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.
The presidential campaigns are just finishing their transition out of a lengthy primary season and into full-on general election mode. However, we are already nearing the end of what has been, for me, the most emotionally consuming election in years: An off-year, off-season race for an open city council seat in Pawnee, Indiana.
I’m referring, of course, to the campaign depicted in this season of Parks and Recreation, one of the funniest and most optimistic shows on TV.
The show, starring the gifted comedienne Amy Poehler, typically derives humor from loving critiques of America’s civic process. In its fourth season, most of the cast has rallied around Poehler’s energetic, capable bureaucrat Leslie Knope as she runs against Bobby Newport (guest star Paul Rudd), the genial and dim-witted scion of a beloved local processed food magnate. Contrasting Knope’s scrappy idealism against the calculated cynicism of Newport’s seasoned campaign manager has given Parks and Rec an opportunity to go beyond sending up the civic process to sending up the electoral process, as well. And at times, it has gotten profound.
This week, Knope, Newport and a handful of fringe candidates squared off for a riveting debate. The local news anchors moderating the debate took questions “from Twitter, because apparently that’s a thing that happens now.” One of the fringe candidates patiently passed on any question that didn’t afford him an opportunity to wax enthusiastic about gun proliferation. Another repeatedly asserted his devotion to treating Pawnee’s animals as though they were his own children. (Pawnee has a well-established raccoon problem, and the fact that we didn’t get to see their differing responses to how to handle the infestation at Ramsett Park seems like an obvious missed opportunity.)
Newport, meanwhile, only presented one substantive proposal, and it was the centerpiece of the debate: Newport said that if he lost the election, his father would move their factories (and most of the town’s jobs) to Mexico.
Pawneans are a fickle and excitable people, and this kind of declaration could have easily been the death stroke against Knope’s candidacy. However, she recovered. After processing her shock at the potentially game-changing declaration, she responded passionately and sincerely:
I’m angry that Bobby Newport would hold this town hostage and threaten to leave if you don’t give him what he wants. It’s despicable. [The power] to dictate what a city needs—that power belongs to the people. Bobby Newport and his daddy would like you to believe it belongs to them. I love this town. And when you love something, you don’t threaten it. You don’t punish it. You fight for it. You take care of it. You put it first. As your city councilor, I will make sure that no one takes advantage of Pawnee. … This is my home. You are my family. And I promise you: I’m not going anywhere.
Jesus doesn’t offer much in the way of express political prescriptions in the Bible. When cornered by pharisees and Herodians wielding a politically dangerous question about the Roman head tax, he defies the premise of their question and answers in a way that transcends their paradigm. When questioned by the local governors about his political goals, he has nothing to say that they feel is relevant to them.
But he does offer a prescription for the type of attitude a leader should have, and it looks an awful lot like Leslie Knope’s:
You know that the leaders of the Gentiles are lords over them, and their great men exercise power over them. It is not thus with you; but he who wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, and he who wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; as the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his own life for the redemption of many.
(Matthew 20:25–28, Lattimore translation)
Knope’s closing statement resonated with her audience and the viewers because it speaks to the way we all wish power would work. (It also resonated with her opponents: Newport broke the silence that followed by declaring how great he thought that answer was.) We all hope that those in positions of authority—be it in a household, a workplace, a social circle or a government—are worried about the best interest of those without power.
But power doesn’t work that way. More accurately, we aren’t brave or humble enough to wield power that way. If you need any evidence of that, pay attention to the way you talk about your job, your boss and your teammates. No matter what field you’re in, I’m willing to bet that you’ve rarely thought, “I don’t like the way my boss is running our department. If I were in charge and she were in my place, I’d have SO MANY reasonable discussions in which I listened to and thoroughly considered her opinions about how the department should be run, and I’d give them as much weight as I’d give my own ideas.”
No, most people’s fantasies about how they’d run their workplace, their community or their government are ultimately authoritarian. America’s government is structured to work best when the people in charge are open to debate and fully consider the implications of their decisions on a whole host of under-powered peoples. But the pace of work, the pressure of media scrutiny and the need to raise thousands of dollars every week just to prepare for the next election are powerful forces against that kind of humility taking root in the heart of elected officials.
Christians who work in public service or who hold public office would do well to remember to keep their sights fixed on Jesus, who accomplished great work by taking on the role of servant, even toward people who actively tried to elevate him to master. We should also be willing to encourage leaders in every sphere of life to consider approaching their leadership with a servant mindset.
And while we usually avoid endorsing candidates on this blog, I do want to encourage you to vote for Leslie Knope by tuning in on Thursday nights. The election’s in two weeks.
For a highly visible and avowedly partisan writer, that could be a sensational act of bravado. After all, critiquing your own party is part of what being a pundit is all about: Using your platform to frame politics for voters and push elected officials into adopting your preferred policies. In one breath, you degrade the opposition, and in the next you critique your own leaders and standard-bearers. That method garners ratings. It develops sway and influence with your chosen political party while avoiding the impression of just being a mouthpiece for party leadership. And because it’s so common, a break with that method could come off as a crass attempt to clash for the sake of attention.
But there’s another option. It could also be a demonstration of gospel-given humility. Douthat doesn’t criticize conservative officials for not standing their ground, for not honoring their base firmly enough, for not making extreme enough stands. Those are the types of charges a pundit could level against sympathetic elected officials to stir up their base and shore up his own reputation as an idealogical stalwart. Instead, Douthat’s critique of American politics more closely echoes the charges of greed and moral corruption that the prophets and the apostles leveled at the Israelites, Romans and surrounding nations.
Douthat kicked off his book tour with a conversation with Barbara Hagerty (religion reporter for NPR) and Michael Gerson (columnist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush) in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Trinity Forum. He outlined his book, citing what he saw as the major heresies dominating American culture and traced what he thought was the biblical worldview’s gradual retreat from public life. Hagerty and Gerson praised Douthat’s book and his writing for the expected reasons—his insight, his wit, etc.—and challenged him to further flesh out his message in some interesting ways: Given that women’s rights are shaping up to be a major element of American political debate this year, how would he discuss women’s rights from a biblical perspective? Is he being too harsh on movements like the gospel of wealth, which seems to be spurring one of the most vibrant spurts of Christian growth in the world at the moment?
The only firm conclusion I think anyone on stage tonight really advocated was that Christians should strive to be “politically engaged, but not partisan.”
Obviously, that’s a message I can agree with.
Former senator Rick Santorum ended his campaign for the Republican nomination for president this week, effectively inaugurating the general election. Former governor Mitt Romney, long the presumptive nominee, no longer faces any realistic challengers in the Republican primary, and he and President Obama have begun attacking one another more directly in their public remarks.
In the weeks ahead, the two major political parties, along with scores of television anchors, radio hosts, deceptively named special interest groups and political action committees, will begin advocating for their preferred candidates aggressively. They’ll hold rallies to motivate sympathetic voters. They’ll release ads designed to persuade undecideds. They’ll send volunteers and paid staffers door-to-door armed with talking points written by researchers who have studied the psychological profile of people from every demographic, professional guild and magazine mailing list to which you belong.
And most of them will be trying to make you afraid.
Afraid of a general American decline. Afraid of a war against a particular right or class. Afraid of the death of an industry. Or just afraid of death.
“My opponent doesn’t want to see you flourish,” is the message underpinning too much political conversation in this country. What makes it such a dangerous message to be use as a political attack, though, is that, to some degree, it’s universally true: We know that every human being is fallen, and that means that every human being has a propensity to try to seize power and authority that only belongs to God. We are prone to self-interest, and we look out for our own interest or our own tribe’s interest when the scripture calls us to seek the peace and prosperity of strangers, enemies and hostile cities.
It takes a deep, abiding humility born of the gospel to admit a brokenness that is so fundamental without the admission crushing your sense of self. And keeping that innate, fallen disregard for Other Groups in check requires that you be surrounded by people who aren bold enough to call you out on it and sympathetic enough to encourage you to transcend it. Being a judge, a legislator or a chief executive doesn’t exempt you from human nature, and implying that a universal human fault is true only of the “other side” makes it harder to remember that we are all fallen.
However, just being told that a candidate doesn’t want to see you flourish isn’t enough to incite fear. No, the fear really gets stoked when the campaign volunteer on the other end of the phone implies that if the other party wins the election, they’d actually have the power to keep you from flourishing.
Christians reject the belief that any candidate or party has ultimate, apocalyptical power over the fate of a nation because we know the fate of all nations, and it isn’t degradation. It’s renewal.
For millennia, people hoped that a cycle of death and the slow encroaching of entropy weren’t the final truths. For centuries, the prophets of the Old Testament, against almost evidence, affirmed those hopes, saying that the will of God was to gather all the nations to Himself, raise up the low places and make the bent paths straight.
For Christians struggling with the dire forecasts of a presidential campaign year, Jesus’ resurrection offers us two assurances: That life and flourishing can and will overcome even the most inexorable forces of decay and death, and that that ultimate victory of life over death will come from God, not from our own hands. Just as the apostles didn’t need to administer CPR or vote Jesus back into their circle, so even the most inept public administrator will see at the resurrection that all things worked for the good of God’s beloved people, and no policy that they bungled could stop all the old, worn things of this world from being made new.
When you’re at a bar, or a coffee shop, or your children’s baseball game, and a friend tells you to be afraid, you have the right to respectfully refuse.
Just a few days earlier, they had given Jesus a royal welcome to Jerusalem in anticipation of his instituting a new monarchy on the eve of the Passover feast. Instead, in the early morning, he was arrested, and his closest friends scattered like roaches. They denied even knowing him, and were so afraid of joining him that they took on the humiliation of running away nakedin a time and culture in which even running in your finest clothing was cause for shame. Most of the ones who stayed to watch his unfair trial and subsequent execution stayed hidden in the crowd.
The reason we know how cowardly, short-sighted and self-interested Jesus’ closest friends were when the going got tough, though, is because they weren’t afraid to say so after his resurrection. Peter, the earliest senior officer of the new Christian church, made no secret about the fact that he denied even knowing Jesus. The only story about his life that James, Jesus’ younger brother, told was about being rebuked and turned away by his older brother for presuming that he would get any attention from him at all. Saul, one of Christianity’s earliest ambassadors to other cultures, made sure people knew he started his career waiting on the people who persecuted and executed Jesus’ followers.
They were wrong about what they expected from Jesus, what they thought of themselves and the way they thought God would work in the world. Why were they willing to admit that? Because they saw the resurrected Jesus. After his resurrection, they understood that he didn’t go through the suffering of good Friday because of them—he went through it for them.
The resurrection had left Jesus’ friends and Christianity’s best early ambassadors so assured of God’s acceptance of them that they could admit their most heinous wrongs—even wrongs they had done to Jesus himself. Even after the resurrection, Peter’s confidence in God’s love was such that he could openly admit when he was wrong about whether Gentiles had to live like Jews to be part of the Christian community.
There are going to be times when we fail to live the lives we should be living. There are going to be times when facts we are sure of turn out to be incorrect. The more personally we understand Good Friday, the more willing we are going to be to concede to the truth. Let’s let Holy Week be a reminder to us to be honest with ourselves, and not feel threatened when the truth isn’t what we wish it to be.
Palm Sunday commemorates an event known as The Triumphal Entry: Jesus was heading to Jerusalem for the Passover feast (and to his execution). He had been teaching and performing miracles for just a few short years, yet there were people in every village and city around Jerusalem that recognized him as the messiah, and a crowd of them had gathered at the city gate to welcome him. They didn’t have a red carpet to roll out for him, so as he approached on a donkey, they carpeted the street leading into the city gate with leaves from nearby palm trees and even their own shirts, coats and robes—quite a sacrifice, since many of them likely had only one set of clothes.
Their enthusiasm is understandable, because they knew enough to expect that when Jesus got to Jerusalem, something big was going to happen. They knew that the messiah was supposed to usher in a new kingdom, and they expected that Jesus was going to raise a rebellion against Rome that week and start a new Israelite monarchy.
Of course, something bigger happened that week than most of them expected. Jesus was executed and resurrected, and extended the invitation into his coming kingdom not just to Jews but to the occupying Romans and to gentiles as well. The crowd who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem was expecting a military coup, because that was their only frame of reference for how the world around them could be changed. Rather than becoming a competing power, though, Jesus showed the world that there is a transcendent power. His life testifies to the fact that that power is dedicated to renewal, not domination.
Until the heavens and earth are divinely renewed, Jesus’ followers are supposed to live their lives in ways that give the world around us a taste of what that future kingdom will be like. We should be as eager and enthusiastic about that privilege as the Israelites who laid their only shirts in the dirt to be walked on by a donkey. But we also need to remember that we aren’t yet made perfect. Despite the beautiful, compelling vision the Bible has for healing and flourishing in our world, we’re still just as prone to short-sightedness and mis-understanding as the crowd who welcomed Jesus to his final Passover.
Welcome to Vision of the City, a blog dedicated to exploring what Christianity has to say about approaching civics, politics and public life. I’m not a pastor or a politician (though I have worked for both politicians and churches), and neither are most of the contributors who are going to be adding to the site in the coming months. Wherever you are on the political spectrum and whatever faith you profess, I hope you find the conversations we start here challenging, exciting and encouraging. Or at least interesting.