Note: This article will appear in the upcoming Fall 2016 issue of The MIT Et Spiritus. Follow us on Facebook for more updates!
The 2016 US Presidential Election is over. It was an election like no other, producing so many unprecedented storylines that none of us could keep our eyes away from. It feels like forever ago, but the primary season saw a record percentage of voters on the Republican side and the second highest percentage on the Democratic side participating. In the general election, a all-time high of 84 million people watched the first debate from their homes. And yet, it was one of the most depressing. Just a week before the election, a NYT/CBS poll found that 82% of voters had become more disgusted by American politics this campaign, compared to 13% who had become more excited.
Distracted by this stultifying mix of comedy and disaster voyeurism, we largely missed out on the opportunity to discuss and debate the best role of government in the 21st Century.1 And that’s a conversation we desperately need to have, because the one thing we can all agree on is that Washington isn’t working. Faced with a president-elect who has taken a wide variety of positions on nearly every issue, we need to ask ourselves: How should he actually govern?
As we return to this age-old question, we need to resist the temptation to fall back into our usual partisan ruts. For instance, in economics, we’ve had decades of Republicans arguing that we need to lower taxes and reduce regulation to spur economic growth, while Democrats argue that we need higher taxes on the rich and more regulation to restrain corporations and distribute economic benefits more widely. Repeating the same debate every cycle has made US politics more and more polarized, especially at the national level.
No, we all need to take a deep breath, step back from the battles and come together to think about the big picture. What led us here? What has changed about our country since whenever our history classes left off? What are the new challenges we face in the 21st Century? And what does God have to say about all of this? In the end, I hope we can all start to see politics as much more than stand-up comedy or partisan tug-of-war. At its root, politics is not even really about addressing the latest national controversy or advancing a particular agenda, but about bringing us together as citizens to do what we can’t do on our own. We might not think of it that way, but our involvement in many different types of communities, from churches to frats, small groups to volunteering, forms the building blocks of our public life. If we want to solve the problems we face in our politics, that’s where we should start.
How did we get here?
To understand our current moment, we need to grapple with the forces that led us here. In The Fractured Republic, conservative columnist Yuval Levin describes our country’s recent history as best summarized in a single word: diffusion. The image he cites is one familiar to many MIT students:
“In physics and chemistry, diffusion describes the tendency of particles in certain circumstances to move from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration. As the particles spread out, the overall cohesion of the matter is reduced. By analogy, in economic, political and cultural terms, we might think of diffusion as the tendency of a tightly wound body politic to begin to disperse in all directions, becoming more scattered and individuated. The process of societal diffusion therefore involves decentralization, diminishing conformity, declining uniformity, and weakening authority.” (p46)
This has been the story, Levin writes, of America in the last 70 years since World War Two, essentially all of living memory. And once you hear it, you can’t stop seeing it everywhere:
- Political authority, or even the whiff of it, proved toxic to many voters this election cycle. Recall how the curse of being labelled “establishment” passed from Jeb Bush to Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz during the Republican primary.
- Why did same-sex marriage gain such widespread acceptance so quickly? The message is basically, “Couples should get to define marriage how they see fit.” It’s a message particularly well-suited to a diffuse culture, and itself furthered that diffusion.
- Outside of politics, career ideals have also changed considerably. Instead of the dream of working one job at the same company until retirement, more varied and uncertain paths are becoming more prevalent and celebrated. As Sheryl Sandberg writes in Lean In, “The most common metaphor for careers is a ladder, but this concept no longer applies to most workers. As of 2010, the average American had held eleven jobs from the ages of eighteen to forty-six alone.”2 And you were thinking maybe two or three?
- Technology drives change, and the biggest technological shift in recent decades has been the rise of the Internet. It’s a near perfectly diffuse system: By curating what sources we consume, we create far more of our own custom channels than mass media ever could. Social media takes this to the next level, giving us our own personal news feeds.
- Finding a church when you move to a new area has changed considerably. Before, you might have just attended the church closest to you in your preferred denomination. Now, you look around for a church that’s right “for you.” It’s telling that we’ve come to describe this process as “shopping”, as we play the consumer role in more and more aspects of life.
- As anyone who’s been to the Activities Midway knows, MIT has hundreds of student groups, including about a dozen Christian fellowships. Why do we need so many? Because our culture, even just at MIT, is diffuse.
Again, to be clear, I’m not saying that these trends are all either good or bad. There are positives and negatives that come with each of them. For instance, a wide diversity of student groups allows more students to find somewhere they fit in well, where they can thrive. On the other hand, the constant turnover and competition for new students forces groups to spend a lot of effort recruiting, burning out student leaders every orientation.
Levin’s key argument is that we should take this cultural and economic diffusion as a fact of life, and stop seeking in vain to undo it. Instead of swimming against the current, we should try our best to ride the wave of diffusion and decentralization. Viable 21st Century political solutions need to be diffuse to match our diffuse culture.
This would be a massive shift in the priorities of both the left and right alike. Rather than trying by a show of political strength to win over a mainstream that is rapidly losing its influence, Christians on the right should seek to build attractive subcultures that can model the value of keeping norms that the rest of the country is eager to shed. Similarly, rather than falling for the technocratic dream of thinking we know what’s best for everyone across the entire country, Christians on the left should humbly give leeway for local government and non-profits to experiment with different approaches.3
What does God have to say?
Let’s be honest, this question feels quite out of place in this election. Most of us entered the voting booth feeling dirtied, or feeling like our arm had been twisted into voting for a candidate we didn’t really like in order to stop the other one. Voters in both parties experienced a degree of buyer’s remorse4 as incredible amounts of worrisome information (to say the least) was leaked about both candidates.5
The first step in being cleansed, in biblical times just as today, is to repent. This struck me most profoundly when reading Pastor James MacDonald’s words about whether Trump had repented of his past sexual sin:
Imagine if Mr. Trump abandoned all the finger pointing and blame shifting and truth twisting that has flowed like a river from all directions in this election cycle. Imagine if all of us descended from our various perches of imagined superiority and self righteousness and joined Mr. Trump in that repentance, as a people who have spoken and acted impulsively and foolishly both in the wrong we have done and in the good we have selfishly left undone. Imagine if a true majority stepped forward in repentance as the fallen people we are and embraced collectively the many failures and follies that have brought us to the sad state we saw as Sunday night’s debate began . . . That would be a true repentance that God Himself could bless. That would be a real and sustainable path to making America great again.
You might not feel personally at fault for this election season, especially if you voted for another candidate in the primaries, but we need to start with ourselves. Do we pay attention to politics merely as a matter of entertainment? Do we feel a perverted schadenfreude seeing a candidate we don’t like go down in the polls? Do we shake our heads and complain about them? As Pastor MacDonald opens and closes his post, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
When we are ready to come to God, we shouldn’t just fall into old patterns of thought, either. As Jim Wallis argues in God’s Politics, there are two common mistakes that politically-involved Christians often make.6 The first is to assume that proper engagement in the public square necessarily involves checking our faith at the door. God is personal, but He’s never private. Throughout history, God has always had a lot to say about the politics of the time, and we would be remiss to ignore it.
This is fairly easy to see when God rescues the Israelites from Egypt, or tells Samuel to anoint Saul as king, but the directness of those actions makes it somewhat hard to relate to the present day. This is one value in some of the Old Testament prophets, who frequently called out God’s people for the principles of the Torah they were failing to live out. Notice the co-mingling of issues of personal and public faith in passages like this one from Malachi:
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 3:5)
We see that even hot-topic political questions of proper wages and refugee resettlement are actually spiritual issues that grieve God. This isn’t an isolated passage, either; it’s hard to study most Old Testament prophets, many Psalms, the book of James, or the teachings of Jesus without getting the distinct impression that God is always on the side of the powerless, whether they be orphans, widows, sojourners, or oppressed workers. As Psalm 146:7-9 puts it,
“The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”
Yet, watching our political discourse, especially this election, you would be hard pressed to see this ubiquitous biblical message, even with the ongoing refugee crisis. And much of that silence is the fault of Christians on the political left, like Secretary Clinton, who generally avoid any mention of faith motivations for their positions that are not simply broadly agreeable.7
Why did white evangelical Christians vote in such dramatic numbers for Donald Trump?8 While we as Christians certainly have a lot of soul searching to do, it remains painfully obvious that the Clinton campaign did not even attempt to reach out to white Catholics and Protestants positively, unlike Obama and despite numerous Christian leaders speaking out against Donald Trump. Any such outreach turned out to be purely symbolic: For instance, she might have picked a deeply devout white Catholic in Tim Kaine as her running mate, but still only deployed him to Hispanic and African American churches.9 Given that, it’s very easy to conclude that Democrats are only interested in faith if it is used in the service of racial grievance.
This isn’t to say that matters of race are unimportant. But many Christians generally, and evangelical Christians in particular, are naturally very interested in how their faith should impact their politics. When white evangelical voters hear only conservatives even try to answer that question, they assume that the conservative perspective must be closely aligned to God’s.
Fortunately, despite this silence from politicians of all stripes, churches and lay Christians are still reading the Bible and discovering this heart of God for the downtrodden. As the New York Times reported, even Christian conservatives have taken the message of these passages to heart in assisting with refugee resettlement, whatever their political leaders have been saying.
The second common error we make in politics is to use God as a tool to justify our politics, rather than asking God for his priorities. As Wallis puts it,
“Human beings seem not to handle power very well. Of all people, religious leaders ought to know that best. Instead, religious leaders are often among the most easily corrupted by power, especially when they get close to political power. Doug Coe, the principal leader of the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., once told me that the best way to get religious leaders together was to invite them to a meeting with a powerful political leader — hence the sold-out successes of each year’s prayer breakfast. He said most church leaders generally ignored Jesus’s suggestion to take the humbler places at a banquet and wait until they are invited to “come up higher.” Instead, they jostle for the best positions and places at the events where the powerful gather. It regularly amazes me how good religious folks get so excited about sharing an intimate breakfast with the president and three thousand other people.”
The story of the religious right over the last thirty years is a sobering tale. As the book Blinded by Might by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson (no relation to James Dobson) argues, evangelicals were especially excited for their role in the election of Ronald Reagan and the access this gave them to the president. But this access to power became itself the new goal, even more important than the issues that initially animated the movement. Their embrace of Trump has carried this attraction to power to its logical — but depressing — conclusion: White evangelical Protestants have gone from the least likely to the most likely group to believe that “an elected official can behave ethically even if they have committed transgressions in their personal life.”
As Wallis argues, their error was that they short-circuited the process of political change. Instead of working to convince the broader public, they went straight for electoral organizing and an insider political strategy. Even when that work has succeeded in electing presidents, from Reagan to Trump, it hasn’t won the culture. Moreover, priorities like character that animated many to get involved in politics in the first place have been completely trampled in the quest for political power.
This trap is, sadly, very easy to fall into. Politics is modern-day war, and once you pick a side, there is considerable temptation to justify that side at all costs against the other side’s attacks. As different as the options are, our more important allegiance is to God, and we ought to hold both sides accountable to His priorities.
What then shall we do?
As MIT students, many of us are tempted by a certain type of hubris. Many of us want to change the world, to make a lasting difference that will substantially improve the lives of a considerable fraction of humanity.
If Trump’s election hasn’t already done so, the roadblocks we’ve seen should rein that ambition in. Our cultural diffusion makes it difficult to find widely effective solutions to big problems like poverty. What works best for urban black populations probably won’t help poor rural whites, and vice versa. It also makes most social change much harder and slower, since the mainstream has fragmented so much. This leads us to short-circuit the process and shoot for simple goals; politically, it becomes far more tempting to put all of our hope in whoever occupies the Oval Office.
Given these difficulties, it can also be tempting to completely check out, especially for busy MIT students. Far more of us are essentially apolitical than liberal, conservative or moderate. But this is also a mistake; as this election has brought to light, we have serious problems in our country that won’t be solved by moving to Canada.
I think our problem is that we have too limited a view of what engaging in politics means. There is far more to our collective life as a nation than a presidential election, as important as it is. The cynics are right about one thing — it’s hard to make a difference on the national scale. But that’s far from the only scale that exists.
Much closer to home, I’ve been encouraged by opportunities to join my church, City on a Hill, in working with various nonprofits to help low income families take school seriously, and with the city of Brookline to build community through events like family movie nights. Volunteering as individuals can certainly be effective, but coming together as the body of Christ to serve our world multiplies our efforts.
It’s not even just about getting involved in state, local and MIT politics, as much as student organizations need new leaders to step up. Get involved in bringing people together at the smallest possible levels as well — our churches, volunteer organizations, student clubs, sports teams, and living communities.
As many of us have turned to those communities in the craziness of this election season, we see that the human scale is where our hopes as a people should truly lie. Our fracturing society tends to treat everyone as individuals in broad categories based on identity, not belonging. The key to healing as a nation going forward will be coming together, not as voters or campaigners but as members of our respective communities.
For many of you, this might not involve doing something new, but simply a renewed passion for what you’re already doing. Especially for MIT students, it can be tempting to worry endlessly about scale — if what I’m doing is only helping the dozen people on my hall or in my small group, is that really worth it? In a diffuse world like ours, the answer is quite often yes.
1 There were some good debates on both sides of the aisle in the primary season, but the general election was almost entirely about the candidates’ personalities and pasts.
2 Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In, page 53, citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics. She also cites Pattie Sellers for a metaphor: “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.”
3 One example of the left’s penchant for centralization was the opposition to MA Ballot Measure 2, which would have raised the cap for the number of publicly funded charter schools in the state. Rather than encouraging diversity in approaches to the challenges of education, even in a state where such experimentation has generally worked well, popular progressives like Elizabeth Warren sided with teachers’ unions in ostensible support of one-size-fits-all public schools.
4 Politico reported in mid-September that 43% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats said that their candidate was not the best pick.
5 I’m phrasing these comments in a symmetric way to include everyone, not because I think the information we found about the two was equal in its concern.
6 While Wallis’s book was written in 2005, many of the observations he made became even bigger issues in 2016, just as Trump and Clinton were in some ways the natural product of the two parties’ trajectories.
7 I was surprised to hear Clinton quote Scripture in her concession speech. Yet her choice of Galatians 6:9, “do not grow weary in doing good,” was fairly generically applied to the good she sees in her campaign.
8 According to exit polls, an astonishing 81% of white evangelical / born-again Christians voted for Trump.
9 Of course, we should respect that Kaine regularly attends a traditionally black church, so he might not have felt comfortable reaching out to white churches. But then his selection shows Clinton’s priorities.