Commenting on a major event like the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States within 48 hours of its occurrence is a challenge, but worth attempting for the sake of seriousness and encouragement.
The whole world is now witnessing major political shifts amid continued decline of confidence in institutions, massive migrations, and widening disparities of opportunity and resource between north and south and between the privileged few and the great majority in every nation. In such a context of destabilization, questions of law and order and fear of the Other naturally arise. Sadly, so does devolved political discourse, as too many turn to silos of right thought, carefully curated on social media and in our preferred neighborhoods, schools, and defined and defended churches. My own Episcopal Church, once “the Republican Party at prayer,” now incubates the converse, with many leaders feeling no compunction about publicly endorsing one candidate, running down the opposition, and then lamenting defeat as if they have no friends or family on the other “side,” and no experience or comprehension of their vulnerabilities.
People of good will with college educations and those who may be characterized as economic liberals, for whom the system generally works well: we “moderate,” middle-class folks, who know how to speak in acceptable ways and who have good taste, need to face into the divisions in our country (and the world) by learning to listen, and speak respectfully, to non-secular non-elites. More than that, our ideals, including freedom of worship and expression and “the principle that we are all equal in rights and dignity” — values that we “cherish and defend,” as Secretary Clinton insisted in her concession speech: these very values must lead us to work across party lines in a spirit of cooperative friendship. In the process, we will find that justice and good order, and the rule of law, are best defended in reasonable partnership with those across the aisle. For Christians, these are simply non-negotiables, baked into the cake of our identity and witness in truth and reconciliation when they are faithfully borne.
Much of what Mr. Trump said on the campaign trail, and aspects of his character and past behavior, are distressing. I worry, with David Brooks, about the “scary” drift of world politics — across England and Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the global South — as too many turn to “authoritarian personality types.” While legitimate questions may be asked about global trade and national borders, and about larger patterns of development and under-development, we should reject facile anti-immigrant policy proposals and any and all retrievals of nativist sentiment. On Anglican principle we should uphold and defend the continued usefulness of the post-World War II institutions that have done so much to ensure peace and prosperity among nations, notwithstanding the nearly endless wars of the last 75 years.
At the same time, we need better, fairer protections for the most vulnerable in our country, and here Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders at least agreed in diagnosing our ills. It seems significant that many protest votes were cast — by not voting, or voting for a third-party candidate — by evangelicals, persons of color, and Millennials, and this ate into Clinton’s carrying what was the Obama coalition. As noted by Amy Walter, while Trump turned out the white vote by just one more point than Mitt Romney according to national exit polls, Clinton did “markedly worse among non-white voters” than President Obama in 2012. To be sure, Trump captured the working class and poor, post-industrial vote, but it was not monochrome and it was more than Republican. Most deeply, the division of our moment separates the often-secular elites from the often-religious ordinary folks tired of being talked down to, dismissed, and disrespected. We all should read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and understand how vulgarity, racism, and tribalism have long since been set loose in our politics and culture, on right and left, for which all must take responsibility in the name of civilization.
President-elect Trump, President Obama, and Secretary Clinton need our prayers and gratitude for their readiness to serve, and they will need our help to ensure that their gracious statements in the wake of the election are amplified and put into practice. We all, moreover, owe Mr. Trump “an open mind,” as Mrs. Clinton counseled, and we may take comfort in knowing that the work of government, when it is done, calls forth compromises that defy easy classification and can be claimed by all. Perhaps, God helping him, President Trump may make some progress here, and all persons of good will should provide encouragement to this end.
Christians will not quite be able to agree with President Obama’s statement that we are all Americans first. But Christians in our country are at least Americans second, and we should strive to be good ones as the president has urged, by presuming the good faith of our fellow citizens and seeking common ground whenever and wherever these may be had. Prescinding from the process, perhaps to keep our hands clean, is not helpful, and cynicism is always a practical failure, rooted in spiritual despair.
These are, in fact, Christian encouragements that we should know well and be expert in exemplifying, modern political democracy being, after all, a Christian bequest to the secular world in the wake of our own wars of religion and recrimination. The school of Christian unity-in-truth, indeed the gospel itself, includes politics properly practiced in the classical sense, and in the sense presumed by our commitment and call to good order, governance, and shared faith (see Eph. 4).
It would be hard to think of a better theme for the season of Advent, which inculcates preparation for the promised apocalypse of our Lord: the final revelation and unveiling of his return, judgment, and right ordering of all things. As Scripture and our tradition teach, these are always upon us, in this time between the times, and they form our faith and hope for both justice and mercy. Their practical payoff is due “fear” that leads to humility and awe in the face of our fleeting and fragile lives; repentance for our sins, not shifting blame to others (Luke 18:9-14); resolve to remain focused on the most important, ultimate concerns; and the commitment to living faithfully in the interim, that is, with courage, joy, and confidence in the promises of God.
This last issues in a curriculum for our ecclesial life, before the eyes of the watching world: Can we love each other, and if so how? We talk a lot about peace and reconciliation, but what might they look like? How can they be structured and invested in? These are political questions that strike to the heart of building and protecting institutions. Christians — certainly Anglicans and Episcopalians, drawing on the deep wells of Augustinian theology — have never been wary of thinking through such things; they have been a particular strength and calling card. Have been. We need now to go back to school, but not in the name of unanimity in all things and not in the name of silencing the opposition. Rather, with good disagreement in view, we need robust argument and respectful push and pull on the way to reasonable compromise and protection of conscience. Many of our leaders have proposed this very thing as an urgent task.
If and as we take up the challenge for the sake of our church and churches, for the one Church, and for the salvation of our souls, it will also be an earnest of humble service to the kingdoms of this world in which we have been placed to be light and life, to uphold truth, and to seek justice.
“Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). And make us instruments of your peace.