm than good.  Paganism is never going to be defeated by employing the same sort of (political) weapons as the world.  That is why evangelical “victories” in the cultural battles are so often pyrrhic.  Jesus did not even take a stand for himself (nor did he allow Peter to take a stand for him), so why should followers today?   This, of course, does not mean that evangelicals must remain silent or avoid entering the public square, but it does suggest that at a minimum they think more carefully and thoughtfully about why and how hot-button social issues are addressed when engaging democracy through public life.

If winning the culture wars on the world’s terms is the only viable means or reasonable way to engage public life, there is little doubt then that evangelicals are captive to a contemporary pagan corruption.  Some may wonder if anything can be done about it?  Let me close with what may be a provocative answer: evangelicals should issue a culture war’s cease-fire or adopt a radically different set of rules for engaging democracy altogether.  This proposed truce is based in part on three factors.

First of all, as has been noted previously, evangelicals seem to have let the world press them into its mold of political practice.  This mistake is only compounded by the fact that Jesus viewed even the intention of combating the cultural corruption that seemed everywhere—a not uncommon feeling among evangelicals today—as a pagan vice.  Secondly, this collective effort to wage war on the world’s terms often undermines the primary endeavor to advance God’s kingdom.  What value is there if in our desire to win, even when evangelicals may be right, we cease to be good?  Undoubtedly, we are likely to prevail from time to time in these public skirmishes and consequently realize a measure of political success, but at what cost?  Evangelicals appear to be paying too high a price when we rationalize our efforts in ways more in keeping with Machiavelli than Christ.  Do the ends really justify the means?

Finally, Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat seems to suggest that this proposed cease-fire is not as outlandish as it might have first sounded.  In Matthew 13:24-30, a parallel is found with the response to the question regarding whether the farmhands should weed the field of thistles.  The answer, of course, is a rather emphatic and possibly surprisingly no, they should not; the danger of doing so is that in zealously rooting out the offending weeds (to say nothing about the challenge of correctly identifying them in the first place) some of the wheat will be invariably uprooted as well.  So too, it would seem, in today’s culture wars.

Waging rhetorical war with our enemies, or political opponents, has resulted in an untold number of battle worn casualties, both intended and unintended.  If, in fact, evangelicals are paying too high a price for this participation in a culture war it seems prudent, even wise, to issue a cease-fire.  In doing so, the church will be granted the requisite independence for assuming its witness in public life by engaging democracy in a way that maintains a faithful presence on behalf of God and the kingdom of heaven.  Short of a cease-fire, a small indicator that we remain a work in progress would be if followers of Jesus were willing to reform their political discourse.  May it be so.  Lord have mercy.

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