Chances are if you’ve dipped your hand into political streams lately, your fingers have come out of the waters feeling a little slimy. Political discourse has shifted over the last two decades. Few think the change has been for the better. It’s not just that stances have evolved; that happens between all generations. Our political conversations themselves have bent. Where once leaders united, rallying people to a common cause, they now divide, rallying people to themselves. Points of view stand less on merit than on vitriol against an opposing camp. There are still plenty of good things to stand up for. We just seem at a loss how to do it.
It might surprise you to hear a pastor say this, but much of the polarization and unfairness we experience on a regular basis started in the halls of faith. Supposedly pure Christians have been knee deep in these waters, either directly, seeking advantage, or by complicit silence in the name of “our side” winning. In the process, we’ve provided part of the playbook in use today among self-interested, often unscrupulous, civil leaders.
If you’ve ever heard someone speak and then asked, “How can anyone from a church support that person?”, well, surprise! Part of the reason it’s easy to support icky people doing icky things is that we were doing them first.
Here are some of the ways in which shady faith practices have seeped into our political/social life. See if you recognize any of them.
Scripture is amazing. It offers a lifetime of insight to readers and hearers. Scripture is also relational. Touching our lives, its words are subject to interpretation through our eyes and ears.
In the cosmic view, scripture is more powerful than any of our perceptions. In a given moment, though, what we see or hear in it depends on what we’re looking for. Churches have long taken advantage of this, pulling out passages favorable to their goals and points of view.
Few lay people have studied the Bible extensively. Genesis and Exodus are fine, but once people hit Leviticus, they head to the Cliffs Notes. Those are often provided by pastors, who interpret words and their meaning for the congregation. Oddly enough, the Bible usually ends up saying what the pastor in question wants it to say.
The Bible is a big book, a library. Its ramifications are as complex as the universe itself. Every time you’re certain it makes one assertion, you’ll find a countering one. You only find that out if you bother to look. Most don’t. Most of us seek convenient answers. Pastors are more than happy to provide them.
As preachers rush to tell you what they want you to hear—often what you want to hear as well—entire lines of reasoning get left by the wayside. No matter, though! Should anyone bring up a conflicting piece of scripture, somehow that passage always means something else or applies to someone different. With so much field to play in and so much of the ground nebulous, we always find a way to squirm out. Far from challenging or guiding us, our founding documents confirm everything we want to say anyway.
Political documents are also complex. They’re meant to be the foundations upon which we build collectively, providing communal goals to which we aspire. Somewhere along the way it feels like we’ve lost both of those purposes. We treat our documents like we treat scripture, reading them in ways that advantage us and discredit those opposing us. Should someone bring up a counter, even one from the foundational texts themselves, somehow that doesn’t apply in this instance. We see what we want to see, and what we want to see is mostly ourselves.
It’s hard to avoid whiplash watching people who campaigned for years for states’ rights and small government suddenly bless the power of the federal government and the biggest deficits in history when their side is in power. It’s weird to hear people constantly campaign for the sanctity of all human beings, who also find it easy to dismiss others without listening to them.
Then again, you consider people who constantly claim that they’re saved by God’s grace suddenly turning against this or that kind of person because of their different works and beliefs, and you begin to understand this isn’t an isolated phenomenon.
One of the most painful evolutions in modern politics has been the need to create enemies out of others in order to justify the self. The most recent evolution started with the war on communism in the 1950’s. That impulse flourished powerfully throughout the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the U.S. won a victory, but also lost the symbolic adversary against which it had been united.
Though other, very real enemies have popped up since, none had the endurance and world-spanning gravity of the U.S.S.R. We found that, by one means or another, we could dispatch most of them. We could not so easily absolve ourselves of the need to fight someone in order to retain our identity.
Lacking obvious enemies, we began to create them, forming new unities over old prejudices.
How much of our current political discourse is based on “us vs them” thinking? People at the borders, people from certain streets and neighborhoods, people from the other political party. Intellectually we probably understand that 95% of those people are just people, fairly normal. That narrative doesn’t fulfill our need to be seen as superior, inside, and chosen. So we rally support by defining “them” as outsiders, a threat to everything that’s ours, everything we are.
This script should be anathema to all people of faith. Here’s a dirty little secret: churches were using it script long before it became standard fare across cable news channels.
Even the best congregations have trouble defining themselves in ways that transcend their own walls. We advance God by conversion, by getting people to join our group and asking them to think like us. Even relatively harmless, peaceful congregations define success by growth in numbers, objectifying others to make ourselves feel good. (Who’s really out there? We don’t know. We just know they’re supposed to come in here!) Bad congregations add motivation, demonizing outsiders and sanctifying insiders. They speak of battles between the sinful world and the holy church. They categories the world into two groups: believers versus unbelievers, saved versus condemned. The kinder-hearted among them are encouraged to get out there and “save souls” from the enemy. Less-charitable members are whipped up to fight against evil, godless forces.
Somewhere along the line, our identity stops being defined by the God we serve and the graceful spirit we share in the world. Instead we are defined by the opposition. How can we know how saintly we are unless we clearly identify how sinful our neighbors are? When we can’t find any overt examples, we’ll invent them. Without an enemy, we have no identity.
Defining the Institution as Its Own Good
Churches are supposed to do good things. Most do! But who gets to define “good” and who is the good for? Inevitably, when we hold the reins of power, we end up defining good in the way we wish to see it. That usually ends up being “good for us”.
Churches have long been in the practice of defining goodness by their own priorities. You can hear it in every appeal made at annual meetings that people give “to keep the doors open and the lights on”. This implies that existing is its own justification. As long as we continue, goodness continues. If we stop, so will the goodness.
We further buttress the argument by attributing both the building and its functions to the divine. “This is God’s house.” God does not walk with us in our daily lives. God does not dwell in our homes. God is here, in this large building with the fancy decorations. God’s power lies in the church and is evidenced through church missions. If we don’t exist, how will God ever be known?
Making these claims, we invert the absolutely true statement, “Churches exist to do good, godly things” into the much less savory, “If a church does it, it IS good and godly [because the church is doing it].” The first implies service, sharing power, valuing all people. The second reserves power for the institution itself, setting it as the foundation upon which goodness and God rest.
We hear this same rhetoric when people talk about the power of the state. It’s presumed that--give or take extracting taxes, which nobody likes—any power exercised by those in authority is justifiable simply because it’s exercised on behalf of the authority. Self-interest and institutional interest replace those initial questions of, “What is good?” and, “Who is this good for?” When this happens, people suffer.
Quelling Protest by Invoking the Divine
For years, church folks have sidestepped questions about their own systems by saying, “It’s not me, but God!” Calling out a church person, let alone a church leader, is likened to fighting against the very Founder of the Universe.
Hiding behind institutional power, interpretations of scripture, and the robes of Jesus, church people have taken unassailable positions, wolves among sheep. Should their convictions ever become assailable, the church person is quick to respond with slippery-slope horror stories of what would happen should faith and the divine cease to exist.
We don’t talk about whether we’re doing things ethically because we’re too busy jumping to the supposed End of the Universe should our aims be thwarted.
Unsurprisingly, abuse thrives in this kind of environment. It’s one of the saddest side-effects of our mindset, and as we’re finding out, not at all uncommon.
One doesn’t have to go too far to see parallels in our political/social life. Accusations of injustice are interpreted as attempts to tear down the whole system of power. Protests are met with counter-calls about patriotism and the need for order, enforced, if necessary, by armed might. Questioning one thing—even an isolated event that is obviously unjust—supposedly threatens everything. “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
We’re offered opposing poles of unquestioned authority or end-of-the-world anarchy, with no discussion possible in between. Since anarchy is much scarier (and less desirable) than the status quo, this becomes a convenient way to preserve the power of those already in authority, also to preserve them from prying eyes or questioning. Under these conditions, abuse thrives in the civil world as much as it does in the church environment.
Appealing to the 5%
Most everything we’ve talked about up until now has been as old as the hills. This last element, though, is relatively new in our national politics. It’s come directly from the church world as surely as an IV injected into the veins.
You may have wondered how a televangelist can look into a camera and tell people with a straight face that God told him he needs a new, multi-million-dollar private jet in order to fulfill his ministry. You’ve probably laughed out loud at the thought of anyone falling for it.
Here’s the thing. “Anybody” doesn’t have to fall for it. 95% of people will do just what you’ve done: shake their heads and walk away. The 5% remaining, though? That’s still a lot of people with a lot of money…enough for that shiny jet and more. A stump preacher can thrive more gloriously off of a fanatical 5% of the population than they can off of a reasonable 50%.
Political talk radio hosts were among the first to discover this truth. Measured by total number of listeners compared to national population, none of them are really that popular. But a small slice of the country, fanatically devoted, is still an enormous audience. Polarizing hosts fared much better than even-handed colleagues. You’ll have a hard time finding “even handed” behind a microphone anymore.
Talk radio came into its own in the 1980’s. Almost 40 years later, the medium has become a touchstone for the politically-inclined and politicians themselves. They can’t quite operate on a strict 5% principle. They need more than that to get elected. But elections are swung on a firm base, plus undecideds.
In the televangelist/talk-radio era, politicians who have struggled to sway undecided voters have taken the opposite tack, enlarging their base by polarizing the populace, effectively eliminating the middle ground. Like the preacher wanting his jet, they don’t care about appearing reasonable to everybody, but appearing unreasonably right to enough people to get the job done. Casualties aren’t to be avoided, they’re an intrinsic part of the process. Fanaticism is less enemy than virtue, a sign of conviction and strength. Instead of defusing and building coalitions, these leaders escalate crises, hoping to profit from the debris.
Admittedly, all these examples are overdrawn and oversimplified, but the core truth remains. Most of the things we lament about politics, we did first—or at least alongside—as people of faith. Some of these things we’re still doing, consciously or as part of a system we take for granted.
We may not be able to change the world, but we sure as heck can take a better look at our own behavior, methods, and assumptions. The old approach hasn’t led us anywhere good. The “faith” in the admittedly-provocative title of this article isn’t what faith is really supposed to be, but what we’ve chosen for our convenience and advantage. Whatever else we decide it’s time for in this turbulent era, it’s certainly time to change that.
It’s not too late to chart a new course. We’re going to rebound from these things. The question is, what will we rebound into? Here’s hoping and praying it’s something better.