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 over 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.

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.

Re-Cap: Ross Douthat, Barbara Hagerty and Michael Gerson at the Trinity Forum

Bad Religion

Cover image taken from the Gospel Coalition

For the first time in a long time (possibly ever), groups that are driven by heresy dominate American public life and orthodox, biblical Christianity has little representation in the public square. That’s the premise of Ross Douthat’s new book, the provocatively titled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, which hit store shelves today. Douthat’s day job is as one of the New York Times‘ token conservative contributors and he makes no effort to couch his partisan allegiance. However, he also admits a simple truth that is now rare and refreshing: There’s room for people of the same Christian faith to vote differently.

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.

Election Year Fear

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, and deceptively named 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 try 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 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 tribe 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 that kind of fundamental brokenness 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 are 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. When candidates imply that a universal human fault is true only of the “other side,” it becomes a little harder for everyone to remember that we are all fallen.

However, just being told that a candidate doesn’t want to see you flourish isn’t always enough to incite the kind of fear that secures a vote. 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, apocalyptic 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 the cycle of death and the slow encroaching of entropy weren’t the final truths. Against almost all evidence, the prophets of the Old Testament 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: It tells us that life and flourishing can and will overcome even the most inexorable forces of decay and death, and it tells us that the ultimate victory of life over death will come from God, not from our own hands. The apostles didn’t need to administer CPR to raise Christ from the dead.

At the resurrection, even the most inept public administrator will see that all things worked for the good of God’s beloved people. No policy, no matter how badly bungled, can stop all the old, worn things of this world from eventually 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.