A Plea for “Politics As Unusual”

As we are rapidly nearing the opening phase of our next quadrennial verbal civil war (a.k.a., “the most important election of our lifetime – again”), I want to preempt the fighting with a few general considerations:

1) As image-bearers of a speaking God, we are speakers and our relations with others necessarily take the form of speaking. But a key difference between animal noises and human speech is that the latter is able to communicate complex ideas and needs that often require a much more sophisticated mode of judgment than animals are capable of.

This judgment is rendered by the mind – but not just any mind. To make sophisticated judgments about complex ideas and needs, a mind must be formed such that its thoughts are disciplined, ordered, and aimed at truth, not merely winning. It is unfortunate that “politics” in our modern context deeply confuses winning with truth, but Christians of all people ought to know that the two are not always conjoined.

Sum: Political speech deals with complex ideas and practices; uncareful speech based on
poorly-ordered thoughts is little better than animal noises.

2) As image-bearers of a God who is Himself a fellowship of equals, we are never just individuals, but are always part of a community. Thus, our thoughts and actions ought never to be based primarily on our individual concerns.

The purpose of speech between humans is to navigate the tossing sea of complex ideas and needs with a view to preserving the whole ship, not just our own personal lives or the limited number of other lives with whom we feel most comfortable dealing. In other words, though this seems quite counter-intuitive, politics is about more than party loyalty. It may turn out that preserving the ship requires going this way and not that way, but someone who does not understand, or who has no patience with, the art of navigation has no business contributing his “two cents” to a discussion about how to preserve the ship. Mere factional chattering on social media is not “political” talk at all, and is just a gigantic waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Sum: Political speech is about the common good, not just the good of our own circle of interests. Political speech ought to be based on the belief that one’s party has the best vision of the common good, not on the belief that The Other Party must be destroyed.

3) Passion is inherently immoderate and unstable. Animals are passionate about what they want, and it is this that makes us talk about “nature red in tooth and claw.” But human beings, being speakers of complex ideas and needs, should never be only passionate about what they want. Human speech about important matters must never be merely a mode of communicating human passions, for politics, the art of living together in a society, is never solely about passions. We are not undirected Darwinian animals involved in a “second place is the first loser” struggle for survival; we are, in Aristotle’s words, political animals aiming at much more than mere survival. Someone who does not understand this difference, or who thinks and acts as if political is a mere synonym for passionate ought not to speak at all in a public forum, for such speaking is little better than the inarticulate grunting of a beast.

4) Fourth, we all need to seriously and soberly consider the question: What precisely is social about “social media”? Any one of us may say anything we like with any degree of feeling in our own living rooms, but a social media platform is not a private living room – not even because it tells you that space you are writing on is “your wall.” Actually, it’s Facebook’s wall, and we all gave up our right to “free speech” (considered as an absolute lack of external restrictions) when we agreed to Facebook’s often restrictive terms of service. Facebook is Zuckerberg’s mega-sized, mega-crowded living room, not one’s own living room, so no, oneself doesn’t get to say absolutely anything anytime. It would be worth spending some time pondering what the real meaning of “social” is, including that seemingly outmoded ideal known as “social graces.” Remember that we are not made to be like grunting animals, and our passions shouldn’t be the arbiter of our words. If others are (acting like) grunting animals in a political discussion, what is gained by we ourselves joining them in that base activity?

5) Lastly, and most importantly, though it sounds like a cliché to say it, no matter who gets into office and what policies they implement, God is the one on the throne and His purposes cannot be thwarted by any man or woman. We Christians today have a rather large blind spot in terms of having only recently seen very radical cultural reversals that make us unthinkingly pine after “the good old days” when (as we inaccurately style it) the “Judaeo-Christian worldview” ran everything.

After 1600 years of mostly Christian cultural hegemony, it just doesn’t feel right to us that we should suddenly be on the radical defensive, and that “the Christian Nation” par excellence should be going the way of the dinosaur. We must vote to Save Christian America! We must fight tooth-and-nail to turn back the tide! We must fight for Truth, Justice, and the Biblical-American Way!”

Well, maybe. Political quietism shouldn’t be acceptable to us, because even the Jews in captivity prayed for the peace of the city and longed to return home, and the Apostle Paul often invoked his rights as a Roman citizen to not be treated in a certain way simply because he announced unpopular religious ideas. There is a legitimate place for political activism rooted in our religious convictions, and we dare not simply lay down our swords and die.

But the City of God only ever overlaps earthly cultural and political realities, never identifying itself with any. We may fight to the last metaphorical drop of our blood and still lose the political battle. Things may get very uncomfortable for us if that happens. But it has happened before, and the Gospel prevailed in the end. What impressed most thoughtful Romans in the time of the martyrs was less what the Christians said, but how they died. Nobody could die like a Christian could, and the more of them who died, the more the Gospel worked its way like leaven through the Empire.

We shouldn’t want our nation to wither and die in a whirlwind of secularist tyranny and idiocy. We can and should fight as we are able and as God moves us. But we mustn’t ever confuse the fortunes of America with the fortunes of the City of God. It sounds like a cliché, but as I watch the Christian political landscape take a predictably factional, tribal, largely passion-driven shape every four years, I don’t think it is. Like everyone else who has ever lived, we Christians are a forgetful people, prone ever to misreading the knowable past and present, and so to immoderately fearing the unknowable future.

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