Politics and Pessimism

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.   (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

Supreme Court front steps looking up

voteNovember 6 is Election Day in the USA.  One can wish that campaigns and elections would make us more hopeful, that change for the better is going to occur.  Unfortunately, election campaigns often bring out pessimism in many people, perhaps because of the negative tone of some campaigns.  Lots of fear mongering is done.   Many people feel campaigns have gotten more negative through time.    I would just note that throughout history, there have always been voices which have claimed that yesterday was better than today will be and today will be better than tomorrow.  St Cyprian of Carthage (martyred in 258AD) at one point in his life lamented the decline of everything in his day: the weather, the military, justice, friendship, skills and ethics.  [One can hear Ronald Reagan saying, “There you go again . . .”]  He no doubt would have found election time proof of the decline of civility and civilization.  His is a familiar voice we can find in history – things are declining. His lament about the declining fortunes of his time:

In winter there is not as great an abundance of rain storms for nourishing seeds as before, in summer the temperature does not reach normal oven heat for preparing the crops for ripening, nor in the mild season of spring do the crops flourish as they did once, nor are the autumn crops so abundant as before with trees bearing fruit. There are less marble slabs brought forth from mountains that have been mined out and are exhausted. Their mines, hollowed out, now supply less wealth in silver and in gold, and their impoverished veins of metals run short as each day proceeds. The farm laborer grows less in number in the fields, and ceases to be available. The sailor at sea, similarly, has vanished, like the soldier in the barracks, integrity in the Forum, justice in the court, concord between friends in alliance, skill in practicing the arts, and moral order in practicing ethics.   (On The Church: Select Treatises, Kindle Loc. 1408-15)

I do find the campaign process to be spiritually oppressive, and I see the fears, anxieties and anger which grow in people during elections.  And yet, I think this process, as much as I dislike it, to be a good sign for our country and humanity in general.  It is easy to imagine that life used to be better, but for us Christians, hope does not lie in the past but in what lies ahead.   As St Paul says,  “. . . one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

I used to think of America as an optimistic country.  American ingenuity sparked hoped.  The American can-do spirit kept us pushing into the future’s ever expanding vision.  The horizon was ever expanding and we were always pushing toward it no matter how far it kept receding.  Boundlessness seemed part of our attitude.  Of course, such thinking also at times contributed to our excesses, wastefulness, selfish consumption and rapacious greed.  What we need to learn to balance is the boundless hope with the reality of how our behavior affects others and our planet.  Profit is not always evil, though greed is real and destructive.  Concern for the environment doesn’t have to mean all consumption is wrong – humans need to live.  Both extremes need to bring humanity back into the picture, both need to consider how to benefit a growing population in a sustainable way.

I saw a bumper sticker today which read, “It’s easy to wave the flag, harder to carry it.”  I don’t know if that is a slogan of some organization, but that doesn’t matter to me as I’m not advocating for them.  The words express a truth.  Part of the burden for Americans of carrying the flag is democracy itself – and caring about the country and one’s fellow citizens.  The election process is messy and at times brings out pessimism in many.  It als0 is part of the burden of democracy, it is the weight of the American flag.  We are asked to choose between candidates who are imperfect and issues which are complicated.   I hope we will show that we are worthy of carrying that flag not just waving it.  Carrying the flag means  enduring campaigns, and working together for the common good even when we disagree on issues or solutions.  When we value each other as fellow citizens then we will make America great.  Look for politicians who actually care about their constituents more than their political ideologies.

Truly, democracy and elections cannot solve all our human problems, and sometimes contribute to them.  Yet democracy allows us to light a candle, not just curse the darkness.  It is a sign that we can change, that we are capable of creatively working together to deal with some of the issues confronting us, that we can survive our own mistakes, and that there is reason to hope that we can make some things better.   Democracy is not foolproof – the best candidate doesn’t always win.  Democracy is not omniscient or omnipotent but it can show us the need for looking at issues from different perspectives and the need for cooperation in order to produce better solutions.  It can also show us why we need divine help to deal with human problems.   We do need Wisdom of God to solve issues which are greater than our limited knowledge and perspectives.   We need that godly hope to overcome our fears and failures and to see potential instead of only our limitations.  We need the love of God to energize us to overcome our selfishness so that we work for a greater good.  Even if things are worse than they used to be, we can show up and care for one another, rather than simply despair.

Remember, O Lord, this nation and her civil authorities, those who serve in the government and the armed forces. Grant them a secure and lasting peace; speak good things in their hearts concerning your Church and all your people, so that we, in their tranquility, may lead a calm and peaceful life in all godliness and sanctity.  (from the Liturgy of St. Basil)

Reducing the Church to Politics

I have often read that a serious problem which occurs when church and state are so enmeshed as to be indistinguishable.   People who are marginalized by the state or oppressed by the state or whose consciences are troubled by the deeds of the state, have no where to turn to seek solace and refuge when the church is in complete sync with the state. And often the church ends up submitting to the state on many issues.

Some claim this is why in America “traditional” Christianity is on the decline, and why people instead turn to New Age religions or embrace spirituality instead of religion.  These alternatives allow them to see life and the nation freed from the government or politically correct view point.  Official or traditional religion ends up sounding so much like the state that people begin to look for a spiritual alternative. So Ted Peters wrote in his 1991 book,  THE COSMIC SELF: A PENETRATING LOOK AT TODAY’S NEW AGE MOVEMENT :

While church leaders have been occupying themselves with the world of secular politics, millions of people have begun to turn once again to religion. They are embarking on a spiritual quest: they want to find the source and meaning of their existence; to regain a sense of transcendent divinity; and to find a way to integrate human beings with one another, with nature, and with the whole of reality….’

At root the human potential movement is seeking a new cosmology, a new grounding for reality. The key to this new cosmology is the innate connection between self and world. It seeks to overcome the dualism of modern mind that separates subject and object, the humanities from the sciences.’   (as quoted by George Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe, Kindle Location 138-142)

At the exact same time that denomination and church leaders try to leverage their power through influencing the voting habits of their constituents, the people in the pew find themselves turned off by the political bent of religion and seek to find a spirituality that is not so conformed to or determined by the news or nationalistic trends.  An other worldly dimension is what many are seeking from religion – not a church which embeds them more in this world, but which brings them into contact with the boundlessness of the divine life.

Something for American Christians to consider as we into a presidential campaign year.  Politicians love it if we conform en masse to their message or support them or their party as if it were the church.   And in so doing they often are shaping the religious messages and spiritual beliefs of those following the political leader.    The politician’s goal is to get elected.    The goal of any political party is to get their candidates elected.  Are they willing to bend and shape and even mislead in order to get voters to get on their bandwagons?  Certainly.  Are they happy if they can capture Christian denominations en masse to vote their way?  Ecstatic.  It makes their job easy.  They create an illusion that they are empowering the voters when in fact they are taking the power away from the voter and putting it in a political party or ideology.  They make an appeal to the religious nature of voters, but then will embed those beliefs in their secular ideology and goals.

Christians need to read and study the Gospel carefully about Christ’s own attitude toward political power.  The early Church did not rely on political power to get its message to the world.  It relied on the membership living the Gospel and remaining faithful to the teachings of Christ.

We Christian should never hand over our votes en masse to any candidate.  Make them work for every vote, and hold them to their promises.  There is power in withholding endorsements.  The politicians have to pay more attention to those whose votes they want to win.

RussianbishopsAnd we can remember that when the church is too cozy with any political party or ideology, in America at least, we will lose some adherents to all kinds of independent spiritualities.  Some really are looking to the Church to proclaim the Good News of God’s kingdom and to offer a spiritual vision of reality rather than simply trying to get people to conform to a political agenda.

Of course the other extreme is to be so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good as Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have quipped.  The issue for the church is to be a light to the world, which we cannot be if we allow ourselves to be identified with any political ideology.  We are not called to be disinterested in democratic elections, but we must always remember the goals of a political party are not the goals of the Church.  We must always be wise to the fact that politicians will use us to their advantage if we let them.  And they hope that we believe they will carry out the will of God whether or not they can even say what that will is.

Calming the Presidential Campaign Rhetoric: Christ is Savior

Lots of Americans on both extremes of the American political spectrum get fervently wound up in election year imagining some apocalypse if their favored presidential candidate does NOT win the election.  I don’t know whether that is the product of the negative campaign ads or the reason the campaigns constantly run those ads.

For Christians, we live by a truth which is outside of the effects of who wins the U.S. presidential election:  Jesus Christ is Lord, God and Savior.

No election can change that simple, yet eternal truth.   So however much we fear the “other” party’s candidate winning the election, we do need to keep perspective.  Jesus Christ is Lord, yesterday, today, forever (Hebrews 13:8).

“As the prominent biblical scholar N.T. Wright says, if Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. The Priene inscription called Caesar ‘savior’ – savior of the world, bringer of peace and justice to which Paul says, ‘No way!’ We must add, therefore, that if God is savior, Caesar is not. And if God’s salvation, including peace and justice, comes through Jesus, then it does not come through Caesar – or any other political or imperial force or figure.” (Michael J. Gorman, Reading Paul, pg. 44)

That “any other political or imperial force or figure” includes the President of the United States and the United States itself.  Just for the sake of a little humility for us Americans and to deal with our own hubris, we might remember that the devil in Luke 4:5-6 when tempting Jesus says all the authority and glory of every kingdom on earth belongs to him, and he offers it to Jesus who refuses it.   Salvation comes through Jesus Christ, not through the US, or through the US only if the right man gets elected president.  Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of lords, showed little interest in governments and their power.

None of this is to say that it doesn’t matter who wins the election.  Since we do believe in free will, every decision matters and has its effect, great or small, on the universe.  But the complexity of the universe and the the love of God interact in such a manifold matrix, that we have Christ testifying to the fact that God the Father gives both rain and sunshine to the good and evil, the just and the unjust, the righteous and the unrighteous:

“… your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)

Jesus attributes this particular behavior of God to His love, and then goes on to say we are to be as perfect in this love as God.   So we as Christians can have strong partisan, even polarizing, political feelings, but then as Christians, we are obliged to love the other as God does.

Cultural Cognition: Why Talk Show Hosts Always Have an Audience

While in my car today I heard a story on NPR, “Belief in Climate Change Hinges on Worldview,” which piqued my interest.  Though the story began looking at the polarization of sides in the current climate debates, it turned its attention to The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School which studies how people’s cultural identities shape their views on issues of fact.  One might say it is looking at the issue of why people hear what they want to hear in issues of dispute.  The project’s claimed goal is to study how in a democracy this human tendency to conform beliefs to one’s cultural identity can be dealt with so that public debate and discussion on polarizing issues is possible.   Even scientific facts presented to people often do not change their opinions because they adhere to the ideas of the groups they identify with.  “People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their world view.”   This should be a serious challenge to those “new atheists” who think that they can reshape humanity simply by offering scientific fact and logical arguments.  People will be people and will continue to believe what they want to believe – this is not something true only of religious people, it is a fact about humanity itself, atheists included. 

This also goes a long way in explaining why we have the political gridlock we have in government today.  “It doesn’t matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom onto the positive information.” People are not so much looking for the facts to shape their opinions as they are to hearing ideas (whether factual or farcical) which reinforce the opinions their cultural identity group already holds.   Sadly this means left and right winged talk show hosts will always have an eager audience needing someone to feed them what they want to hear.  And with the recent Supreme Court decision, political negative advertisers can rejoice that their targeted audiences will gleefully allow themselves to be fed any dirt they dish.

Those interested in trying to understand the issues or the sides around an issue are most liked only going to get buried by the bewildering blizzard of beliefs that the disputing sides hurl at each other.   Politicians of course learn (and are rewarded for!) how to keep repeating the (dis-)information their adherents want to hear.  It is the closing of the public’s mind based in cultural cognition.   [It probably also explains why some juries come to the verdicts they do dispite the evidence so obvious to others].

Scientists themselves need to learn from what the social sciences have come to realize about how people relate to and react to scientific data. 

“Like fans at a sporting contest, people deal with evidence selectively to promote their emotional interest in their group. On issues ranging from climate change to gun control, from synthetic biology to counter-terrorism, they take their cue about what they should feel, and hence believe, from the cheers and boos of the home crowd.”

People do not react to data and facts only logically like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock or  Lt. Commander Data.  People receive information in a cultural context and often relate to who is presenting the facts more than the facts which are presented.   In an editorial in Nature entitled “Fixing the Communications Failure” scientists are asked to consider these findings in cultural cognition.

“It would not be a gross simplification to say that science needs better marketing. Unlike commercial advertising, however, the goal of these techniques is not to induce public acceptance of any particular conclusion, but rather to create an environment for the public’s open-minded, unbiased consideration of the best available scientific information.

As straightforward as these recommendations might seem, however, science communicators routinely flout them. The prevailing approach is still simply to flood the public with as much sound data as possible on the assumption that the truth is bound, eventually, to drown out its competitors. If, however, the truth carries implications that threaten people’s cultural values, then holding their heads underwater is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence. This reaction is substantially reinforced when, as often happens, the message is put across by public communicators who are unmistakably associated with particular cultural outlooks or styles — the more so if such advocates indulge in partisan rhetoric, ridiculing opponents as corrupt or devoid of reason. This approach encourages citizens to experience scientific debates as contests between warring cultural factions — and to pick sides accordingly.”

Civil Forum Looks at Barack Obama and John McCain

For those wanting to take a fresh look at John McCain and Barack Obama, I would suggest you watch the Civil Forum which Rick Warren of Saddleback Church led this past week.   I think some of the questions Rick Warren asked are excellent questions, and a good way to get some sense of what each man would bring to the White House.    You can watch the Civil Forum interviews with the two presidential candidates :

Forum Part 1:

http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/08/16/warren.forum/#cnnSTCVideo

Once you get to the Part 1 of the Forum, you can see the links to all  parts of the Forum.