Comedic Interlude: Protecting Against Election Fever

Photo taken from GQ.com

John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman, from GQ.com

John Oliver is a comedian and satirist. As a stand-up comedian (and former Daily Show correspondent), he specializes in offering an outsider’s perspective on American culture. Meanwhile, his long-running podcast The Bugle features Oliver and his good friend Andy Zaltzman offering their take on British news and world events.

The Bugle is taking the summer off, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still pushing out content so that they can stay on their subscribers’ radars. (I could take a lesson from them, I know.) John and Andy are plumbing their archives for some of their favorite clips from their podcast’s long history.

Since we are all still thinking about the excesses and nefariousness of common political campaign tactics, I wanted to share this short sketch from John and Andy’s coverage of England’s 2006 local elections:

Of course, Christians who decide to vote in local elections are most likely called to be more than just single-issue voters and have resources in the gospel to combat the apathy that sets in as John is inoculated against “Election Fever.” Knowing that God is concerned with the full breadth and depth of human flourishing should energize us as we interact with politics—we’re not just protecting our interests, we’re looking for opportunities to break a little bit of the hope and joy of the kingdom to come into the world around us. Christians don’t need to be tossed about by every new meme politicians use to try to shore up support.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4:14–15)

Take a moment now to pray for God’s help remembering that you have the guarantee of a restored society in the kingdom to come, and for that hope to infect the way you think about politics today.

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Yes, I’m a Fear-Monger

BibleBulletAs often as not, when I talk with Christians about how to engage politics, fear becomes part of the conversation: We talk about the role it plays in political discourse, the biological mechanisms that trigger it and the way Christians are called to respond to it.

Fear is a powerful tool in political communications. If you can trigger the amygdala into a fear response and the listener doesn’t have a deeply embedded neurological bulwark against that fear, it’s easy to get your call-to-action around a listener’s analytical filter, to get them to accept your message quickly and uncritically.

Because getting around their analytical filters is such an assured way to secure a listener’s support, even politicians who truly believe their policies and claims could stand up to careful scrutiny regularly try to make their listeners and readers feel threatened by their opposition.

This isn’t just an abstract theory—I’ve traded on fear this way myself:

During the 2006 election cycle, I was working on a campaign in the midwest, trying to unseat a long-incumbent party. One of our regular volunteers, a semi-retired man in his 50s, came into the office carrying a green helmet with a hole shot in it.

When he told me, “My son just came back from Iraq,” my heart sank, expecting to hear that his son had been injured or killed. But then he went on. “And he and his buddy decided to use his helmet for target practice this weekend. Look at this!”

He was laughing at the novelty of a military-grade object with a hole shot in it. He thought it was funny or ironic and wanted to share. I looked at that helmet and immediately had a litany of questions: What caliber ammunition were they firing? How does that compare to the ammunition the soldiers were likely to encounter in the field where they were stationed? Was this helmet meant to be worn in the field or just around base? Even if a helmet could be rated to stop cold a bullet of this caliber, what would that amount of force do to the soldier’s neck and spinal cord?

As a citizen, I understood that this helmet with a hole in it was meaningless. But as a political communicator, I understood how powerful that image could be.

I had a lot of questions, but the only one I asked was, “Can I keep this for a couple weeks?”

I displayed that helmet in the bullpen/reception area of our office. Whenever a volunteer came in to make phone calls, whenever a canvasser came in to pick up flyers or hand in their daily reports, whenever someone came in to the office looking to learn more about the candidate, they had to see that helmet. And when they asked what it was, I answered, “That’s what the people in charge are giving your sons, your daughters and your friends when they send them into combat.”

Enthusiasm went up. More people committed to volunteering. And when election day came around, we won big. My work helped put a good person in office—he was thoughtful, capable, humble, hard-working and honest. He was the best man for the job and I’m proud to say I worked for him, but some of the techniques I used to generate and maintain enthusiasm were problematic.

As Christians, we are called not to fear the powers and principalities of the world around us. But we only fear the principalities that we trust to have some kind of power of us. The way to resist that fear is not to force yourself to keep a stiff upper lip—it’s to internalize the fact that the apocalyptic power and authority that the principalities of our political system claim really belongs to Jesus. And that comes through the normal means of spiritual growth: Scripture, prayer, meditation and community.

One of the greatest assets devout Christians (should) have in engaging politics is the fact that the gospel’s promise of the coming kingdom is a reliable shield against the kind of fear-mongering that forms the undercurrent of a lot of political discourse. Thoughtful Christians of good faith can disagree about almost any policy proposal I can think of. But if you find yourself most often experiencing fear or anger when you think about politics, if you find yourself feeling threatened by a political party in exactly the same way your friends outside the faith do, then you may have an exciting opportunity to learn to trust Jesus more deeply right around the corner.

Lead image taken from Australian Light Horse Studies Center.

The Image of God and the Christian Political Story

Jesus commanded his followers to go into all the world—every corner of every culture—and proclaim the good news of his life, death and resurrection. Everywhere we go, Christians are supposed to strive to strive to demonstrate what kind of difference knowing that we are part of Jesus’ story makes for the way we live our lives in the here and now. Jesus called it, “being lamps on a stand or cities on a hill.”

But if Jesus is really king over all the earth, and he really wants us to take him at his word when he says to go into every corner of the world and live like lamps on a stand, then we need to work out what God’s great story can mean for the way we interact with and about politics.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with folks lately about my general principles for approaching politics, whether it’s as a political operative working on a campaign or as a private citizen having a talk at a bar. Over the next couple weeks, I’m going to fire off a few short blog posts introducing those principles, starting with a brief outline of what Genesis 1 means for the way we should talk about our political opponents.

God’s Image

The Christian story starts with God creating the heavens, the earth and everything in it. He took joy in the world as he crafted it, assessing everything he made and calling it “good.”

But when he made humans, things went from good to great. (Or, well, from “good” to “very good.”)

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

The Christians story teaches that everyone carries the image of God. Every person can trace their roots back to the moment just before God elevated his opinion of his own creation. Every person carries a heritage that makes them worthy of respect—even the people with whom we disagree.

To Christians, our political opponents shouldn’t be monsters, demons or craven animals. Our political opponents are image-bearers of God. And in an increasingly polarized political environment, learning to imbue our opponents with divine dignity even as we vehemently disagree with them is potentially one of the biggest ways we can stand in contrast to the world around us.

Apparently, Urban Marriages Don’t Exist

EKNeighborhood

Yesterday morning, Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, spoke on his daily podcast about the general migration of the American population away from rural and suburban areas and toward urban areas. He then pivoted off of that topic to address declining marriage rates among young Americans. The moment of transition is excerpted below:

Mohler is a leading thinker amongst theologically conservative Christians, and so the assumptions that drive his thinking are worth investigating. In particular, I’m curious about the inextricable link he seems to assume between married life and suburban or rural American life.

Mohler’s train of thought on the matter as presented in this transition between the topics seems to be as follows: “Young people move to cities to work. When they meet other young people and get married, they are supposed to move out of the city and settle into a real, grown-up, less selfish life in a suburb or in a rural environment. Young Americans are moving into cities faster and are less inclined to move out. Therefore, young Americans are choosing to put off marriage, choosing to not have children and deliberately fostering a less socially stable society.”

Now, it is undeniable that young Americans are marrying at the lowest rates ever recorded, though I think Mohler overlooks the fact that young Americans often want to get married but feel unable to. A popular video that circulated amongst my friends last year highlighted the fact that many millennials feel that, through no fault of their own, they walked into an economy that has made it impossible for them to live the life to which their parents and grandparents encouraged them to aspire:

But the bigger issue at play for me is Dr. Mohler’s apparent assumption that marriage necessitates abandoning urban centers. In Mohler’s argument, if only young Americans would get married and have kids, they would move back to suburbs and rural towns. It’s okay to use a city for the sake of getting a job out of it, but urbanism is inherently selfish and the path to maturity leads to a suburban or rural life.

This line of thinking seems rooted in mid-century secular materialist assumptions about the proper relationship between an individual and the civic community. If your chief end is to leverage yourself into a better, more powerful, more secure position in your surrounding community, then the narrative Mohler prescribes makes perfect sense: You move to a city to develop sought-after skills then use those skills to secure a more luxurious place for yourself and your nuclear family in a less-competitive suburban or rural market.

But that isn’t the Bible’s prescription approaching the place you live and work:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

God’s message to his people living in the most oppressive, spiritually stagnant of cities was to stay there. Commit to it. Care for it. Get married there, raise your family there and teach the next generation to seek the city’s shalom (health) and tikkun (healing). Jesus didn’t condemn the city that was about to send him to his death—he wept for it. He went to his death longing to embrace it.

Dr. Mohler’s line of argument doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility that young people who met in a city and married in a city would choose to remain in a city and even raise their children a city, but is the thought really that far-fetched?

I’m a member of a church in a metropolitan center. The vast majority of our congregants are in their 20s and 30s. Since I moved to this city three years ago, it has seemed as though hardly a week goes by without a new engagement, a new marriage or a new baby. Most of these new families opt to stay in the metropolitan area. Not because they are selfish, but because Jesus’ selflessness is actually encouraging them toward some kind of more selfless urbanism.

One of the most distinctive virtues Christians can bring to the public sphere is a commitment to the neighborhoods, towns and, yes, even cities in which we live. When you and your neighbors talk about the latest local controversies, can they sense that your relationship with them and with their community has an expiration date? Or do they trust that you genuinely care about them and that you’re not about to cut and run on your community? Because that’s the kind of approach to your civic community the Bible recommends—even if that civic community is an American city.

Update: A sentence has been added to the opening of the article to more clearly convey that this blog post addresses the rhetorical hinge Dr. Mohler uses to pivot between his two topics, rather than the points he makes about either topic.

An Internal Policy Shift For A Post-DOMA Landscape

When I started this blog, one of the guidelines I gave myself was that I’d try to avoid getting into the topic of homosexuality. Blogging is, at its core, a casual form of discourse, and the development of the concept of “sexual identity” (a fairly recent phenomenon given the general scope of human history) seemed to pit casual and nuanced conversation about gay issues at odds with one another. Maybe a better writer could thread that needle, but not me.

However, the Supreme Court’s decisions yesterday regarding California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) make avoiding the topic pretty difficult. It’s clear that from here on out, for a Christian to be an effective ambassador of a more human way of life in his or her civic existence, he or she must be able to talk about homosexuality with comfort, humility, compassion and fluency.

This has probably been true for years now—it’s not like the court issued yesterday’s rulings unbidden. They were responses to cases various citizens brought before a series of courts, those cases in turn being the result of years of shifting attitudes amongst the general citizenry. 

You can’t search for Christian approach to public life if you don’t allow yourself to talk about gay marriage and sexual ethics. Like many of you, yesterday’s rulings sent me down a number of different paths, prompting diverse conversations and a lot of reflection. 

I’m grateful that, in the weeks ahead, I’ll get to share some of that with you.

Does The Gospel Stop At The Water’s Edge?

Last year, I visited an evangelical church deep in the heart of Texas. The sermon was interesting, engaging and literate. The pastor dug deep into a passage in James, drawing out an application that dared his congregation to think about how their church treats the impoverished in their town and how each of them can rethink their relationship to the poor. As a Christian, I liked that his talk plainly took the Bible seriously and would be challenging to everyone in the audience, reminding Christians that they are there because they are broken, not because they are great. As a communicator, I loved that it also would have been perfectly understandable to people with no grounding in the faith.

But when I sat with the pastor briefly after the service, the sermon was far from what I wanted to ask him about. Instead, I wanted to talk about the lengthy prayer that preceded it. In his prayer, the pastor prayed for the congregation. He prayed for their town. He asked for protection for America’s soldiers overseas. He asked for God’s blessing on the work those soldiers were doing. And that was it.

I couldn’t help but wonder why he stopped there, why he didn’t go on to also pray for the communities to which those soldiers are traveling, why he didn’t pray that God’s spirit be poured out even on those we might consider our enemies. When Saul converted and became Paul, God demonstrated his ability to transform and redeem people we don’t WANT to see transformed or redeemed. If we are honestly praying, “Thy kingdom come,” we need to remember that we aren’t the only people God wants to turn into citizens of it.

When Christians discuss international issues, we need to be eager to look beyond tribal concerns. The Bible tells us that one day, the righteous of every nation will be part of the same kingdom. The kings of every state will lay their crowns at Christ’s feet. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are a testament to the fact that God isn’t interested in his blessings stopping at the water’s edge.

I asked the Texan pastor about why he structured his prayer that way, and why he didn’t pray for the citizens of the countries in which the soldiers were being deployed. In return, he spoke winsomely and graciously about expressing gratitude for a country that has facilitated so many blessings in our lives.

And I don’t disagree. But I think Christians need to also model a wider perspective.

Presidential Debate: Watch Wisely

The first presidential debate of the 2012 general election is just hours away. Watching televised debates is probably not the best way to decide which way you’re voting in an election—candidates place so much emphasis on theatrics that are meant to stir up visceral, emotional responses and distract from the content of what they and their opponent are actually proposing—but if you watch actively and critically, they also aren’t the worst.

Luckily, how-to website LifeHacker.com has put together a handy primer on how to keep yourself on guard against fallacious arguments while watching a debate. Check it out prayerfully and see if it makes a difference in the way you respond to the candidates this evening.