Thanks to U.S. intelligence agencies, we now know Russian agents are still actively working to promote polarization and destabilize American democracy. Our reality show president uses misinformation and inflammatory tweets to distract and divide us. With midterm elections coming up, it is especially important for faith communities to be vigilant. With the right skills, we can play a major role in strengthening democracy. Here are a few ways we can get started.
Use social media wisely
First, come up with a personal plan to use social media responsibly and encourage everyone you know to do the same. Scripture is full of references to the power of the tongue to spread violence and harm others. The internet age combined with political dynamics has thrown fuel on the fire human tongues can create.
Here is an example that could easily happen in the U.S. In 2016 in Germany, far right groups funded by Russia spread a false story that a young woman had been gang-raped by Muslim immigrants. I heard this rumor repeated in the U.S. from my congregants as a rationale for the Muslim ban. Recently neo-Nazi groups incited a riot after a YouTube video spread rumors about two Muslim asylum seekers killing two young men in a park in Germany. So, check the accuracy of sources for everything you share — even if it comes from a trusted friend and confirms your worldview. Scrutinize your account for fake social media followers that might try to share false information or provoke a fight (here is how to recognize such accounts). Don’t engage false accounts. Simply call them out as fake and block them.
Speak truth to power in love
Sarcasm and personal attacks often do well on social media but so do words that inspire. Challenge yourself not to give into social media’s tendency to affirm extreme rhetoric. Your contributions should inspire and make people rethink their position. Intelligence agencies have told us that Russians sought to intensify anger on both sides, pushing both conservatives and progressives to extremes. Fake social media accounts are trying to bait people into dehumanizing debates. Picture your opponent as a child of God even when your anger is stoked. Speak truth to power with love. It’s a hard balance to strike, but it’s important that we take time to do it right.
Build broad relationships
Third, build relationships far and wide in your community, including with people who share diverse political perspectives. Do you have a relationship with leaders in various faith communities in your area? You should. You should also know more conservative congregations. Start with those that have community ministries. You will undoubtedly find you have more in common than you knew. And remember, you don’t need to agree on everything to have a productive relationship. Our President and Russia are trying to exploit religious leaders to foster ethno-nationalism. Don’t let them divide us.
Fourth, be calm when the unthinkable happens. Authoritarian-leaning leaders often use crises — both real and manufactured — to consolidate power by gutting democratic processes in the wake of a threat. We saw this in the wake of 9/11 when our government used torture to extract information at Guantanamo Bay and chose to launch an endless war on terrorism. We see it now as our President systematically undermines democratic institutions.
What can we do? Encourage voting. Protect the vote. And if there is an act of violence, investigate first. Find out what happened. Then be prepared to show up in peace and protect our institutions. Develop a plan now for who you would call on and who you should call. How can you support those who might be attacked? Who would you call on to stand with you?
Resist Cynicism, Build Institutions
Fifth, encourage people to find ways to build institutions rather than become cynical. I hear cynicism all around me. Yes, our institutions have failed us. But they are only as strong as we individuals make them. The fact that the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have exposed abuse and institutions are slowly capitulating means there is hope. Look to the wave of newcomers, especially woman and people of color, running for office. Don’t let people give up. Watch your own cynicism and counter your internal thinking and conversations with hopeful reminders of what is working. Encourage your neighbors and family members to vote and be part of the solutions.
Avoid Pontius Pilate’s Sin. The Truth is Out there.
Finally, train those around you to search for truth. Consider Pilate’s sin. When confronted with the opportunity to act on facts and free an innocent man, Pontius Pilate cynically commented, “What is truth?”
I was debating with a congregant who echoed this sentiment: “Anyway, no one can know the truth these days. We can’t trust the media.” Our elected leaders want people to feel overwhelmed and cynical. But it is our moral responsibility to investigate and find the truth. Historian Timothy Snyder, an expert on the Holocaust and European history, warns in his book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century that “Post-truth is pre-fascism.” Authoritarian leaders increase their power through daily shock and awe information campaigns that appeal to our emotions and undermine the credibility of the media. Faith in Public Life will offer an online discussion on these issues with Dr. Snyder on October 25th at 9:00 a.m. ET. Be sure to follow our page on Facebook so you can join us!
Our communities can help members understand how to be civic leaders. This can be done in non-partisan ways. Preaching and teaching is a start. So are the everyday conversations we have with friends and family. Everything you do pushes us one step closer to strengthening our democracy and blocks the road to tyranny.