Why politics overwhelms everything

October 27, 2020

Editor’s note: This article was originally from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Keep up with the latest updates by signing up here.

A friend has taken to texting me every day, “Nine more days,” ”Eight more days.” He’s referring, of course, to the countdown to Election Day 2020. His point is that 2020 is exhausting enough—with pandemics and crises of all sorts—without the way that election year causes people to go crazy—with either zeal or neurosis. My Mississippi upbringing taught me to be too polite to scare him by blessing his heart that he thinks all this will be over after the voting stops. In this moment in America, it seems that, with apologies to the Psalmist and to the Apostle Peter, an election day is as a thousand years. 

Many people are exhausted by all of this. Some are at the point of despair about some sectors of the church seemingly equating Christianity with some political platform or set of personalities. I spend much of every day encouraging people not to give up on the church because of some of the things they have seen that prompt them toward cynicism. But even beyond that, many people—probably most people—are just exhausted by the all-consuming nature of politics at this moment of American life. As one person said to me, “Everywhere I go, this is all it is—politics all the way down—whether I’m in church, at school, at work, everywhere. This is not a healthy way to live.”  

In his book Why It’s Ok to Ignore Politics, political scientist Christopher Freiman calls this the “monopolization of our identity by politics.” While I don’t agree with much of what Freiman prescribes as the antidote, his diagnosis of the problem is largely correct. In our time, he argues, politics is rarely about how we cooperate to solve civic problems and is more about the expression of one’s entire identity. Politics now is about whether you prefer Walmart or Whole Foods, whether you prefer NASCAR or soccer, whether you drive a Prius or a truck, and on and on. Sadly, it also tends to track whether you will wear a mask to your store or whether you think the whole thing is a hoax. There are all sorts of problems with this kind of totalizing political identity, and only one of them is that it is exhausting. 

This exhaustion is partly because we are expected, in our political identities, to be defined not by what we love, but by whom we hate. These partisan identities, Freiman notes, “are increasingly anchored to hatred of the out-party rather than affection for the in-party.” He writes, “We hate the other team more than we like our team. Why? We need to ramp up our animosity to the out party to rationalize our continued dedication to our own party despite its obvious shortcomings. (‘I know my party can be spineless and ineffective but I’ve got to stick with them because the other side is downright evil.’).” That’s why not just every election, but every political conversation is so often posed in apocalyptic terms of existential threat. 

The problem, of course, is that usually even the people speaking so apocalyptically don’t really believe it to be such. That’s why so many morph their positions—that previously were “light versus darkness”—into the exact opposite positions based on what their political “tribes” are doing at the moment. What it takes to be a “real conservative” or a “real progressive” tomorrow is often the mirror-image of what it is today. And that’s true too for those who would ignore the Galatian warnings to mandate what cultural or political stances are necessary to be a “real Christian.” 

The issues one would need to be in the “tribe” (whatever tribe it is) one year might well be deemed as irrelevant in the next. The cultural degradations one would denounce loudly, right along with the rest of the herd, in one year might be acceptable in another, just depending on the personalities and pet sins or injustices of one’s “side.” 

This sort of identity protection leads to the kind of constant vigilance that is exhausting. It leads, ultimately, not to the development of civic engagement and coherent political philosophies, but to the reverse—to the sort of “burned over districts” that would be left in the wake of religious “revivals” that were defined not by the gospel and the ordinary patterns of sanctification but by endless enthusiasms and spectacular experiences of ecstasy. 

So how do we “fix” this? Well, in one sense, we can’t. When a pastor asks me how to deal with divisions in his church leading up to the election, my response is to say, “Well, you can’t do that in a week; you can work toward preparing for election year 2028, but election year 2020 is like starlight—you are seeing the effects of something that travelled light years to get here, and may not even be there anymore.” 

Grounding our identity in the Kingdom

But, while you can’t fix American culture or American “evangelicalism” (whatever that is), you can attend to your own life and psyche. And you can do that by paying careful attention to where you ground your ultimate identity, your ultimate belonging. 

Years ago, I was talking to a man I respect as a keen observer of culture about adolescents and the particular challenges of Christian teenagers. “The fundamental question for adolescents,” this man said, “is what they mean, first, when they say the word ‘we.’” He was not arguing that there should be one definition for the word “we” for adolescents, but that the crucial thing was what definition came first when they thought of the word. 

“If by ‘we’ they mean first their generational cohort or their economic class or their popular culture preferences or their similarly accomplished peers in academics or sports or popularity, they are going to have trouble,” he said. “If they think, before all of those things, of ‘we’ as the communion of saints, the Body of Christ held together by the Word of God on earth and in heaven, then they will thrive. It’s our job to help them get that first ‘We’ right.” 

If we find our identities, first, in Christ, if we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, if we fix our minds on our standing at the Judgment Seat of Christ, rather than all of the little judgment seats around us, we will be freed to have a certain distance from the calls to identity all around us.

The more I think of that conversation the more I realize it’s not just about adolescents but about all of us. If we find our identities, first, in Christ, if we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, if we fix our minds on our standing at the Judgment Seat of Christ, rather than all of the little judgment seats around us, we will be freed to have a certain distance from the calls to identity all around us. That doesn’t necessarily lead to disengagement but to the right kind of engagement—an engagement that is able to be consistent and coherent because it doesn’t see every herd as protection from an existential threat. 

Freiman says that part of the reason politics has swallowed everything is that we have fewer and fewer of what he calls “cross-cutters” in American life. He defines this “cross-cutting” sort of identity as “people whose partisan identities do not align with their other social identities in the standard pattern (picture a Prius-driving Unitarian Republican who regularly attends vegan cooking classes).” Because these people have their identities not all bound up in one temporal thing or another, he argues, they are “less hostile to out-party members and less likely to get angry about politics. But as these ‘cross-cutters’ grow scarce, politics gets bloodier.” 

Whatever the truth of that sociological claim, we can certainly affirm a different sort of “cross-cutting”—and that is those whose identities are formed first by an actual cross—by Christ and him crucified (Gal. 2:20). If this is the case—and our lives are in the context of eternity—we need not worry about whether we are politically “homeless.” Only those with no Home are frantic to find one. We will not be crushed when we see people who agree with us on some things disagree with us on others. And we won’t be terrified when we find people who disagree with us on most things agree with us on something—for fear that we will be accused of “disloyalty.” 

And we can be freed from the emotional expectations of political identities of various sorts, which are posed in terms of exuberant triumph (“We won!”) or apocalyptic despair (“We are about to lose our entire society!”). Both the exuberance and the despair are exhausting and, even worse, either can be used to justify all sorts of things we never thought we would affirm, or things we never imagined we would deny. 

A Kingdom-first sense of identity and mission is a first step toward the freedom to love neighbor without checking first whether the neighbor is approved by the bosses to be lovable. And a Kingdom-first sense of identity and mission is the first step to declaring independence from the kind of culture where it’s always Election Day, and never Easter. 

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is a former President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul. His book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, was named Christianity Today’s 2019 Book of the … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24