American Christians and American Politics: A Call for Calmness and Civility
Never in my lifetime have I experienced the kind of harsh rhetoric being thrown around between and among equally devout Christians over political differences of opinion. Much of it happens on Facebook. Christians there (and elsewhere) are using ridicule, for example, not only to promote their own political preferences but to demean and insult those who disagree with them.
This is happening increasingly from both “sides” of the political spectrum. Seemingly it isn’t enough to express and defend one’s political beliefs; now many educated, normally civil and respectful Christians are going out of their way to offend even friends who disagree with them.
I have no objection to anyone, including Christians, having strong political opinions. But traditionally there has been a line we respect and do not cross. We hold, express and defend our opinions but stop short of ridiculing those who disagree with us. And we stop short of declaring their Christian faith as defective or even at stake if they disagree with us.
Now, having said that, I must also say that there can come a time when a Christian must say something like “In my considered opinion, based on my understanding of the way of Jesus Christ, that candidate is not Christian.” But that does not say everyone who happens to support him or her is not a Christian. To say so crosses a line we should not cross.
I have seen people, Christians, who I respect and like using Facebook not only to express support for or opposition to a candidate and public policies but also to ridicule and demean everyone who disagrees with them. Christian friendships are being broken and crushed in this way.
The overall lack of civility in our American political climate is seeping into our own Christian communities and friendships. I hear some of my students saying “I can’t even talk with my family or some friends about politics because it leads directly to rants and even insults.”
The other evening I tried to watch a political “debate” between leading candidates for a political party’s nomination for candidacy for the office of President of the United States. These should be men (they all happened to be men) who embody civility and reasonable disagreement. Instead, as I watched and listened, they fell into loud arguing and accusing totally ignoring the format of the debate and the moderators. I do not think I have ever witnessed such a scene before. They were shouting over each other. It reminded me of a playground free for all—except that the “teachers” (moderators) were unable to rein them in. This is the state of American politics now? Apparently so—and it the venom and vitriol is being reflected on Facebook and other outlets where ordinary people express opinions.
Then I attempted to watch a national news network program about the political brouhaha and melee. Two anchors queried representatives of the candidates’ campaigns. Both the anchors and the guests fell into interrupting each other so often that it was impossible to follow the conversation. It devolved from a conversation into a shouting match with the news anchors participating—interrupting each other!
Never in my life have I witnessed so much lack of civility, so much unreasonable rhetoric, so much vile and venom as part of an American political campaign. But what really disturbs me is that real Christians—people of genuine, heartfelt faith in Jesus Christ—are joining the fray.
I remember the 1960 campaign between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Many conservative Protestants were more than worried about the “specter” of a Catholic president. Would he be subservient to the pope? I remember one family member saying many times “If Kennedy is elected president we’ll never have any but Catholic presidents after him.” But she stopped short of accusing fellow Christians, friends and fellow church members, who supported Kennedy of being ignorant, stupid, duped, unspiritual or secretly Catholic. So did the vast majority of Christian Nixon supporters. In other words, there was strong Protestant opposition to Kennedy, but not the kind of venom Christians are now displaying toward fellow Christians just because of their differences of opinion about the candidates and parties.
About a year ago I happened to visit a church for its Sunday morning worship service. I know a few people who attend there and it has a good reputation as a large, thriving evangelical Christian congregation. I had visited it before but not since the new pastor arrived. During his sermon the pastor had cause to mention the Old Testament warrior “Barak.” (He was preaching from the story of Deborah and Barak.) But he said he would not pronounce the name of the warrior because it is the same name as a “controversial politician.” A ripple of laughter ran through the large congregation. I walked out. That “controversial politician” happened to be the president of the United States. I walked out not because I have any particular love for Barak Obama but because I do not believe a sermon is the place to ridicule a president or anyone, for that matter.
When I was growing up in the heartland of America among evangelical Christians we believed that we should respect whomever was president of the United States even if we strongly disagreed with his policies. My family opposed many of Kennedy’s policies and voted for Nixon in that 1960s election. I can even remember going door-to-door when I was only eight or nine years old handing out leaflets supporting Nixon. But when Kennedy was assassinated we mourned just like (almost) everyone else. He was our president even if we vehemently disagreed with some of his political views and policies.
Something has changed in America’s social climate—especially with regard to politics and government. The atmosphere is one that encourages disrespect and even hostility—not only toward candidates and politicians but also toward friends who support the “wrong ones.” This culture of disrespect and even hostility has filtered into our churches and among Christians and we need to call each other out about it. Here’s the message: “Hold your political opinions more lightly than you do your fellowship with friends and fellow Christians and do not cross the line from expressing your opinions to ridiculing or demeaning people who happen to disagree.” As I write that it seems so self-evident to me, and yet I suspect many will disagree and go right on using Facebook and other outlets to express not only their views but also their hostility and low opinion of those who disagree.