With just a few days to go until Election Day, Americans are increasingly turning their focus to politics. According to the US Elections Project, in 2014 (the last midterm election), approximately 37 percent of eligible voters actually made it to the ballot box. Elections are an important avenue for Americans to register their opinions about the direction of the nation and their local communities.
Given that, I was recently asked how Christians should think about the elections and how we should engage this moment. My answer: Be informed, not ignorant; be discerning about politics, not dogmatic; and dialogue without dehumanizing.
1. Be informed, not ignorant: I know, we are all busy. Our lives are consumed by family responsibilities, professional requirements, and our preoccupation with social media. I’ll admit, adding “candidate research” on top of that doesn’t sound like the most appealing way to spend a Friday evening. But the reality is, our vote is important, and we should want to know who we are voting for and exactly why that candidate deserves to receive our vote.
Samuel Adams put it like this in 1781, “Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote that he is not making a present or a compliment to please an individual – or at least that he ought not so to do; but that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society.” So how does one get informed to be able to approach Election Day as a “solemn trust”?
Being informed means getting inquisitive. But how? I’d suggest your local newspaper, first and foremost. The reporting there is likely based on the issues affecting people in your area. Second, a great site to visit for some unbiased analysis is the Cook Political Report. Finally, if you’re looking for something that really dives into the history of states and districts, the go-to resource for journalists is The Almanac of American Politics.
All of these resources, and others like them, can help you form questions to ask of the candidates and their campaigns, help you research policies, give you handles for examining a candidate’s record (especially if they have a history in public service), and, ultimately, determining whether they exhibit enough of an alignment with your principles to merit a vote for them. In the post-truth age, though, that is a lot harder to do than it seems at first glance.
As we do this, we should realize that not every determination we make is going to be an easy call. There are going to be some political races where there isn’t a clear indication as to who deserves our individual support. That can be frustrating, especially operating in a culture that wants clear, binary choices. But that isn’t the world we reside in. While it can be tempting to withdraw entirely from the political space, we aren’t called to that. Instead, we must wisely process the information we collect and move forward.
2. Be discerning about politics, not dogmatic: As we are doing our research and gleaning the necessary information to make an informed choice, we should be on guard against false reports and misleading details, particularly from entities that are spreading them on purpose.
The temptation will be there to read sources or believe social media posts that only serve to reaffirm our political beliefs. That’s the type of behavior that political advertisers and Twitter bots feast upon. As such, we are merely turned into the talking heads that we see on cable news, parroting the talking points we’ve just been fed. We should resist this.
I would suggest, instead of being discipled by our favored media outlets, we take it upon ourselves to collect information from a number of different sources. Do you watch MSNBC all the time? Great. Pick up The Wall Street Journal, too. Do you follow all the writers at The Federalist on social media? Fantastic. But take the time to peruse what the good folks at The Atlantic are writing about, as well. Do you listen to “The Rush Limbaugh Show” on your drive in the afternoon? That’s fine. But switch the dial over to NPR for your morning commute.
All the outlets I just listed tend to focus on national issues. I would submit that local matters and candidates for offices closer to home are just as, if not more, important for your life than nearly everything that comes out of Washington, D.C. So pick up the local newspaper, scan what reporters across your home state are covering, and try to listen to some locally-produced podcasts. There are a number of critical issues in our communities that deserve our attention, but they are flying under the radar because all of us are devoting far too much attention to the latest procedural vote on Capitol Hill.
Let’s commit ourselves to being good stewards of information by keeping a discerning eye on what we come across. From there, we can be helpful voices as we actually engage with our neighbors.
3. Dialogue without dehumanizing: After we have taken the time to research the candidates for federal and local office and any ballot measures, what should we do with the information? In other words, if we’re given the opportunity, how do we helpfully engage people around us?
Unfortunately, there’s too few of us who are leading well in this regard right now. Instead, there are numerous examples where individuals are trying to rhetorically “own” their opponents and demean any hint of opposing viewpoints. While that may be appealing in our current cultural moment that’s not how a Christian should view his or her interactions with others. Ephesians 4:29 reminds us that we’re called to a higher standard: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
A motto I’ve been trying to guide myself by might be helpful here: Seek to persuade, not pulverize. All around us, whether on the political left or right, activists are trying to drive their opponents out of the public square. Online mobs attack their partisan adversaries. Political leaders completely dismiss their rivals. In lieu of mimicking that behavior, I would hope my words about current political issues bring a greater sense of clarity and perspective. Does that mean there won’t be disagreement? Of course not. Well-meaning people can disagree without seeking to dehumanize one another. That is the type of heart we should should display in both our personal interactions and our public pronouncements.
Here’s the added benefit: This type of healthy engagement on the personal level helps strengthen the public square. Much like the streams that form the headwaters of rivers, our conversations with friends, colleagues, fellow church-goers, and social acquaintances knit stronger social bonds in our communities. It helps build up what former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “free trade in ideas.”
Moreover, there are some scriptural underpinnings to this too. Though in a different context, the call to “come and let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18) stands out as well as what Paul tells us in Romans, “live at peace with everyone” (12:12). These are helpful reminders and framings for the posture we should take as believers. By inviting someone to sit down and talk through an issue (with the hope of finding common ground), you are respecting their status as a fellow image-bearer and, in our current context, reaffirming the notion that our American experiment is a shared project that’s better undertaken together than apart.
Overall, we must keep perspective. All that is mentioned above is advice for this particular season. Yes, we should stay abreast of the political developments of the day, but we cannot let it consume our lives. Politics and the policy decisions being made by our leaders are important in our society, but they are not eternal. We must be mindful of that as we engage in this space. Doing so will ensure we remain informed and charitable toward those around us who are casting ballots alongside us.