Perhaps there was a glimmer or two of the potential for better politics even in this presidential race. At the conclusion of the second presidential debate, in the midst of one of the most bitter, trivial, and personal campaigns in modern political history, the candidates were asked to name one positive thing they respect about their opponent. Donald Trump, refreshingly, took the opportunity to point out that Hillary Clinton “doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She’s a fighter.”
Clinton had a particularly moving exchange with a ten-year old immigrant. When the young girl told the candidate through tears that she was scared her parents would be deported, Clinton called the girl over to sit on her lap. "I'm going to do everything I can so you don't have to be scared,” she said. “And you don't have to worry about what happens to your mom or your dad or anyone else. I feel really, really strongly, but you're being very brave and you have to be brave for them too. Because they want you to be happy. Let me do the worrying. I'll do all the worrying. Is that a deal? I'll do everything I can to help, okay?"
Defined by Politics
It’s not hard to see why those moments are so rare. The race has tightened considerably leading up to Election Day. I cannot improve here on the extensive comments made by fellow believers on the inadequacies and failings of both candidates, and the singular danger to our democracy posed by Trump. The outcome of today’s election is important, but it should not be our primary concern.
Electoral revelations are only the most concrete signs of a more significant development in our nation’s politics and culture. It is now undeniable that the current state of our politics is causing spiritual harm in the personal lives and shared lives of our nation.
This is evident in the historic levels of polarization that we see today. The American people are not particularly extreme ideologically. In fact, Americans are actually closer to the center on political issues than their elected officials. Today’s partisanship is driven by a new kind of identity politics not principally based on race or gender but on political party itself. Politics has become tribal, with more Americans staking their identity in their political views and with those who agree with them than anything else. One recent study found that partisan bias—favoring someone in something like the awarding process for a college scholarship because of a shared political bent or affiliation—was stronger than racial preference. Our politics is defining us.
“A New and Deadly Disease”
Spiritual harm is reflected most clearly in our national anxiety. The American Psychological Association found that 52 percent of Americans are feeling additional stress due to the election—they call it “Election Stress Disorder”—and recommended steps people can take for relief. Teachers report students are fearful about the election outcome, even to the extent that they are having nightmares about it. Political campaigns understand and feed into this emotional pull of politics. Increasingly, political messages are not about policies; instead, the policies proposed on the campaign trail are about sending a message and propping up a desired narrative. Our politics is driven by and guiding our emotions.
The influence of political tactics is not confined to campaign dynamics. It affects how we are formed as people. Instead of our values influencing our politics, our political circumstances are shaping our values. As partisan citizens, we explain away the flaws of the candidate we support, and buy nearly any outlandish theory about the candidate we oppose. We even change what we believe to fit the moment.
C. S. Lewis understood the temptation to seek personal meaning in politics. His essay “Membership” is most instructive in this regard. “A sick society,” Lewis writes, “must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.” However, “if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease.”
Our culture, and many people in our churches, are sick with that new and deadly disease. Politics is causing great spiritual harm in Americans lives, and a big reason for that is Americans are going to politics to have their spiritual needs met. This is the meaning of rising polarization and the cause of our zero-sum mentality. Politics does a poor job of meeting spiritual needs. But if it will get your vote, politicians will attempt to fill the spiritual void nonetheless.
The Future of Faith
The future of faith in American politics depends on Americans understanding that it is not healthy to engage in politics with our feet planted in politics. Politics is not a foundation that can bear the weight of our best aspirations. The safest place to engage in politics is with our feet planted firmly in the gospel, allowing our spiritual needs to be met by God, and thus being freed up to engage in politics in pursuit of the well-being of our neighbors and communities.
All is not lost. Consider the few glimmers of hope we saw this election. Trump’s momentary disregard for partisan advantage in the midst of a presidential debate as he seemed to genuinely appreciate Clinton’s tenacity and strength is the kind of thing we would see more of in our politics and in our social lives if our personal ideologies were not considered holy ground. When we’re freed up from seeking to meet our spiritual needs in politics, we will routinely have the freedom and capacity to bear another’s burdens in our political engagement, as Clinton did in her conversation with the ten-year-old immigrant.
There will be a lot of talk in the coming days about political and electoral reform, and how our politics must change. The church has a significant role to play in this season of discontent. Our politics can only cause such spiritual harm because our national life has become so spiritually vacuous.
As our fellow citizens attempt to solve our political problems, the American church has the opportunity stand with the tradition of the saints and the gospel we love. Our spiritual needs will never be met by politics, and no amount of political reform will change that. The best way for our nation to get the politics it needs is for us to become the kind of people our politics needs.
Michael Wear is the author of the forthcoming book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America.