The 2016 presidential election has taught me a simple lesson: It’s very difficult to be a deeply spiritual person and also be politically engaged. There’s an inherent conflict between faith and politics because faith is focused on the next life, whereas politics is focused on the here and now. Also, politics by its very nature is based on conflicting ideas, and those ideas are held by politicians and activists who must persuade others that they’re the right ones. When you add in the effect of social media and how it amplifies everything x 1000, it creates a perfect storm of anger and conflict.
In other words, the exact opposite environment that we as Christians should want to foster and be a part of, one that would bring us closer to God and to each other rather than divide us. Is it any wonder then, that the left has made politics and progressivism their God? Once you lose your faith, or never had any to begin with, something has to fill that void. But there’s a danger for Christians too, which is that our faith can become corrupted when it’s too closely intermingled with politics.
A good example of this is the brand of liberal Catholicism we see in some South American countries, the kind Pope Francis was clearly influenced by. This brand says that ideology comes before doctrine, and that how we make others feel is more important than the truth, even if that truth offends people.
Another example is the argument made by Pastor Robert Jeffress (I use that term lightly with him) that all pastors should be involved in politics. This of course is utter nonsense. But it seems far too many evangelical pastors, and even some Catholic priests (over-represented by Jesuits of course) have bought into this line of thinking. It’s perfectly fine, and even important, for a priest or pastor to use his pulpit to talk to his flock about what principles and beliefs should guide us, and how we should apply them to the issues of the day.
But this is very different than telling us who to vote for and getting engaged in the political process themselves. This is not their job. The role of a pastor or priest isn’t to lead us to the right candidate or to help win an election, it’s to lead us to God by inspiring us, giving us moral support, and helping us discern what’s right and wrong. It’s ultimately to lead us to Jesus and teaching us how to follow Him and His teaching so that we can make it to Heaven. The pastors who claim they can do this by fighting the political battles alongside us are merely using that argument to cloak their real motive, which is to gain influence and power through the political process, using their religion both as a trampoline to move up the political ladder, and as a shield to defend themselves from accusations of hypocrisy and being political hacks. It’s wrong and they shouldn’t be doing it.
* * *
It becomes so easy, especially online, for a Christian who wants what’s best for the country to get caught up in the back and forth of the constant political battles, and when this happens, we stop seeing people as beings with inherent dignity and value who were created in God’s image, and begin to see them as mere opponents in a war of the trenches. I believe the only way we can avoid falling into this trap is to go into every debate with our eyes wide open and determined to treat every person with respect and dignity, no matter how they treat us. Otherwise, what’s the difference between us Christians and atheists? We have to be an example to the rest of the world. “Be in the world, but not of it”, as Catholics have always been taught.
We have to remember that the goal of a political debate shouldn’t be merely to “win”, it should be to find the truth on any issue, and in so doing, apply that truth to the specific problems that face our country in order to make it a better place. Therefore, it’s ok to admit when we’re wrong, and it’s ok to say “I don’t know”, or “I’ll have to look that up and get back to you”.
I’m finding that there are many highly intelligent people on twitter, but so many of them are arrogant and have inflated egos. It’s so rare to come across someone who’s highly intelligent and informed AND is humble. There seem to be so few people who are truly open-minded, independent thinkers, who are intellectually curious and have a sincere desire to learn about things, and who aren’t afraid to admit when they don’t know something. (just as a side note, Ed Latimore is one such guy, even though he’s not particularly political or Christian as far as I can tell. follow him at @EdLatimore, you might not agree with his views, but he’ll make you think).
I think one of the reasons we’re so divided and polarized is because these days so few people are willing to make the intellectual effort of actually talking to people they disagree with and truly understanding what their position is on any given subject. It should be no surpise then that our problems never get solved. Sure, our politicians are to blame, but most of them are just responding to our demands to bash the other side without ever coming up with their own solutions.
So what’s a Christian to do is this kind of environment? These are the ten guidelines I’ve come up with for use when engaging anyone in a political debate online or elsewhere:
1) Be humble, and know that you aren’t God, and therefore you don’t know everything. Everything flows from this, and it allows you to have the right attitude and perspective. In fact even the things you think you know probably aren’t as true as you think in many cases. But even if they are, assume you don’t know more than the average person and go from there.
2) Be honest about your own positions and the positions of others. Don’t put words in their mouths or misrepresent their positions in order to strengthen yours. If you’re right, you won’t need to do that, because the facts will make it clear your stance is the right one. It’s only by being 100% honest and transparent in a political debate that we can learn where our opponents stand, and thus can show them why they’re wrong, if in fact they are.
3) Do your homework.
Would it kill people to do research these days? I know people are busy, but if you’re gonna get into a debate about a complicated matter, there’s really no point in it unless you actually have some idea what you’re talking about, otherwise you’re just that annoying guy at the bar who wants everyone to know his opinions even if they make little sense and aren’t exactly logical. Don’t just go to sources that reinforce your beliefs, go to ones that you know are likely to present the opposing view, even if it’s slanted. Most sources are biased, it’s just that some admit it, and many don’t.
4)Don’t make it personal, and don’t take insults or even unintentionally strong words personally.
To people who insult us on twitter, this is what we should say: Don’t you get it? Being insulted by a random stranger on twitter doesn’t bother me because you don’t even know me. The only insults that actually can hurt me are the ones that would come from someone who knows me enough to hit me with an insult that’s accurate. A stranger trying to insult me is like watching a stranger on the street yelling at the wind. It’s a waste of time and has no effect whatsoever.
4a) Related to this- it’s ok to be passionate, but don’t get too emotional. I know this is easier said than done, but it’s crucial if we ever wanna get past the soundbites and the dumbed down rhetoric used by both sides. When you let your emotions get too involved, it creates an unstable environment where the arguments become emotionally charged and over time, they become less logical. Generally speaking, the more emotion one feels in a debate, the less rational one’s arguments are. This is a recipe for conflict, not for learning, clarifying one’s positions, and making connections and even bonds of friendship, which should all be goals of political debate.
5) Don’t be a black and white thinker, keep an open mind.
Don’t assume your side is always right and no truth can ever exist on the other side of the debate. Most subjects aren’t black and white and have various shades of grey. Sometimes two people in a debate can both be right to varying degrees. Sometimes both can be wrong too. Unfortunately, one lesson I’ve learned from 2016 is that there is arguably just as much black and white thinking done by conservatives as by liberals. You can take any issue or opinions on any politician and see many conservatives saying “if you don’t think this about that or this person, you’re wrong”, even though it’s often not that simple, because people are complicated, and most issues are complicated too.
6) Question everything, including your own beliefs.
That way, when someone else questions them, you won’t be caught off guard because you’ll already have done it. Question the people you agree with as much as the people you disagree with. We must hold conservatives accountable when they’re wrong about something, or when they simply don’t act like Christians by engaging in demeaning and/or immoral behavior.
This includes candidates as well as average citizens. Only by holding our side accountable can we have the moral authority and legitimacy to then point out the flaws and hypocrisy on the other side, since few liberals are willing to question their fellow liberals on anything. If we don’t hold individual politicians and leaders on our side accountable for straying from our principles and/or values, then that cheapens those principles and values, and shows that we don’t hold them very closely either.
7)Treat everyone with respect and kindness, no matter how they act.
For one thing, you don’t know what someone is going through at a particular time in their life, or at the particular moment you’re talking to them. They might be in a really tough situation and just need to vent or lash out at someone. They might be under a lot of pressure to pay their bills, or due to have a disease that causes them much pain and suffering, which puts them in an agitated state.
Or it may be as simple as them just having a rough day and being in a bad mood when they’re talking to you. So when they respond angrily or illogically to a reasonable point you made, don’t allow it to upset you and mirror it with anger of your own, that will just inflame the situation and leave both of you upset.
There have been many times when I’ve said something completely benign and received an angry response from someone, but didn’t respond in kind. Then, I would continue the conversation, ask them questions, and show them that I’m not trying to offend or insult them. Eventually, they calmed down and revealed that they recently had a tragic event happen in their life, or were just under a lot of stress, and that normally they don’t fly off the handle so easily.
The bottom line is that we never know what someone’s going through on the other side of that screen we’re typing into, and what the state of their mind and soul is. We have to keep in mind that debates don’t take place in a vaccuum, and are engaged in by people, who are flawed, and who go through ups and downs in life, sometimes at the moment you’re talking to them.
8) Don’t question the motives or sincerity of others unless and until it’s made clear that they have bad intentions or are just a bad person.
(a Trumpster saying I “betrayed Italia” by not supporting Trump would be one example. Not to mention the many times I’ve been accused of being a “cuck” for daring to defend conservative principles, sometimes debating things not even related to Trump.) It makes things much easier for two people in a debate when you assume you both wanna find the truth and have respect each other.
9) Leave your comfort zone, and talk to people who you know aren’t gonna agree with you on some or even most issues.
Our political debate has descended into pure tribal warfare, with every person finding their own camp to belong to and crouching in a defensive position inside that camp We’re terrified to step foot outside our camp for fear of being attacked by anyone in the other camps. So we just become comfortable and complacent in our own little bubble and talk to the people in our own camp, which means we aren’t really learning anything new, and we certainly aren’t sharpening our debating and critical thinking skills.
A distinction must be made between talking to people who merely disagree with you, and those who you know will insult you or talk down to you. I’m not saying we should go looking for debates, or look for people who are rabidly defensive of a particularly candidate or ideology. What I am saying is that we should expose ourselves to as many sources of information, ideas, and people as possible because this is how we’ll learn about the issues of the day. Furthermore, this is how we’ll learn what others think about those issues, and by doing this we can begin to understand our own position, and what arguments to use to show that their position is wrong.
Throughout my life, I’ve found that I’ve learned the most by talking to and/or debating people who don’t think like me or share my beliefs. Beyond that, I just find it boring to only talk to people who share my mindset and principles. Imagine a world in which everyone thought like you and agreed with you on everything. That’s not a world I would want to live in. And yet it seems like it’s the kind of world many Americans wanna create. I think many of us have become intellectually lazy and simply don’t wanna make the effort to defend our beliefs to people who disagree, maybe because we’re afraid that some of them might not be right, or that we don’t know as much about the issue as we think we do. Maybe our egos are so fragile that we’re too afraid to bruise them by being proven wrong once in a while.
We have to get out of the niches and bubbles we’ve created for ourselves, because it’s the only way we’ll have a chance of truly understanding our political opponents, and only through understanding others can we have a chance to find common ground and work together to find solutions to the problems this country faces. When we stay isolated or just among like-minded people, we lose that understanding, and our mind then fills in the gaps, creating misconceptions of what the other side believes. It also creates fear, because we always fear what we don’t know. This fear then leads to anger because the root of anger in most cases is fear. Anger is often simply an expression of one’s fear of something and one’s inability to engage that thing or person and express our thoughts to them, and the feelings of helplessness and powerlessness that creates in us.
We can avoid all this by simply forcing ourselves to be around people who are willing to engage in respectful disagreements with us. We might even find we have more in common with them than we think. This was the case for me after Senator Cruz dropped out of the race. I looked at the Libertarian Party, and even though I assumed most libertarians were pot-smoking atheists, I found that quite a few were pro-life Christians who simply wanted gov’t out of their lives. I wouldn’t have discovered that if I just stayed in my corner and pouted.
10) Don’t trust politicians.
I put my faith in God, not in men, and certainly not in politicians, who often don’t get into politics to help others, but for their own personal ambition. Likewise, never idolize a politician or see him or her as your savior. This is what the left has always done, and now what Trumpsters do with Trump. I’ve seen Cruz and Rubio supporters do this as well, and it only reinforces the point I made above about having a tribal mentality.
Always put principles ahead of party, and ahead of individual candidates. They are merely vehicles for those principles. The second we develop blind faith in a candidate, we’ve put him or her ahead of God. Even God doesn’t want us to have blind faith in Him, because that would mean it’s an empty faith. He wants us to question our beliefs so that we can come to know the truth. If that’s true with God, how much more should it apply to our politicians and our political beliefs?
Above all, apply the Golden Rule to everything. Treat others as you would want them to treat you. If we as Christians adhere to this rule,we’ll be a light in the darkness, and maybe along the way we’ll win some people over to our side of the political debate in the process, without losing our souls.