“Seek first to understand.” – Socrates
“Shema (שמע)” – Deuteronomy 6:5
Let’s talk about it.
A Pastor, The Pulpits, and Politics: A Lament
Over this political season, a tremendous–and painful–quandary has arisen. As clergy, I am bound by two very real forces when it comes to my voice and politics. The first is simple, the tax code. According to the IRS 501(c)3 Tax Guide for Churches & Religious Organizations,
The political campaign activity prohibition isn’t intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of churches or religious organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals. Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy. However, for their organizations to remain tax exempt under IRC Section 501(c)(3), religious leaders can’t make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official church functions. To avoid potential attribution of their comments outside of church functions and publications, religious leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to clearly indicate that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization. (p.8)
In addition, the IRS guidelines become more cautionary when it comes to specific public policy issues.
Like other Section 501(c)(3) organizations, some churches and religious organizations take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office. However, 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate. (p.9)
The second force is socio-religious. While many are hoping that their spiritual leaders ride as close as possible to the IRS guidelines without breaching them, I find that most are simply turned off by the stench of politics mixed in with their religion, spirituality, or faith. Consider this message I received from a colleague:
You really need to stop with the [posting political stuff online]. You’ll start alienating people because you’re a pastor … I’m no [candidate’s name] lover, but I’m not posting political stuff because it is divisive. As a pastor, being partisan doesn’t help your message … I know lots of pastors are … but I always thought you above that.
(For the record, I posted the following articles: The Atlantic’s Trump’s Indifference to the Constitution, Vox’s This is the best book to help you understand the wild 2016 campaign, and PBS’s Why seeing Trump’s tax returns really matters, among many other non-political items. You can see my Facebook feed for the exact quotes I clipped, and how I use FB to log my thought journey. I usually post things that are intriguing and provocative without making any explicit endorsements or statements. Nor have I spoken for/against any political party.)
I’m the pastor. Facebook and sermons are the pulpits. Now, here’s the lament.
As someone who has been attempting to understand, live, and teach the Way of Jesus, what am I allowed (supposed) to do when the teachings of Jesus compel me to “love my neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31) and “welcome the stranger” (Matthew 25:35), and a political candidate tacitly declares a policy that is diametrically opposed to that teaching? Do the lines of distinction actually exist between politics and religion when issues such as the poor, or the immigrant, or victims of injustice are platformed?
The lamentation gets thicker.
I am deeply thankful for the “separation of church and state” and the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment, which prevents government from establishing a state religion, or unduly favoring one religion over the other. As Dr. Randall Balmer has suggested, Evangelicalism specifically has thrived under this “market of religions.” It has been good for politics and religion. So, in the past, when I have heard religious people make political statements, I have cringed, because of the above ethic, and wish that more accountability would be dealt to clergy who violate these principles.
Do you feel my dilemma?
Thus it is, exponentially intensified in this political season perhaps more than any other, the plight and muddled mess of teaching on the Way of Jesus which cannot help but be categorized, perceived and actual, as political.
So, what’s someone like me to do? Do I covertly speak about politics under the guise of teaching spiritual principles? Do I speak boldly and clearly about the Way of Jesus, and risk being misunderstood, misperceived, and labeled as being “divisive?” Or, do I go the path of many others who just simply declare something to the effect of, “No matter what happens, God is still in control.”
If I’m brutally honest, none of these avenues are satisfying for me. Speaking covertly is dishonest. Speaking boldly grates against my pastoral sensibilities to care for all people (I have members in my congregation that voted for both candidates). And the path of “God is in control,” is frankly, nauseating. It is one of those, “so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good” religious sentiments that are philosophically and practically escapist. In Christianity, we teach incarnation, that heaven becomes flesh, and lives among us. If “God is in control,” I want to know what flesh you’re going to put on that theology.
So, in the midst of the lament, the path that I default to is one that I hope is helpful, constructive, enlightening, and inspiring. It is the path of first seeking to understand.
Our Reptilian Brain: How Neuroscience Explains Politics
Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is a brilliant exploration of the neuro-psychology at work when it comes to beliefs and convictions. The book’s description poignantly reads, “If you’re ready to trade in anger for understanding, read The Righteous Mind.” He opens with a profound quote:
I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them. – Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, 1676
In sum, (and a gross oversimplification), we make decisions and formulate our beliefs at the “gut level,” and “intuitively.” Our “rationality” is not in the driver’s seat. It’s in the “way, way, back” of the car, simply along for the ride. When poked, it will speak up, and yell from the back that they want the music up louder (to drown out the opposition), or it will request some more snacks (to feed and nourish what I already believe). But it does not steer, accelerate, or brake. It simply rides along.
It is this reality that I feel was, and still is, completely lost on the vast majority of the conversations and analyses of this election season. Pollsters and demographers are scratching their heads. News pundits are trying to deconstruct the socio-political factors of race, gender, and immigration. We’ve all heard the phrase, “How did this happen?” numerous times in the last 24-48 hours. And yet, I have not heard one person, or seen one article on how the human brain processes negative or traumatic experiences (perceived or actual) and how those experiences deeply alter a person’s process of thought and emotion.
This, in my humble opinion, is the tragedy. A complete lack of understanding of the human soul. (And pastors are supposedly in the business of serving and ministering to the human soul).
What People Really Care About: How “Survival” Trumps (pun intended) “Moral Character”
While there are dozens (hundreds?) of examples of this lack of understanding, I’ll just choose one to delve deep into. John Pavolvitz, pastor and blogger, opens his post, Here’s Why We Grieve Today with the following,
I don’t think you understand us right now.
I think you think this is about politics.
I think you believe this is all just sour grapes; the crocodile tears of the losing locker room with the scoreboard going against us at the buzzer.
I can only tell you that you’re wrong. This is not about losing an election. This isn’t about not winning a contest. This is about two very different ways of seeing the world.
As much as I appreciate and actually respect Pavlovitz’s contributions through the years on a variety of topics related to faith and life, and as much as I value and validate his sentiments in this post, with all due respect, I don’t think Pavlovitz understands.
Allow me to explain.
He goes on in the post to write (passionately and prophetically, I might add) about what “Trump supporters believe” and “the vision of the world” that “these people” have. Regarding misogyny, islamophobia, racism, profanity, and sexism, he writes, “Half of our country has declared these things acceptable, noble, American.”
Perhaps his most impassioned lines are also the most poetically ironic:
It feels like living in enemy territory being here now, and there’s no way around that. We wake up today in a home we no longer recognize. We are grieving the loss of a place we used to love but no longer do. This may be America today but it is not the America we believe in or recognize or want.
There’s much more, but please read that paragraph again. Now, read it as a Republican. Read it again as a factory worker in the rust belt. Read it again as a moderately educated white Evangelical in the south. Read it again as a mid-Western farmer.
Do you see it?!
I am highly persuaded, that the vast majority of the 59,427,652 people who voted for Trump do not believe that sexism, racism, etc., are “acceptable,” that Trump supporters are not fundamentally islamophobic, xenophobic, or any other labels we want to use. I know many Trump supporters myself, personally, who are not happy about the candidate, but feel compelled to cast their vote for the issues that they care about, be it Supreme Court, abortion, or fiscal policy. They are intelligent, thoughtful, many of them college educated, and conservative, Republican, and committed. They did not vote for the “-isms.” They voted because they, too, felt like they were “living in enemy territory.” (I have yet to read Strangers in Their Own Land, but it has been recommended as another treatment of understanding the “American Right.”)
Consider this post by Cassie Hewlett, entitled I am, posted on FB by a friend and congregant. While many would critique the merits of her arguments, it is critical to see the humanity in someone that voted according to their convictions, not necessarily in accordance with the character of the candidate. Compound that with the fact that nobody likes to be called names, or labeled, and many of my friends who did vote for Trump are recoiling at the epithets being sent their way. The sentiment that we are “living in enemy territory” is ubiquitous, and no respecter of political party.
I kindly, humbly, and respectfully submit that Pavlovitz and others are missing it.
Allow me to reiterate that I think Pavlovitz is right in capturing the sentiment of how many feel at this moment. And many want Trump supporters to publicly denounce the hatred with the same vigor in which they publicly declare their support. But by writing about, “grieving the loss of a place we used to love but no longer do,” it appears he is missing that that feeling is what got us here, NOT the list of shameful or dishonoring moral characteristics of the candidate.
I submit to you that labeling Trump supporters with deprecating names is a, not true, and b, really unhelpful. It is to misunderstand the fundamental forces at play in human psychology. The fundamental forces at work are a sense of loss, a sense of grief, a perception, a “gut feeling,” or “intuition” that this country is not what it used to be.
Because we are “survival” animals, we naturally strive for solutions that provide the greatest possible chance at that survival. If we experience any sense of loss–and “change” is loss–the immediate response, biologically, is fear. Fear, without any counterbalance, leads to a strategy of neutralizing the threat, which results, most often, in the repression of other groups that appear to be the cause or driver of the threat.
We all do this, by the way. In our relationships, in our jobs, and yes, in our politics.
Mimetic Desire: Be Careful Who You Make Your Enemies, For You Will Become Like Them
This is what makes Pavlovitz’s post so poignant for me. It is truly the exact replication of the phenomenological and psychological forces working in many of the Trump supporters. True, those forces often express themselves in a host of “-isms,” but those “-isms” are symptomatic, not causal. And failure to understand this leads to one very disheartening human dynamic, namely “mimetic desire.”
René Girard, the brilliant Stanford philosophic anthropologist, coined the term “mimetic desire” to describe the human phenomenon of imitating the desires of others. Distinct from “mimicry,” “mimetic desire” is more closely related to “the negative aspect of rivalry.” What dynamics take place when you are in competition for limited resources (in this case, American power, or cultural influence)? One of the culminating realities of this phenomenon is that you begin to behave and believe in the same way that your enemy behaves and believes. American novelist, Michael Ventura has a similar sentiment:
Be careful how you choose your enemy, for you will come to resemble him. The moment you adapt your enemy’s methods your enemy has won. The rest is suffering and historical opera. ― Michael Ventura
Consider Hillary Clinton’s now famous line, “basket of deplortables.” This is a glaring example of this phenomenon. Few would argue with who instigated the list of insults, (Trump), but what is most fascinating is that as a result of fighting against him, making him the “enemy,” Clinton and many others on the “other side,” became like him.
Pavlovitz and others, with riots, demonstrations, blog posts, and outcries, have become just like the Republicans and Trump supporters in their “desire.” Everything that I described in the section immediately above, is now at work in the souls of the progressives, Democrats, liberals, or whatever other title you want to use.
As a quick reminder, this is not an indictment or judgment of anyone. I am simply attempting to understand human phenomena, and it’s influence on our behavior.
Mimetic desire. This is all of us. We all do this. And because we all do this, if there is not some sort of intervention, a redemptive disruption, a Scapegoat according to Girard, the cycle will continue.
Evolution Is Still A Dirty Word: The Churning of Changing Demographics
And, the cycle will get even more complex, and more exacerbated, because the world is changing, and it is changing fast. That change means more loss, more fear, and more uncertainty to come.
Part of the reason why this election result is so disappointing, according to this line of thinking, is because the “solution” that has been chosen is not appropriate or adequate for the problem that is being addressed. Add to that, the “solution” also comes with a whole host of very negative side effects (the main focus of the outcry).
When we think about the policies that are deeply important to the voting blocks, voting in an “outsider” is not going to change or solve globalization. Technology has made certain that we are interconnected in an irreversible way. Playing a “zero sum game” (either I keep my job, or I don’t eat) with that reality wreaks havoc on all parties involved. The world is more complicated, more intricate, and more nuanced than simply putting “America first.”
Honestly, it’s a lot easier to think of the world as static, to reminisce about the “good old days,” and to leverage your voting power for that self-preservation. It’s hard to evolve. It’s hard to step into new worlds. It’s hard to become a different person, which is what happens when you diversify. Yes, you lose a small part of yourself in the process of becoming more diverse. You gain so much more, but something within you has to quietly (or sometimes violently) dissipate in order for your soul to be expanded. That’s just the way. For both sides. For progressives and conservatives. For liberals and fundamentalists. It’s just that the “good old days” were the 40s and 50s for some. For others, it was the 8 years of the Obama Administration.
The Best Thing To Happen To Evangelicalism: Why Christianity Needed A Clarion Event
Which is one of the main reasons why the Evangelical vote is a central point of tension, anxiety, confusion, and perplexity. Religion’s main impulse is to preserve, to ensure that order and stability are kept in the social structure. Any disruption is going to be theologized and mythologized as “secular,” “other,” and in some cases, “evil.” Be that globalization or liberation, religion will recoil.
By the way, globalization and liberation is no respecter of religion. It moves, because it wants to be free.
Which brings us to understanding the Evangelical role in politics and how we are to interpret current events.
The Evangelical role, for the members of my “tribe,” is the most perplexing and emotion-inducing aspect in this election. Consider just a few articles. Christianity Today’s Trump Elected President, Thanks to 4 in 5 White Evangelicals by Kate Shellnutt provides the statistical and cultural analysis. The Atlantic’s Why Christians Overwhelmingly Backed Trump, by Olga Khazan which suggested that abortion is a main driver. The Washington Post’s, Why some fear this election’s lasting damage to American Christianity by Sarah Pulliam Bailey which does a nice analysis of explaining the division and history of Evangelicalism and Conservativism. Phil Vischer’s post Church, We’ve Got Some Explaining To Do, addresses race and the PR challenges of loving our neighbor. Chris Gehrz’s post Who’s an “Evangelical”? We Now Know… perhaps gets right to the heart of the tension, summed up in the tweet by @JohnFea1, “If this is evangelicalism–I am out. #election2016 #Evangelicals Tony–you win.
And many others.
This should be no surprise. Since the 70s and 80s, (with roots back to the 20s), Evangelicalism has had an unholy marriage to the Republican party. Randall Balmer’s God in the White House, The Real Origins of the Religious Right, and The Making Of Evangelicalism provide some really helpful historical perspective for how that happened, and the reasons for its progression.
Which is why I would like to offer my thesis, that this, all of this 2016 Evangelicalism/election bewilderment, is actually good for Evangelicals. By the way, it is also good for Gospel Christians, Red-Letter Christians, and followers of Jesus of every tradition and trajectory.
Now, to my friends of faith who are deeply hurt, feeling betrayed by their faith community, please know that I deeply understand and affirm what you’re feeling and processing. If I may paraphrase,
It feels like living in enemy territory being here now, and there’s no way around that. We wake up today in a [church] we no longer recognize. We are grieving the loss of a [faith community] we used to love but no longer do. This may be [Evangelicalism] today but it is not the [Evangelicalism] we believe in or recognize or want.
By the way, this wandering from the “institution” has been going on for decades now. If you read the works of George Barna and David Kinnaman, Kenda Kreasy Dean, Christian Smith, and others, you know that at least the formal institution of Evangelicalism has been losing members for quite some time.
What I am saying is that the unholy marriage of Evangelicalism and politics set the backdrop and cultural conditions that prompted later emerging generations to jettison their faith for ideologies or spiritualities that are more capacious, welcoming, and honestly, more radical in love. In response, the capital “C” Church has been doing some soul searching, attempting to change forms, revisit theologies/teachings, and make significant shifts in orthodox expression and praxis. This “deconstruction” puts front and center the dilemma of how much our faith is directly informed and influenced by our cultural entrapment. It also mirrors what is happening in our country as a whole. And like the progressive civic steps we are taking as a nation, we are also taking progressive religious steps as a Church, even if it hurts sometimes, and even when it feels as if we’re moving backward.
This current cultural and internecine debate within Evangelicalism is merely the evidence that, “Aslan is on the move.”
And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer. – C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, ch.7
The Great Commission Now Has A Great Opportunity: The Relevance of the Way of Jesus
In many ways, the “Great Experiment” of the Way of Jesus found in the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28, now has a “Great Opportunity” in front of itself. Does this Way really make a difference to mimetic desire, power, politics, race, gender, and a divided and broken nation? Does the Way of Jesus offer hope in the midst of civic and political unrest? Does the Way of Jesus offer healing in the midst of feeling alienated in your own land? Does the Way of Jesus offer the possibility of life after death? Does the Way of Jesus redeem lost religions and clergy? Does the Way of Jesus reconcile broken relationships, and embrace the marginalized? Does the Way of Jesus, save?
I contest that the Way of Jesus, as we find in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth as documented in our New Testament offers this and more. The Way of Jesus is true and relevant, and therefore a piercing challenge to us all, Evangelical or not, Christian or Atheist, American or International. If embraced, considered for all its values, mined for all its riches, and practiced, it truly holds the potential of transforming the world.
It is, after all, how we got here.
“But What Is That To You? You Follow Me”: The Peter Paradox
So friends, if you got this far in this post, I thank you and am humbled you read through all of this. It seems appropriate to close these reflections with the words of Jesus to Peter, who was distracted and concerned with another disciple, and what his responsibilities were, the responsibilities of “the other” were to be in this movement.
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” – John 21:22