I do not often write on politics, for a few reasons. Devout Christians come to different political views (which are usually matters of wisdom rather than doctrine, anyway). I think faith in Christ is more important than any particular political stance, and I do not want any political disagreement to overshadow more important issues about what Christianity teaches. Furthermore, I know American politics best, but Christianity is global, so discussing American politics reduces what I might say to my fellow Christians around the world. (That all sounds very spiritual, but I also simply do not find politics interesting, most of the time.)
This US presidential election cycle, however, is surprisingly ugly, and I am not talking about the candidates’ appearances. What are Christians to think and do about it?
First, we need to be willing to listen and try to understand it. James wrote, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19), and if more people did that, the election would have remained far more civil (and far more informative). But let us try to do that now.
A gaping chasm of trust seems to have developed in the middle of American politics. Election pollsters are suggesting that most people are not voting for a candidate so much as voting against the other candidate. Both major parties accuse the other party’s candidate of being a pathological liar who considers him/herself to be above the law, and will destroy this country. These are heavy charges! (Which is not to say they aren’t true, of course.) Conservatives and liberals are both feeling that they must control the entire government system, and that if “the other side” does so, the coercive power of the state will be directed against them until they are legislated and judicially harassed out of existence. The political rhetoric is sharply polarized and increasingly apocalyptic; the end of the world seems no further away than a wrong election result in just over two weeks’ time.
It appears that American politics is spinning out of control, and we do not know what to do about it. Perhaps we have lost sight of the virtue of statesmanship, of being a leader with integrity who pursues the public good. While there have always been unscrupulous politicians interested in their personal gain above the good of the public, there was at least a notion of a higher standard to which voters could appeal, and which could justify dumping politicians who did not even attempt to measure up. But the increasingly partisan divide in American politics raises questions about whether any candidate will be the President of the United States, or only the president of their party, only the president of their particular supporters, using federal power to pursue their personal agenda. I recall after the closely contested 2000 election hearing an increasing number of Democrats say that George W. Bush was not their president, and I have heard conservatives declare that Barack Obama was not their president. What do such statements mean? Are the speakers declaring themselves un-American? The elected president must be president of the whole United States, not just of one party, or part of a party, or those who voted for that candidate. Partial presidencies will seriously harm the country as a whole. Perhaps the notion of the presidency for all America would best be achieved by reviving the perspective inherent in terming government officials “public servants.” They should serve the public, not their private ends.
Whoever wins the election, Americans will need a process of national reconciliation to rebuild trust across party lines. Even if the election is a landslide one way or the other, the winning candidate should not take the result as an electoral mandate to pursue an aggressively partisan agenda. This is not an election of platforms, but seeking the least loathsome option. The approval ratings of both candidates (as opposed to the predicted election results) are amazingly low. While Trump boasts of his plan to clean up politics, he might consider that many Americans will vote for him not because they have any faith in him, but only to keep a known political actor out. While Clinton paints Trump’s character as unfit for presidential office, she might reflect on the fact that many of her “supporters” would not vote for her if she were facing any other opponent. To preserve the country, whoever is elected should swing toward the political center, try to engage (not necessarily agree with) the views of the whole spectrum of Americans, and serve the whole country.
A few particular steps would help. In contrast to the steady erosion of congressional power and the burgeoning of presidential powers over the last several decades (across presidencies from both political parties), America would benefit from a restoration of the checks and balances of this peculiar government system, with a presidency and executive branch limited to implementing the law (not executing the opposition). America would benefit from a de-politicization of government agencies and branches that are supposed to be non-partisan (including the Supreme Court and the FBI). Whoever wins the election should eschew the winner-take-all approach to politics which has become the norm in the last several presidencies, in favor of an inclusive civil dialogue which respectfully listens and responds to those of diverging viewpoint.
Those of us who are Christians must try, in these trying times, to be real peacemakers, listening to and reconciling sharply opposed political views, calling for discussion rather than calling names.
Because what’s the alternative? If Americans’ trust in their government and in each other continues to fray, the result will eventually be a civil war. And in that there will be no winners.