by Matt Mellema
Each election cycle brings a whole set of temptations for me. Sometimes I’m tempted to anxiety, struggling to trust God as the world spins away. Others times it’s worldliness, believing that my favorite politicians can create utopia all on their own. Still other times it’s a lack of charity, casting my opponents as soulless goblins out to destroy everything. But there’s one sin that’s especially hard for me to shake: self-righteousness.
The self-righteous temptation is worst with Donald Trump. Every day I watch a clip or read an article with some new form of foolishness. He’s going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. He’s going to register all the Muslims. He’s going to makes some kind of “great deal” with Russia. These sort of things make my heart rate go up. How could someone say that–does he realize how ridiculous he sounds? I wonder how America could sink any lower.
Then I look at Trump’s fans.
Oh, the fans. Trump’s chest-beating, fist-pumping, sign-holding, chant-shouting, riot-starting fans. Seeing their antics drives me out of the room. How could anyone be so blind–are they even listening to what Trump is saying? I wonder if they’re fans are too stupid to realize what’s happening, or too wicked to care.
If only Trump’s supporters knew the things that I knew, things would be different. If they had the same compassion for the poor and the immigrants, they might change their view about that wall. If they had my sophisticated knowledge of world affairs, they might stop chattering about great deals with Russia. If they had my tender sensitivity toward cultural diversity, maybe they would stop their schtick about registering Muslims.
On many days, after I’m done trawling through Twitter for all the political hot takes, if someone were to ask who was to blame for America’s election problems, I could come up with a long list. It’s Trump and his rabid supporters. It’s the media for keeping Trump constantly in the news cycle. It’s the Republicans and Democrats for not giving any better options.
It’s basically everybody except me. And if people would just become more like me, all these problems would go away.
This kind of thinking is wrong on several levels. Most obviously, it gives way too much credit to my own wisdom. I suppose it’s theoretically possible that, through my own research and study, I alone have attained the pinnacle of political insight. But let’s get real. It probably just means that I only read articles from my own political bubble. Because everyone I read agrees with me, I assume it’s because my politics are the only sensible option.
This thinking also assumes that holding “correct” political views is intrinsically moral. Take immigration for example. It’s easy for me to hold all the fashionably correct pro-immigrant views. It’s also easy for me to wrap these views in piety–explaining that I recognize Scripture’s call to care for the alien, that I embrace a diverse society, and other platitudes. There’s nothing wrong with these rationales. But on their own, these “correct views” are meaningless. I haven’t taken any action to help immigrants, and haven’t sacrificed anything for them. All I’ve done is espouse the right viewpoint. This may make me look cool and sophisticated around my friends. But, on its own, it doesn’t make me moral.
But most fundamentally, this kind of thinking is a half-step away from a preening self-righteousness. Secure in the virtue of my own views, I have nothing else to do but thank God that I’m better than all those political sinners over there.
And yes, this is veering uncomfortably close to Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The two characters could fit right into our current political scene. The Tax Collector, with his deluded, self-interested support of a corrupt authoritarian regime, could easily be a Trump supporter. The Pharisee, with his correct opinions and confidence in his own rightness, could be someone like me.
When the Pharisee prays, no sins of his own come to mind. So he merely thanks God for making him so righteous. He condemns all the right sins, participates in all the fashionable charity, and is publically known as pious. He’s worlds better than that tax collector over there.
It’s easy enough to modify the Pharisee’s prayer to fit my own sensibilities: “God, I thank you that I am not like those other people–the ignorant, the bigoted, the misinformed. I especially thank you that I’m not like that Trump supporter over there. I hold all the compassionate political views. I “like” all the smart political articles on Facebook. I shake my head against every Trump tweet. I thank you for making me so right.”
Of course, none of this makes Trump’s politics any less insane. It also doesn’t necessarily make my own politics wrong. On the surface, there was nothing wrong with the Pharisee’s views either. It was good that he didn’t commit any of those sins that other people commit, and it was good that he fasted and paid his tithes. His religious observance wasn’t the core issue–it was his self-righteousness.
Instead, of preening over our own political righteousness, we should look to the Tax Collector as an example. He simply beat his chest, cast down his eyes, and asked God to have mercy on a sinner like him. Rather than focusing the blame on all those sinners out there, we should start by focusing on our own hearts.
Matt Mellema lives in Colorado Springs, where he’s a lawyer who specializes in religious institutions. He’s also a writer who explores evangelicalism and quitting cynicism at mattmellema.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Matt_Mellema.