Depravity and Political Discourse

Depravity and Political Discourse September 4, 2016

Among the many things that some Christians believe one is the doctrine of Total depravity. It goes along with Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the Saints to form the backbone of American Calvinism, TULIP.

I am not going to argue whether these are or are not adequate characterizations of Christian theology. I am interested in the apparent effect that the TULIP doctrine, deeply influential in American Christian circles, has on American public discourse. At least in my experience the effect is clear: it leads to demonization of one’s opponents and an inability to articulate a complex understanding of human nature and human society.

The assumption promoted by the doctrine of total depravity is that there are only two kinds of people in the world. There are the elect of God and there are hell-bound sinners. Total depravity does not allow for any moral gradations, or as Calvinists would say disparagingly, “gray areas.”

This does not allow us any subtlety of psychological response to the people that we meet. They are nothing more or less than sinners in the hands of an angry God. With total depravity there isn’t even the option to “love the sinner but hate the sin” because there is no distinction. Christians can and do mouth the words, but their actual characterizations of their neighbors belie them. Human personhood is defined by its sinful nature. There isn’t anything else there to love.

It seems to me that this deeply ingrained idea of total depravity plays out in a wide swath of American political discourse, regardless of the residual religious affiliation of those engaged in debate. Whether we are progressives, democrats, libertarians, conservative, Christian conservatives, or traditionalists we are under the influence of the binary world of good (us) and bad (them) inherited from the Puritans and etched on our culture by generations of fundamentalist preachers. “There are only winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.”

It is a doctrine that on one hand eliminated all distinctions of tribe, race, and religion under the leveling of universal depravity. And on the other hand replaced all those distinctions, and any more complex, with the single distinction of elect and condemned, heaven-bound and hell bound, righteous (if only imputed) and sinners (if disguised.)

Given the complexity of actual human persons and their behavior it would seem that this kind of binary thinking is nonsensical. But in depravity logic it is the only possibility. In depravity logic every human action or thought is tainted. It may appear to be good, but in fact it is evil. Dig deep enough and you always find that virtue as an illusion and that depravity is at the root of everything humans do or say.

I see this played out in the world of inter-religious relations all the time. Us/Them, Saved/Sinner, Elect/Condemned, Loved/Hated are the only categories within which many Christians know how to understand their non-Christian neighbors and their religion. In a generous mood we’re universalists – its all us and no them. In a less generous mood we’re exclusivists – its almost all them and very few of us.

But more importantly we have seen this steadily playing out in politics with the rising influence of Southern/Calvanist Christian culture and its pernicious dichotomizing.  It is reaching its fullness in the Hillary vs Trump presidential campaign. There are essentially three groups of voters among older Americans: those who love Trump and hate Hillary, those who hate Trump and love Hillary, and those who hate both. These are depravity driven options. If Hillary is among the elect then Trump must be among the depraved and damned. Or visa versa. Or if neither is among the elect then both must be among the depraved and damned.

Neither candidate can be seen as a human person made up of a complex of good and bad motives worked out in intentional, unintentional, misguided, well-planned, and sometimes just random actions. Neither can be evaluated for who she or he really is.

And nor can any other candidate for that matter. Or even the person sitting across from you at the dinner table or writing a blog or a column in the newspaper or a letter to the editor.

Fortunately demographic shifts in the American electorate and thus American political discourse are rapidly taking place. Roman Catholics, and that is the dominant religion among the growing Latino population, never bought into total depravity and have a more for nuanced understanding of the inter-working of the power of sin and the sanctifying presence of God’s spirit in the human person. Total depravity has no place in Pentecostalism with its strong emphasis on the possibility of sanctification. And most hopefully, all those forms of Christianity most tainted by this doctrine are in decline among the young.

The decline of Christianity may seem like an odd thing for a Christian to embrace. But I think it is fine. As a nation, but most especially as Christians we need to flush out of our system of political and social discourse the particular form of Calvinism brought by the Puritans and designated by TULIP. As Nathaniel Hawthorn so brilliantly explored, a doctrine that should have made us humble led us instead to humiliate. A doctrine that should have cast us upon the judgment of God instead gave us permission to be judgmental. A doctrine that should have made us secure in God’s grace instead filled us with anxiety about whether we were among God’s elect.

So it won’t be missed, and there is at least a chance that in the future a Christian discourse will emerge in which we’ll be able to see one another, and our political candidates, in far more realistic terms.

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