[This post by Chuck Gutenson is part of a roundtable discussion on the new book Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide, now featured at the Patheos Book Club.]
It’s only early March, with over 8 months to go before Americans go to the polls. There has been a lot of uncertainty so far, in fact, an unusual amount for this point in the process. Yet, even with that, some things can already be predicted with fair confidence. We will undoubtedly see political campaign spending easily eclipse that of previous years. Many already consider the Citizens United decision by the SCOTUS to be one of its worst. The level of dissatisfaction will almost certainly grow. Will it be enough to force politicians to do something about it? Probably not, the winners will surely see it as beneficial to them, making them unwilling to change it. Finally, we can predict with unfailing certainty that the partisan divide in this election year will be as rancorous as it has been in the last 50 years.
The nature of the political partisanship, and the degree to which religious persons will be implicated, rests primarily on one matter. To borrow from a slogan from several years back: “It’s the economy, stupid.” At the moment, the economy seems to be improving—a thing for which all should give thanks because of the suffering and financial hardship the downturn caused. As is generally the case, those who suffer most are those who are most vulnerable. Right now, criticisms of the current administration’s economic policies have been muted to some degree due to the improving trends. If that should change and the economy should falter, the focus for the election will certainly be the economy. If it continues to improve, one the other hand, it will be hard for those seeking to unseat the president to use the economy as the lever to pry him from the White House.
Now, we come to the quandary in which I find myself. For the reasons already named, I (along with the vast majority of folks, I would think) have to celebrate economic recovery and we have to hope it not only continues, but improves. Yet, I know if it does, the focus of the election will be diverted to the so-called culture wars, and it is hard for me to see much long term good coming from that. To successfully prosecute a re-engagement of the culture war, politicians on both sides will feel particularly pressed to draw religious leaders into the cause. And, of course, they will feel obliged to join up—those on the right will demonize those on the left as godless liberals; those on the left will demonize those on the rights as misguided theocrats. The rancor will ratchet up, and partisanship will once again become a significant part of the religious dialog. Those of us who are supposed to be united under the Lordship of Christ will find ourselves divided by partisan loyalties, and those outside the church will once again roll their eyes and wonder why we so easily allow our politics to trump our theology.
Under this latter scenario, we can make some pretty certain predictions. First, several research studies have shown that the church is commonly perceived as hypocritical, judgmental, and “too political.” Can anyone really imagine this will not worsen with a renewal of the culture wars? Second, Christians will be divided against Christians. Those on the right will need to argue that “real” Christians can only vote for right wing candidates. Those on the left will either condemn that argument, or in the worst cases, argue the opposite—namely that “real” Christians must vote for those left of center. Third, and most disastrously, for the next year or so (including a reasonable cooling off period after the election), those who hope to hear the Good News of Christ from the church will be largely disappointed. Some number will finally throw up their hands and give up on the church. One can hope they do not also give up on Jesus.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In our book Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide, we offer analysis of the trends and suggest ways forward. We remind folks that the unity of Christians as Christians must trump party affiliation, and we offer some simple steps for moving forward. During the upcoming election season, we hope many will engage the suggestions there and help to make the predictions I offered in the last paragraph turn out wrong. That would be a happy day indeed!