How to be a Christian in an election season
by Breanna Beers
You can be a Republican and be a Christian.
You can be a Democrat and be a Christian.
Shocking, I know. It seems like every year it gets harder to accept that, especially given [insert whatever horrifying thing the other side did this week].
The latest outrage, however, is just a symptom of a deeper problem: the system itself is structured to incentivize and benefit from our polarized tribalism. The people in power want no one left sitting on the fence. Their careers rely on you picking a side (theirs), and once you do, they want you to be all in.
Meanwhile, the media are not passive scribes but active participants. Anger has been shown to be the most viral emotion, and news organizations rely on your clicks to exist. These are not public institutions, but private companies, as subject as the rest of us are to the forces of capitalism.
Of course, it’s not entirely their fault. Those aforementioned market forces are at least partially determined by you, the consumer. Those aforementioned people in power got there at least partially thanks to you, the voter.
Here’s the thing: the system isn’t going to get any better, certainly not in time for this election. However, you can. Having conversations with people you disagree with has never been more difficult, but it has also never been more necessary.
Why does it matter?
Before we can even have these conversations, it’s important to set them in context. Here it is: Politics is not the be-all end-all the system wants you to think it is.
Let us never confuse politics with the gospel. As Christians, we are commanded to many things, but politics is not one of them.
Similarly, let us be wary of making what the government does more important than what we do. Who is in office is far less important than whether we love our enemies, care for outsiders, and speak the truth. If [insert issue] really matters, we’ll care about it with our actions, not just our opinions.
Politics can be used to accomplish good ends. That’s why it matters. If we believe the Christian worldview truly speaks to all aspects of life, then that includes politics. However, the way we pursue politics has to be distinctly Christian, not just in terms of policy, but in terms of posture and practice. If we think we’re justified in using worldly tactics because it’s the only way to “win,” we’re missing the point.
Voting is a privilege and a tool that most of the church has never had. You can certainly be a Christian without ever engaging in this area. But how can we be Christians while doing so? It starts with a term that has become the foundation for how I approach sensitive conversations: political grace.
What is political grace?
I first heard the term “political grace” from pastor Matt Whitman of the Ten Minute Bible Hour. It means exactly what it sounds like: extending grace within the realm of politics — specifically toward our political rivals.
Grace means “unearned favor or generosity.” Applying that in politics means having a posture of goodwill toward the person who disagrees with me, even when they don’t deserve it. It requires me to assume that they are coming at the issue with genuine good intentions rather than ignorant or malicious ones.
Will that assumption sometimes be wrong? Of course; it’s an assumption. But entering a conversation with guns blazing presupposes a battle that might not need to take place. If you imagine the worst of someone else in the way you respond to them, you will almost always receive what you expect. If you assume good intentions, the worst thing that can happen is that they respond to your courtesy with contempt.
Ideology is not identity
Political grace requires us to see a person as a person, rather than merely as a member of a particular team. By default, opinions are rarely allowed to stand on their own; every issue is ascribed all the baggage of belonging to a particular side. The moment you make a statement, I’m analyzing your words to determine if you’re on my team or “one of them.” Opinion has become ideology; ideology has become identity.
As a result of this misconception, we often end up talking at each other instead of with each other. We imagine one another as the generic mental model we’ve built up for capital-L Liberal or capital-C Conservative. Instead of conversing with people, we bounce words off of monolithic caricatures constructed for our criticism. The people we’re really arguing against don’t even exist.
Further complicating this are our information bubbles and online echo chambers that only let us see the worst version of the other side — the way my team chooses to portray them, rather than how they present themselves. This is why it matters to seek out the best and fairest-minded representatives of those we disagree with; the algorithm won’t send us to them automatically.
Political grace requires that we aim not only to be understood, but to understand. Listening helps us see those good intentions we assume. It is not only a sign of respect, but a prerequisite to making sure we’re actually talking about the same thing.
Methods are not goals
One reason these conversations are so sensitive is that politics is closely associated with morality. It’s not just about what I think, but what I believe. This is why it’s easy for me to interpret your attack on my politics as an attack on my identity, not just on my opinions.
What’s more, we often fail to distinguish between goals and methods. Even if you and I agree that a particular issue is a problem, we probably disagree wildly on how to solve it.
This discrepancy then becomes grounds for why I can and even should question your motivations, honesty and character. Your counter-plan is evidence of a lack of intelligence and/or morality. My response is not only smart, but righteous. You’re perpetuating the problem I’m trying to fix.
In reality, however, we probably both recognize that the problem exists; we’re just coming at it with a different toolset. For instance:
1. We may disagree on the root issue causing the problem.
Is police brutality a systemic problem or just a few “bad apples”?
2. We may have a different ranking of priorities that shapes our solutions.
How do we balance protection of borders with compassion for refugees?
3. We are shaped by our different experiences of the world.
Are views on gun control affected by proximity to emergency response teams in urban and rural environments?
4. We are influenced by the information we consume.
How prevalent is fraud in the election system?
5. We may hold divergent core beliefs.
Is humanity capable of improving?
None of that means one of us is a bad person. We can both have good goals that result in completely opposing policy. Most people believe what they do for a reason. Productive conversations help us get to what those reasons are.
Political grace enables openness. It requires us to think more deeply about why it is we really differ. Finding those reasons won’t mean we suddenly agree, but it might make it easier for us to show grace to one another when we don’t.
“Inasmuch as it depends on you…”
The writer Samuel James said, “True neighbor-love between people with competing ideas is possible only when we accept that 1) humans are not reducible to their ideas (a truth almost totally inaccessible on social media) and 2) truth, beauty, and goodness are not reducible to whose ideas win.”
What happens when someone refuses to accept those terms?
I’ve found from experience that most people are willing to engage with nuance when given the chance. However, most is not all. For those who are ready to fight and die on every hill, politics may be a closed avenue for engagement. There’s nothing wrong with deciding the relationship is more important than the issues. It matters that the other person knows that you care about them more than you care about politics.
If anything, cultivating that care might even give you the credibility to engage on the issues again in the future. This shouldn’t be the goal, but it is a possibility. Ironically, stepping back from politics nearly always makes it easier to engage on political issues. This is because, despite what the media and your adrenaline levels tell you, politics isn’t actually the most important thing.
Regardless of whether you care about politics, though, it does matter that you have friends who disagree with you politically. Living your life in an echo chamber removes nuance from the conversation and leaves you vulnerable to group think. Moreover, it’s a testimony about whether our political differences really matter.
We often talk about politics — and political conversations — using the metaphor of a battle. But if we’re thinking in terms of win or lose, the real fight has already been lost. As much as I’ve talked about blue vs. red, us vs. them, that narrative is a lie. It’s a set of labels, and reality is much more complicated than the categories we put people in or the story we tell about society.
When we believe we are divided, we act accordingly. There are many forces and institutions invested in seeing that cycle perpetuated, but in reality, we are far more together than the world and social media would have us believe.
Internet creator Hank Green said, “Many people will say that this kind of moderation will only weaken ‘our side.’ That we need energized, angry people because that energy and anger (and fear) translates to votes, which is how change happens. But frankly, I’m not sure if I should worry more about the hatred or the politics at this point.”
If we justify hatred with politics, we’ve lost sight of what matters. You should not assume that someone who disagrees with you hates you. But as a Christian, you are called to show grace even if they do hate you.
However, I would contend that grace is far more likely to give weight to an argument than it is to detract from it. Truth and love are not mutually exclusive. Empathy is not agreement, kindness is not compromise, and grace does not make us weak. The way we conduct these conversations matters.
If we want our political conversations to matter, they have to be based in something more transcendent than politics. Anger comes from fear, but for the Christian, fear is no longer on the table. Neither defensiveness nor hostility is necessary, because our hope isn’t in this shakeable system. That more ultimate hope is what empowers us to be generous with grace.
The present political climate leaves little room for nuance, and the exclusion of nuance leads to the exclusion of grace. Both are necessary if we want to do this well.
Breanna Beers is a senior Molecular Biology major and the Editor-in-Chief of Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and citrus tea.