It’s election time again and during the two years since the last one I’ve thought about you a lot. Your enthusiastic support for the president sent a shiver through the American church which many of us are still trying to make sense of.
It’s not that we’re surprised that so many white people voted for the president. As we listened to his dehumanizing rhetoric about immigrants, heard his plans to ban people from Muslim-majority countries, and remembered his racist language and actions towards African Americans, it was clear that a segment of white America would be attracted to this man. No, what was – and remains – so disturbing was your support. It seems that every poll since the last election shows white Christians among the president’s most fervent defenders.
Here’s the thing: I’m not interested in telling you how to vote. The amount of variables in any local election are significant and require great discernment from any Christian voter. What is interesting to me is your ongoing ignorance of why so many other Christians – Christians whose racial identities are different from yours but whose faith has been placed in the same God – are disturbed and even frightened by how you continue to support this president.
Does this distinction makes sense to you? It’s not your preferred political party that is the issue. It’s your disinterest toward your family in Christ that troubles so many of us. Over the past two years I’ve listened as you have described your attraction to this president. Yet not once have I seen the cares and concerns expressed by Christians of color be met in any way other than dismissively or defensively. I’m still waiting for the Trump-supporting white Christian who will show genuine interest and concern for those people of color who she is related to in Christ, and whose lives have been made less safe by this president.
I’ve heard some of you, in response to what I’ve said so far, complain that I’m picking on white Christians. Given the nature of cultural differences, you’ve told me, the ignorance across racial differences goes both ways in our churches. But this is plainly wrong. Our family members in Christ who exist outside the boundaries of racial whiteness don’t have the privilege of remaining ignorant about us white people. It might surprise you to know that many, many Christians of color can describe precisely – even sympathetically – why you voted for this president. That they know more about us than we do about them is a simple function of a society which contains a racial majority.
But what is normal within our racialized society should be alien to our churches. We who have been grafted into the family of God have no rationale for maintaining our ignorance about our fellow family members. When, for example, black Christians describe the fears raised when the president wants innocent black men sentenced to death, it must be the response of the entire church to attend closely to these fears, to make them our own. Or when the president releases a patently racist ad directed, once again, at Latino/a immigrants, all of our churches must feel the attack and sit with one another in solidarity and lament. Our churches, as witness-bearers to our reconciling Savior, are meant to stand together in response to every injustice that affects any of us.
I’ve spent the last couple of years looking for any example of this sort of solidarity without any luck. So what would you have us do? We, your fellow Christians, who are asking not for your vote but for your compassion?
It’s an honest question. As best I can tell, you would prefer to support an administration that actively harms members of the Body of Christ without believing those members when they describe the harm they’ve experienced. To say it slightly differently: You have made yourselves the authority about the lived realities of Christians of color in order to disregard their own descriptions of their realities.
I once heard a Native American Christian describe his many years of being ignored and disbelieved by white Christians. Despite his best, thoughtful attempts, the majority of white Christians simply wouldn’t take seriously his painful experience of the country. He finally came to see white Christians as the weaker sibling described by Paul in his letters to the Romans and Corinthians. He decided he had to change his expectations about them, imagining white Christians as immature children rather than emotionally mature and compassionate adults.
I realize how that characterization stings. I feel it too. But you’ll understand, I hope, how many of us are grasping at explanations for why you remain content in your detachment and disinterest from the rest of your Christian family.
What do I want for you? I’ve asked myself this a lot over these two years. I’m still working it out, but here’s what I’ve got for now: I want my fellow white Christians to take our allegiance to the Kingdom of God more seriously than our American citizenship. Which is to say, I want white Christians to love and believe the rest of our Christian family.
Person of Color/Christian, didn’t vote for Trump:Some of the things the president-elect and some of his supporters have said make me concerned for my community.
White Person/Christian, voted for Trump:Oh wow! It makes me sad to hear that. I don’t really get why you feel that way, but I trust you and love you and believe you. What would you like me to understand to better stand with you and support you?
I’ve not seen it yet, but it’s the season for Christmas miracles, right?
On election night last week I drove down to Mount Greenwood on the far south side of the city. The neighborhood is mostly Irish-Catholic and was the site of a recent police shooting. I went because I knew that a group of mostly Black protestors were gathering in response to the shooting. I needed to bear witness. What I saw and heard made my head spin: hundreds of the neighborhood’s residents screaming at the few Black protestors; slurs and stereotypes hurled with abandon; wink-and-nod interactions between police and neighbors; white teenagers and children mesmerized by the entire scene, phones held high to record the chaos before walking the block or so back to their homes.
This is when I knew Donald Trump could be the next president. Not because each of his voters is so openly hostile to African American people, but because a country that accepts the reasonableness of this horrifying scene will find little about this man that is unreasonable enough to keep him from the highest office in the land.
I’ve enjoyed watching Donald Trump steamroll his way through the Republican primaries. It’s cathartic to watch so many of the typically hushed ideologies and pathologies that I find so destructive get their prime-time moment. The man’s lack of nuance or compassion is a breath of – well, maybe not fresh air, but it’s better than the stale political lies to which I’ve been conditioned.
So, yeah, I’m enjoying this moment of truth, including the accompanying hand-wringing by those who’ve worked so hard to convince us that the emperor is, all evidence aside, fully and splendidly dressed. That is, I was enjoying it until I overheard some Christians enthusing about Trump a few weeks back. It’s happened at least once more since then and not only has it spoiled my perverse joy about our collective political dysfunction, it’s made me reflect more deeply than I wanted to about why some Christians seem to love this guy… and why I don’t.
They must be crazy. Or they live in a bubble. Or their prejudiced notions about making America great again squelch their Christian commitments to God and neighbor.
My tendency is to dismiss those Christians who are hoping (and praying!) that Trump becomes the next president. They must be crazy. Or they live in a bubble. Or their prejudiced notions about making America great again squelch their Christian commitments to God and neighbor. How else can people support Trump and worship the One who gave us the beatitudes, the parable of the good Samaritan, and the command to love our enemies? How can a guy whose prejudices are this visible be a legitimate candidate?
As great as it feels to be so quickly dismissive – and it feels so good – it’s not a really an option. I’ve been on the receiving end of this dismissiveness and know how demeaning it is. And beyond the disrespect, for the Christian who is expected to think the best about other Christians such easy dismissal conflicts with the basic trajectory of our faith. What then? Well, as I think about those Christian family members who support Trump I’ve begun to wonder more deeply about their rationale. I’m sure there are some who are responding to the base, selfish instincts that Tump wears with pride. But others, I have to believe, inhabit a set of circumstances and expectations that lead them to believe, honestly and without malice, that this is the right guy for the job. Admittedly, I don’t understand these circumstances but I don’t have to. My cynicism begins to crack simply by acknowledging the power of the circumstances that have formed the Christian who supports Trump. It may not be empathy, but I’m moving past antipathy.
If the Trump supporter is formed by her circumstances… than so am I. As much as I want to believe that my political perspective remains untainted, informed only by the faith handed down, I have to admit that it’s not.
But acknowledging the legitimacy of another’s circumstances ends up having an implication that’s harder for me to accept. If the Trump supporter is formed by her circumstances… than so am I. As much as I want to believe that my political perspective remains untainted, informed only by the faith handed down, I have to admit that it’s not. I who enjoy Trump for everything wrong he embodies and makes undeniably plain- I have to confess that I’m no less susceptible to complex and deforming circumstances than is the one who believes Trump is the best representation of a Christian’s political commitments.
For the Christian, the road to loving empathy runs indiscriminately through our own assumptions and cultural formations. So where does this leave me, someone who thinks Donald Trump is only good for exposing our country’s previously hidden ugliness? The difference – the Christian difference – is that we make our case fully aware of the frail humanity that exists on both sides of the debate. In blatant contrast to a cultural debate that diminishes and dehumanizes the other, Christians fight about these things with huge quantities of humility. We remember that our so-called opponents have arrived at their convictions by way of the same sorts of forming process to which we are vulnerable. I still think the Trump supporters are very wrong about their candidate. But then, who knows how many things I’m wrong about?
Header image: Donald Trump Backyard Photo Sign at Night – West Des Moines, Iowa. Credit: Tony Webster.
A couple of thoughts after the election yesterday.
The Kingdom of God is far more creative than our two-party, big-money political process. The best commentary yesterday evening pointed out the cycles common to electoral politics. Yet we’re meant to act surprised at how these things turn out. We’re also supposed to pretend that the system isn’t rigged, that every citizen has access to the same representation, that money’s role is neutral. In the end, for all the ways I’m grateful for our democracy, I have to admit to its fundamental lack of creativity and kindness. Held up to such predictability, the Kingdom of God as described and modeled by Jesus is almost unbelievable for its imaginative ethic. Here the last are first, the poor are rich, and those with the most power and influence are barely a footnote.
Also, communities of Christians will continue pursuing Jesus’ cause together the day after any and every election. Most of us will choose to vote thoughtfully, but our solidarity comes not primarily from the satisfaction of voting but from our common identity and cause with God’s people. For us the action is after election day, regardless of who was or wasn’t elected. We are concerned with the big picture, but most of us will give our best attention to the smaller places where mercy and justice can be pursued with and for those who share our zip code.
May God grant wisdom to our elected public servants. May God grant his church courage and faithfulness; may our skepticism and hope be rightly placed.
The following is a guest post from Lory Mishra who has been a friend to our family for a few years. She’s a recent college graduate with a witty sense of humor, legit cooking skills and, as you’ll read, a mind for insightful analysis. When Lory is not getting upset at the news, she’s usually obsessing over a new comedy show or experimenting in her kitchen. Check out her recipe blog for a taste!
I’ve not had the energy to dive into politics this election cycle so I’m especially glad for this post.
Elections always bring out a little bit of self-righteousness in me and this year even more so. I find myself becoming more and more cynical, disengaged, and frustrated than in any other election cycle (granted, I’ve only lived in the States since 2000 so that’s not very many election cycles) for multiple reasons, the most important one being a lack of pragmatism when discussing the candidates, their proposed policies, and the supposed importance of the Presidential election.
Maybe it’s nostalgia clouding my memory but Barack Obama’s election into office in 2008 was perhaps one of the more inspiring times in American politics. A record number of eligible voters came out to vote for Obama, who seemed to have the the ability to work across the aisle and bring together people from all sorts of backgrounds to rally behind his message. Alas, this political high was short-lived and the man who was to be the biggest uniter ended up facing one of the most divided electorates of the past few decades. There are some obvious reasons that led to this division. The housing market crash immediately after the 2008 elections and Obamacare were probably the biggest culprits but I’d argue that the reactions in the years following, and especially during this election cycle, have been much more aggressive and and emotional than I anticipated. Just log onto any social network following a major news story about the election – debates, economic news, campaign gaffes – and you will see what I mean. I realize some of the most vocal participants on these platforms tend to be people who have already pledged their allegiance to one party or another but the lack of true political discourse is still disheartening.
“One of the most amazing narratives to have evolved out of this election cycle is that of good versus evil.”
Conviction can be a good thing. Knowing what you believe and why is something we encourage as a society but if that conviction starts to get in the way of examining reality honestly and truthfully, then it can be the biggest hinderance. Of course, I did click on a Washington Post article titled “The benefits of free contraception” today because it supported something that I already believe in, but I still think making a conscious effort to expose ourselves to uncomfortable pieces of information is a worthwhile pursuit. As we move closer to election day however, it seems our ability to do so as an electorate is waning and we are setting a pretty bad precedent for future elections as well.
One of the most amazing narratives to have evolved out of this election cycle is that of good versus evil. Voters seem so polarized that we’re talking about the two candidates as good or bad people. Mitt Romney, thanks to his vast personal wealth and private sector background, is more often the target of these accusations. He is often painted as someone who does not care about poverty, wants to stomp all over women’s rights, and wants to let the free market run wild, at the expense of human rights. All he cares about is the bottom line. On the other hand, Obama is the candidate who is apparently such an idealist that he is willing to give government handouts to anyone and everyone; he is the Robin Hood of this election, stealing from the rich to help the poor. Maybe this is cynical of me, but oftentimes presidential candidates will build a certain narrative to rally their base and oftentimes, these promises will fall by the wayside thanks to the checks and balances in the form of the legislature and the judicial system. Both sides seem too busy attacking the bleak future the other promises to truly examine what each of these candidates is proposing and to what extent these propositions are even achievable.
The other curious thing about this election is the uniqueness of candidate Obama. I’m inclined to believe that our expectations were set so high after the 2008 elections that his fall from grace was inevitable. Among the many conservatives and independents he had initially won over, Obama seems to be have lost all credibility and those voters are unwilling to give him a second chance. Many are so decidedly against a second Obama presidency that they cannot even bring themselves to accept legitimate successes of his administration.
Among liberals, Obama either inspires exasperated sighs of what could have been or defensive arguments about what a tough plate he was handed and how he’s still better than someone like Romney. From personal conversations, some Obama supporters will sheepishly admit his controversial use of drones in counter-terrorism efforts or his lack of focus on the housing market as it first began to collapse were missteps but they would still rather vote for him. Others will simply jump to making excuses on his behalf, as if they are personally responsible for making sure he wins a second term. In either case, what I can’t grasp is the unwillingness to assess him (and any other candidate) as honestly and fairly as possible. If an elected official is not meeting your expectations, why wouldn’t you just cast your ballot for another? Why do so many voters feel this loyalty to politicians they themselves will admit are imperfect in important ways?
Romney brings out a similar cognitive dissonance among his supporters as well. The general take on Romney as the Republican nominee seems to be that he was the best available option at the time and that there are very few conservatives who are legitimately excited to vote for him in November. However, they would rather cast a vote for a Republican, as opposed to consider the Democrat or a third-party candidate. Yet again, I’m not sure I understand voters who are willing to settle for someone who maybe does not capture their values or offer solutions to problems they care about. This is best seen when you look at the current tone of the discourse: both sides are unenthusiastic enough about their own candidate that they use most of their bandwidth simply attacking the other side and trying to convince themselves that a future with this uninspiring option is better than one with the other.
The failures of either candidate do not have to be a reflection of the their supporters. Whether one chooses to vote for Obama or Romney in November, casting that ballot and also truthfully acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate do not have to be mutually exclusive. It isn’t very pragmatic to sit here and think about one candidate as the epitome of all that is good and the other as the epitome of all that is bad; this approach is much too simple to fully capture the complexity involved in solving any public policy issue. The other harmful side effect of this type of thinking is the unfair conclusions we draw and the assumptions we make about the people who support the other candidate. Making a huge generalization about someone because of the how they voted a) hinders us from having a honest conversation about our differences and learning from each other and b) is usually a mischaracterization. I would argue that the public policy issues we have solved most effectively have been a result of a partnership between the two opposing sides. If we suddenly become unable to listen to each other all we are doing is hurting our ability to prosper as a society.
“The failures of either candidate do not have to be a reflection of the their supporters.”
My other beef with the current state of affairs is the lack of room for any other candidate to join the conversation. It’s a real tragedy that casting a vote for a candidate other than the Republican or Democrat is seen as a “wasted vote”. Americans’ political views cannot be captured by two extremes; it falls on a spectrum from left to right and it only makes sense that we would consider that candidates who perhaps capture those nuances better than the two options presented. I’m not advocating for Obama, Romney, or any third candidate; I am advocating for there to be more candidates who are serious contenders. For a country that so fiercely believes in the choices that the free market offers, we are surprisingly limited when it comes to elected officials.
Recently, NPR’s Planet Money team (which puts together some of my favorite podcasts) broadcasted a story about six policy solutions economists from all over the political spectrum agree on and why pursuing any of them would be political suicide. This supposedly no-brainer platform could solve a lot of our issues around debt, rising healthcare costs, various types of government waste, etc. but none of these are very marketable ideas when it comes to an election. I realize it’s naive to expect anyone to run on a lot of these issues and win the election but I do think it’s reasonable to expect us to talk about these solutions, among the others. Limiting ourselves to only considering two options inevitably limits the number of solutions we are considering. In fact, we are rarely even considering real solutions because of how thoroughly we have dumbed down the conversation to trite talking points.
To a great degree, local and state elections have much more of a direct impact on our daily lives than do the national elections. Now that I have finished my short novel about the state of the national election, it is only fair to consider exactly how much the President really matters. To further expose my podcast addiction, Freakonomics radio re-ran a really interesting piece about the very topic. Many political commentators and economists argue that the President has a very limited effect on the state of the country and that oftentimes, their biggest role is serving as the public persona for one side or the other. Of course, the ability to wage war, sign treaties, or veto bills are hardly insignificant but we may be ascribing too much importance to this position nonetheless. It is really easy to get caught up in the details of a national election because of the widespread coverage they tend to receive but one cannot lose sight of the importance of the less sexy elections in our own cities, towns and states.
Political candidates are elected to serve the public and if they are not meeting our expectations, we should not have to settle. So whoever you decide to vote for next month, I hope you will consider their platform reasonably and fairly.