By Stewart Clem

I’m not very political. American politics is a joke. We should just ignore it altogether and focus on more important things, like building relationships.

How many times have you heard someone say something like this? How many times have you felt this way yourself? It’s a powerful temptation, given our current political climate. But the truth is that American politics has never been pretty.

My aim is to dissuade you from giving into this temptation, but first a few clarifications are in order.

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The first is that politics is a multivalent term. In America, it usually means Democrats vs. Republicans. There is a much older sense of the word, however, that originates with the ancient Greeks. It simply denotes the practices, interactions, and shared goals among the members of a community. I recall the theologian Stanley Hauerwas once declaring that politics in the United States is only a simulacrum of real politics. He was describing the phenomenon that most of us see all too clearly — that American political discourse is all show and no substance. Unfortunately many Christians choose to be apolitical, because they see no other alternative.

The second is that we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that interest in politics is merely a hobby — an optional luxury for those who have the time. Underlying this false belief is the assumption that it is easier to build and maintain friendships when controversial topics are avoided.

You have heard it said, Religion and politics do not belong in polite conversation. But I say to you, We need more conversation about religion and politics, not less.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a frequent lamentation of our age — an age that struggles to comprehend politics and religion as anything other than private enterprises — concerns the profound difficultly of building meaningful friendships. Even the ancient philosopher Aristotle recognized that the most meaningful friendships are those that seek after what is truly good — which also means that these kinds of friends are willing to push and challenge one another in the pursuit of truth.

Not everyone we might call friend falls into this category. Most of us have colleagues, or people within our broader network of acquaintances. This is what Aristotle calls the friendship of utility. We might also have friends who are just fun to hang out with — people who share our hobbies or sense of humor. Aristotle calls these friendships of pleasure.

But the highest form of friendship is one in which your friend seeks your highest good, and you return that effort. This isn’t some saccharine, romanticized relationship unable to see the flaws in the other person’s thinking or behavior. Quite the opposite, in fact. The true friend is one who will challenge you when you hold views based on faulty reasoning or behave in a way that isn’t conducive to true virtue. “As iron sharpens iron, so one friend sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17). And such a friendship is one that will necessarily keep you engaged in politics — not the shallow discourse of campaigns and elections, but the actual stuff of life.

One of the dangers of going apolitical is that we deprive ourselves of any influence we might have on real politics. There are many important conversations happening right now — particularly among young people — that have everything do with politics but are only indirectly concerned with the ballot box. Many of our nation’s most pressing issues arise from the crisis of identity politics, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find non-sensational, non-reactionary commentary on these issues in the media. One startling example of this crisis is found in the emergence of the so-called alt-right. On the other end of the spectrum, we find social justice warriors who want to turn universities into highly regulated safe spaces where free speech is no longer sacrosanct (enter Jordan Peterson). Yet, while the mainstream faux-leftists are wringing their hands over whether eating a burrito at Chipotle is a form of cultural appropriation, over in the corner you’ll find a group of young, white (typically male) students considering whether racialism is a morally acceptable alternative to racism.

If television news and Facebook are your only sources of political commentary, then you probably think that all of this alt-right hype amounts to nothing more than a shallow exchange of memes and tweets. But the ideologies that are capturing people’s political imaginations in fact have deep philosophical roots. As Matthew Rose has written, in one of the most important political essays of 2018,

Almost everything written about the “alternative right” in mainstream outlets is wrong in one respect. The alt-right is not stupid. It is deep. Its ideas are not ridiculous. They are serious. To appreciate this fact, one needs to inquire beyond its presence on social media, where its obnoxious use of insult, obscenity, and racism has earned it a reputation for moral idiocy. The reputation is deserved, but do not be deceived. Behind its online tantrums and personal attacks are arguments of genuine power and expanding appeal. As political scientist George Hawley conceded in a recent study, “Everything we have seen over the past year suggests that the alt-right will be around for the foreseeable future.”

The alt-right isn’t the only, or even the most important, area of political concern, but these words should serve as a wakeup call. We need to talk about politics (and religion — I’ll say more about the latter in a follow-up post). We should be having more conversation, not less. For Christians, there is nothing virtuous about being apolitical. With all this in mind, I offer a few suggestions on how to be political.

1. Drop your party affiliation. Register as an independent. Yes, I know this one is controversial. I also realize this means that some people, depending on which state they live in, will be at a disadvantage during primary elections. I believe that disaffiliation is worth the cost. While I can only speak anecdotally, I will say that the psychological effects of registering as a political independent are quite significant. You’ll feel less beholden to a political party’s platform when you’re not a member of said political party.

2. Exercise prudence in media consumption. I’m not just talking about which publications you read. I’m also talking about the medium. So many of us haphazardly click on whatever headlines capture our attention in our social media feeds (see Cole Hartin’s recent post for some timely reflection on this subject). It’s worth taking the time to curate a collection of reliable sources. Ask trusted friends about which periodicals and journalists they find helpful. Also note that reliable is not synonymous with “only promotes views with which I happened to agree.” It’s good to read political commentary from a variety of perspectives. Reliable means that the author maintains journalistic integrity and represents the best arguments for a position, even if you ultimately disagree with that position. (A bit of self-disclosure: The American Conservative and The Intercept are both in my regular reading rotation.)

3. Avoid the polarized framework that’s been foisted on us when a conversation turns to political topics, and your conversation partner’s views are opposed to yours (or you simply don’t know those views). Let’s say that you, like me, are horrified by the seemingly endless string of mass shootings in the United States. Let’s say you support stronger gun control, but you find yourself having a conversation with someone in favor of gun rights. Instead of asking, Are you opposed to gun control? or Do you think it’s worth all of the people dying just so you can continue owning guns? ask questions like, Do you think we have a gun problem in our country? 

A few might answer No. If you find yourself in this situation, at least you will know where to begin the conversation. Most people will answer Yes, but they may have a differing opinion on how to solve the problem. In that case, you have at least established some common ground.

Or let’s say, for example, that you don’t understand why some NFL players refuse to stand for the national anthem. You think it’s disrespectful and divisive. Instead of assuming that all those who support these NFL players are unpatriotic, ask someone from an underprivileged group to share their experience — someone like the rapper Oddisee who says, “I love my country, hate its politics.” Consider whether there’s a legitimate distinction between patriotism and nationalism, and whether these NFL players could possibly practice the former without upholding the latter.

The point here is to move beyond a simplistic for-or-against dichotomy and into the stuff that really matters.

4. Share the gospel. With words. (N.B. Saint Francis never actually said that bit about using words “only if necessary”). How is this political, you ask? Well, if real politics is about being human and living in the world with other humans, then the gospel is inherently political. And if you assume that America, with all the residue of a Christian nation, already knows the basic content of the Bible and the message of the gospel, think again.

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? (Rom. 10:14)

 

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is visiting assistant professor of theology at Valparaiso University and assisting priest at St. Paul’s Church (Mishawaka, Indiana). A fellow of the Episcopal Church Foundation, he holds degrees in theology and philosophy from the University of Notre Dame, Duke University, and Oklahoma State University and was ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Oklahoma in 2013.

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