Burglars in the Senate Maybe, but Not in the House
While serving as President of the United States, Grover Cleveland fought constantly with the Senate, but got along rather well with the House of Representatives. A story circulated around town that one night, while asleep, his wife roused him, saying, “Wake up! I think there are burglars in the house.” “No, no, my dear,” President responded drowsily, “in the Senate maybe, but not in the House.”
Stuart R Strachan Jr.
A Christian, An American, a Southerner and a Republican
Several years ago, I was speaking at a Christian leadership conference being held in Atlanta, Georgia. After the day’s events, a group of pastors and leaders converged for a late-night meal and conversation. That’s one of the best parts of going to these sorts of events—the candid and honest conversations behind the scenes.
When our conversation turned to the topic of politics, a couple of ministry leaders shared with me that growing up in the South, they were ingrained from “the moment we were in our moms’ tummies” that they were foremost a Christian, then an American, then a Southerner, and finally a Republican. In that order, and all were important to their identity.
One of them even joked that in their family living room, right next to the large painting of blue-eyed, blond Jesus, was a picture of Ronald Reagan. It’s true. Christians must vote Republican. That’s what I heard in my younger years, but ironically, I’ve now been hearing the exact opposite, particularly as I’ve resided in left-leaning, progressive Seattle since 1997. And it concerns me.
Not because one can’t vote Democrat, but both in the larger context and even in the younger demographic of many churches including my own, I hear a different, yet strikingly familiar, response to how Christians should engage politics: Christians, or at least real, “woke,” justice-minded Christians must vote Democratic. Or, more specifically, it goes something like this, “I’m not judging you, but how could you as a Christian vote Republican?” (with serious eyeroll).
Many Christians are not only passionate about politics but are also involved in politics on some level. And yet, I would argue, at times, we are played by politics. At times, our identities and values become distorted, and our hopes misplaced.
Christians in Politics: Often Our Own Worst Enemies
Though American Christians do have genuine opponents in the public square and in elite institutions, they have often been their own worst enemies, making disastrous political compromises and looking the other way when sin is exposed in their midst—when addressing that sin would require sacrifices they have deemed too costly, or risks deemed too dangerous. A conservative columnist once used the phrase “decline is a choice” when describing American foreign policy.
Taken from: In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador Copyright (c) 2019 by Jake Meador. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Confirmation Bias and Politics
You may have heard about confirmation bias, which is the tendency to embrace information that supports our viewpoints. The antidote to confirmation bias is to intentionally expose ourselves to other viewpoints. Add in a chorus of diverse voices and perspectives and your mind will be opened.
…Simply put, we want to think what we want to think. And no matter what someone from the other party says, they can do no right. If Trump cured cancer, I sincerely believe there are many on the left who would not give him praise. This wouldn’t be a huge problem because, of course, he would praise himself. (Ha ha, that’s a joke. Don’t hurt me.) But no doubt this would happen the other way as well. If President Obama cured cancer, some on the right would surely find reasons to criticize him. Followers of Jesus should not be in bed with any of the political parties.
Even if one affiliates with a particular party, may we maintain a posture to collaborate, listen, hold accountable, and engage the political system all while understanding that the political system is not our ultimate hope or answer. In addition, we must never lose the courage or conviction to speak prophetically to a group of people because we are lured by the power associated with politics, a leader, or a political party.
When Christians pledge blind allegiance to a political power and its leaders and cannot objectively evaluate what a politician states or espouses, we travel down a dangerous path. We cease to see the world informed first and foremost by the life and teachings of Christ. Instead, when we allow political allegiances to identify us, we distort the Bible to justify our politics and allegiances. Put another way: this is idolatry.
The Farmer’s Market and Increasing Optimism in Politics
Daniel Kemmis provides a political model for seeing redemptive possibilities in our cities. Kemmis, a former mayor of Missoula, has noted an increasing cynicism about political life in this country. Time and time again, the American public places its hopes and ideals in the national office of president of the United States, only to find its hopes disappointed. Kemmis has come to the conclusion that no solution will be found in a policy targeted at the national level, because the scale is too large.
He calls us back to our local context, to our cities, and to basic traditions like the Missoula Farmers’ Market as a place to find healing for our political condition:
Why would anyone even imagine that something like the Farmers’ Market could play a role in mending a suffering democracy? Fixated as we are on “important” state and national issues such as term limits, campaign finance reform, crime, health care, and welfare reform, this suggestion seems at first to be merely frivilous.
But, in fact, none of the other paths to reform on which people expend so much energy will reverse the decline of democracy, and none of the policies that we enact to deal with pressing problems such as poverty, racism, environmental damage, and drug and alcohol abuse will do any more than slow the worsening of these evils until we begin to understand the political importance of events like the Farmers’ Market.
No amount of reforming institutions that are widely and rightly perceived to be beyond human scale will heal our political culture until we begin to pay attention once again to democracy as a human enterprise. Without healing the human base of politics, we will not restore democracy itself. One thing alone will give us the capacity to heal our politics and to confront the problems and opportunities that politics must address. That one thing is a deeply renewed human experience of citizenship.
If Your Son or Daughter Married a Republican/Democrat
In 1960, just 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be unhappy if a son or daughter married someone from the other party. In a YouGov survey from 2008 . . . 27 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats said they’d be “somewhat” or “very upset” by that prospect. By 2010, that share had jumped to half of Republicans and a third of Democrats.
Neil Marten was a member of the British Parliament from 1959-1984. One day he was giving a group of constituents a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament. During the tour, the group happened upon the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, who happened to be dressed in the full ornamentation that went with his office. At one point in their interaction, Hailsham recognized the MP Marten and cried “Neill!” Not wanting to disobey the command of one so important, the band of visitors immediately fell to their knees.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Our Increasingly Polarized World
As people seek out the social settings they prefer—as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable—the nation grows more politically segregated—and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups…
Like-minded, homogeneous groups squelch dissent, grow more extreme in their thinking, and ignore evidence that their positions are wrong. As a result, we now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear, and the neighborhoods we live in.
Persuading Ourselves of the Truth
When we observe evil, sinful behavior from a distance, the inclination is simply to see people as acting with malicious intent. We assume they are “bad people.” But often the motivations that lead to significant lapses in moral behavior are quite different. Because most people want to see themselves generally as “good,” they engage in a complex game of rationalizing and self-deception that enables them to perform these sinful acts. Over time, what starts as a set of questionable lies we tell ourselves becomes capital T “Truth.” An excellent example of this from history took place during the Watergate scandal. In an interview from 1975, the whistleblower of Watergate, John Dean, explains just how this worked with those involved in the scandal:
INTERVIEWER: You mean those who made up the stories were believing their own lies?
DEAN: That’s right. If you said it often enough, it would become true. When the press learned of the wire taps on newsmen and White House staffers, for example, and flat denials failed, it was claimed that this was a national-security matter. I’m sure many people believed that the taps were for national security; they weren’t. That was concocted as a justification after the fact. But when they said it, you understand, they really believed it.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Lyndon Johnson was known as a master at the game of self-justification. His biographer, Robert Caro, described what would happen when Johnson came to believe something to be true, he would believe in it “totally, with absolute conviction, regardless of previous beliefs, or of the facts in the matter.”
George Reedy, an aide who witnessed the same behavior, described LBJ as having “had a remarkable capacity to convince himself that he held the principles he should hold at any given time, and there was something charming about the air of injured innocence with which he would treat anyone who brought forth evidence that he had held other views in the past. It was not an act … He had a fantastic capacity to persuade himself that the ‘truth’ which was convenient for the present was the truth and anything that conflicted with it was the prevarication of enemies. He literally willed what was in his mind to become reality.”
Stuart Strachan Jr, with Source Material from John Dean, interview by Barbara Cady, January 1975; Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Knopf, 2002), p.886.
Political Orientation and the Brain
A fascinating study recently revealed differences in brain structure correlate with political orientation. The study demonstrated that greater conservatism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the right amygdala, whereas greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). These results were replicated in an independent sample of additional subjects. The study authors could not determine if these brain differences caused the varied political attitudes or were a result of those attitudes.
Religion and Politics in America
Religion has always been woven into American politics. John Quincy Adams liked to read the Bible in the mornings and would plunge naked into the Potomac for a swim before attending his weekly Sunday church service. Andrew Jackson summoned two Presbyterian ministers to be cross-examined at a Cabinet meeting concerning rumors about the loose sexual morals of his secretary of war’s new wife, tales that included an alleged extramarital pregnancy.
When Lincoln was running for the House of Representatives from Illinois, he was charged with being “a scoffer at religion,” wrote the historian William J. Wolf, because he belonged to no church. During the campaign, Lincoln attended a sermon delivered by his opponent in the race, Reverend Peter Cartwright, a Methodist evangelist. At a dramatic moment in his performance, Cartwright said, “All who do not wish to go to hell will stand.”
Only Lincoln kept his seat. “May I inquire of you, Mr. Lincoln, where you are going?” the minister asked, glowering. “I am going to Congress” was the dry reply. When he was president, Lincoln also liked the story of a purported exchange about him and Jefferson Davis between two Quaker women on a train: “I think Jefferson will succeed,” the first said. “Why does thee think so?” “Because Jefferson is a praying man.” “And so is Abraham a praying man.” “Yes, but the Lord will think Abraham is joking.”
Right-Wing Extremist or a Left-Wing Marxist
Sometimes a sermon can be a polarizing thing. Once I was preaching to a crowd of New Yorkers about how Christians should respond to the problem of poverty. I will never forget two e-mails that I received the following week, both in reference to the same sermon. The writer of the first e-mail, among other things, accused me of being a right-wing extremist. The writer of the second e-mail said that he was certain that I must be a left-wing Marxist. Time for a career change? I hope not.
A Son That Rule Greece
At one point in his career, Themistocles was overheard saying that his young son ruled all of Greece. When his talking companion asked him to explain, he said, “Athens holds sway over all Greece; I dominate Athens; my wife dominates me; our newborn son dominates her.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Seeking Integregation Between Faith and Politics
I grew up near Washington D.C. surrounded by politics…I helped with the campaign of a friend’s father as he ran for state office, watched our friendly county supervisor become a US congressman, and learned new insights in government class. When I became a Christian and began to encounter questions like, “What does God want you to do with your life?” I thought politics might be the answer. So the summer after my first year in college, I headed into the city with thousands of my peers to explore the world “inside the Beltway.”
That summer I began to realize that my Christian convictions and my political convictions were not particularly integrated. So I started asking questions about how my life in Christ informed how I think about our common life together—in politics and in the church
…As I began this exploration of how my faith connected to politics, I was trying to make sense of what I experienced that summer on Capitol Hill. As I attended intern events, I noticed a tone quite different from what I had encountered in other settings: anger, anxiety, fear, a sense of embattlement in the face of active opposition, a drive to mobilize ones side. Baffled and concerned, I returned to my studies at the University of Virginia where I discovered professor of sociology and religion James Davison Hunter. Through my interactions with Hunter and his 1992 book Culture Wars, I found ways to make sense of my summer experiences and to further explore my questions related to faith and politics.
Hunter helped me see that underneath the political conflicts of the late 1980s and early 1990s lay differing systems of meaning and moral authority. On the surface were opposing political convictions about everything from what it meant to be a family to what constituted art; underneath those political disputes were competing and irreconcilable notions of the nature of reality, truth, and what it means to be a human being.
Political actors did not necessarily recognize the existence of these deeper, animating layers, yet these dynamics were behind the conflict between those who wanted to “conserve” morals, truths, and ways of living from the past (conservartives) and those who wanted morals, truths, and ways of living to “progress” as times and knowledge changed (progressives). These two groups often acted as if they were at war over the future of America.
The Two Cheeks Excuse
Consider an interview a Christian leader had with a reporter in 2018. The reporter asked why so many Christians were willing to support political candidates who revel in disobeying Jesus’ teachings. “I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully,” the Christian leader replied. “What happened to turning the other cheek?” the reporter asked, referring to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about nonretaliation.
“You know, you only have two cheeks,” the Christian replied. Still, the Christian leader’s point is revealing. He apparently thinks Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are to be followed up to a point. Once important things are at risk, like political power, it’s okay to ignore Jesus’ commands. I call this the “Only Two Cheeks” excuse, and it’s one I’ve heard a lot.
Um…That’s My Bumper Sticker
During the 1992 presidential elections a friend of mine told me about an awkward moment in his Bible study. One of the group members expressed excitement because that Sunday, she had seen a bumper sticker promoting the “other party” in the church’s parking lot. She was excited because, to her, this was an indication that non-Christians had come to visit. Imagine the awkwardness when another member of the group chimed in, “Um . .. “that’s my bumper sticker that you saw.”
An Unexpected Friendship
Sometimes moments of forgiveness and friendship come from unexpected places. In 2018, the comedian Pete Davidson appeared on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live (SNL). Davidson made a crude joke about a former Navy Seal turned Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw.
Crenshaw had lost an eye in the line of duty, which became the butt of Davidson’s vulgar joke. The combination of mocking a person’s disability (especially a disability that came from serving his country in war) alongside a clear disapproval of Crenshaw’s political beliefs led to a burst of public outrage. While Davidson was making the joke, it became clear many found it in poor taste, and the vitriol aimed at the young comedian would ultimately lead him down a spiral of depression and self-loathing.
Davidson then took his anguish public, posting on the social media platform Instagram:
“I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore. I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last. All I’ve ever tried to do was help people. Just remember I told you so.”
When Crenshaw heard about Davidson’s condition, he didn’t do what many do when embroiled in a public tiff: tell the offender the public scorn served him right, or make some other cutting comment at Davidson’s expense.
Instead, Crenshaw decided to extend an olive branch, befriending the comedian, and even offering words of life to a person who clearly felt lost amidst being stuck in the cross-hairs of the American public. Davidson recounts that Crenshaw reached out and comforted him: “God put you here for a reason. It’s your job to find that purpose. And you should live that way.”
Humor, it has often been said, is a coping mechanism to deal with the pain that life throws at us. But in the midst of the deep, unsettling pain of being publicly shamed, what Davidson needed was not a good joke, but forgiveness, and perhaps, even a friend who could share the good news of the gospel with him. In some ways it is ironic that a man trained to kill and destroy his enemies could be so moved by compassion that he reached out to someone who publicly mocked him and his deeply held political beliefs. But that is the beauty of the gospel, it enables us to look beyond our own reputation, our own pride, to care for others.
Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from Dino-Ray Ramos, “Texas Congressman-Elect Dan Crenshaw Reaches Out to SNL’s Pete Davidson After Troubling Instagram Post,” Deadline, December 18, 2018.
The Two Cities
In 410 AD, Rome fell to the barbarian Germanic tribe known as the Visigoths, led by King Alaric. The idea of a “Christian” city (and empire) falling was a terrible defeat, not just militarily, but also as a question-mark to the sovereignty of the Christian God the empire had only recently adopted over other pagan options.
As historian Diana Butler Bass notes, it was Augustine who helped Christians understand the distinction between what in fact were two cities, the ‘the City of Man’ and the ‘City of God’. Such reflection is helpful today when many on both the left and right political aisles assume the Christian faith is represented by their party:
Christians had forgotten that they were citizens of two cities, the one Augustine called ‘the City of Man’ and ‘the City of God.’” They conflated the two into one, fully identifying Roman interests with Jesus’ way…Although Rome had accommodated the faith for a time, Augustine believed that Rome was the “City of Man,” whose way of life ultimately was founded upon self-love, domination, possessions and glory.
Augustine contrasted that way to the Christian way expressed in the “City of God,” the pilgrimage community that loves God, seeks wisdom, and practices charity and hospitality. “In truth,” Augustine wrote, “these two cities are entangled together in this world. Sometimes the City of Man honors the City of God and its virtues, other times not. For those who follow Christ, their true home is God’s city—always purer and more beautiful than any earthly one.”
Still Looking for inspiration?
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