I penned my ponderous essay, “Why I Won’t Be Voting,” last week, in hopes that, having lobbed it into cyberspace, I could then quietly retreat again from all things election-related. Sure, I was planning to get up in the wee hours of the morning to watch election returns, but that was for mere entertainment value…like watching the Olympics, which also only comes around every four years. I had intended to strictly steer clear of Facebook on the day of and the day after the election, to avoid being swamped in hysteria. Unfortunately, my family was out of town, and, feeling socially isolated, I couldn’t resist puttering about and listening in. I beheld many strange and wonderful things, from the comical—people seriously contemplating emigrating to Canada (why only now, not in 2008? They’ve survived the last four years alright, haven’t they? And how exactly do they expect to find Canada less “socialist” than Obamerica?)—to the disturbing—people suggesting that Obama supporters might warrant church discipline. Mixed in, usually in linked articles rather than on Facebook itself, were a number of profound and thoughtful observations.
Having wallowed about for a day or two now in the reactions, and the reactions to the reactions, and the reactions to the reactions to the reactions, I find myself, despite my best intentions, ready to weigh in with my own two cents. The first cent is political, the second theological.
1. What took me the most by surprise about the election was the surprise at the result. I mean, sure I knew that people on the Right seemed mostly optimistic, and unrealistically so. But I had figured that it was the understandable brave face that everyone puts on when they go into battle, or when their team has a big game. Everyone wants to think that their side has a legitimate shot even when outgunned, and even when they have their doubts, they don’t share them with others—that just dampens the team spirit. But when defeat comes, you bow your head, say, “I knew it was an uphill battle,” shake hands, and move on. Right? Not the Right.
The reactions witnessed on the blogosphere, the media, and in social media yesterday were those of stunned incomprehension. It became clear that all the brash boasting had not been mere posturing, but sincere belief—sincere belief that despite the weakness, sliminess, and general dislikeableness of their candidate, that despite all the polls, the math, the expert predictions, their candidate was really going to win. Indeed, not only win, but many believed, trounce. In the end, it really wasn’t even that close, and it matched up almost perfectly to what the polls were predicting. Hard facts won. Delusions lost.
This reaction disturbed me, because it confirmed the Right’s steady journey away from reality that we have witnessed over the past few years. Somewhere along the way—I’m not sure when it happened—conservatives in America reached the conclusion that “the mainstream media” was not to be trusted. It was hopelessly tainted by liberal bias. Once this idea sunk in, the normal means of testing claims and forming judgments became useless. Anything that any respectable source of information or opinion said could be automatically discounted; indeed, not only could we legitimately doubt these claims, but we could generally assume that the opposite was the case. Around the same time, the Right reached the conclusion that scientists as a whole were gained by the same liberal bias. They were probably part of some conspiracy seeking for one world government. Anything they said could also be discounted, and indeed, the opposite assumed to be the case. So engrained have these habits become that the Right has begun to think of these biases as accepted facts. “Everyone knows” global warming is a hoax. “Everyone knows” the media is biased. These are just facts of life, right? Now, once you have determined that both expert scientific opinion and nearly all respected forms of journalism are unreliable and even openly deceptive, what are you to conclude? That truth is elusive and we can’t really know anything? No, that truth is certain and unchangeable and is what you want it to be. Personal impressions begin to trump all other considerations. I recall a revealing moment a couple years ago when a Republican congressman ranted to Ben Bernanke about how inflation was spiraling out of control. Bernanke calmly pointed out that according to all relevant data, the inflation rate was actually at its lowest in years, less than 2 percent. The congressman responded that he and his constituents, given their impressions, would beg to differ. The same attitude was manifest in the bizarrely exaggerated claims throughout the campaign about how bad the economy was, how Obama had wrecked America, and how he was the worst president ever. Sure, there were things to complain about, but it was hard to see how a sober evaluation of the data bore out any of these conclusions. And yet the odd thing was that they were presented not as opinions—”Well, from where we’re standing, Obama seems like the worst president we’ve ever had”—but as simple facts, which any rational person ought to accept.
“Any rational person”—ay, there’s the rub. Of course, in any partisan conflict, it is common for people to begin to think of their opponents as somehow stupid or irrational. But the Right has made this way of thinking its trademark. In the “War on Terror” this attitude allowed conservatives to convince themselves that Muslims were filled with an irrational and implacable hatred of America. Any discussion with them was useless, because they were incapable of rational discourse or human sympathy…they were, in essence, sub-human. Once such a conclusion had been reached, any argument they made, however reasonable, could be dismissed as a mere ploy.
Tuesday night revealed that now, conservatives have reached the same conclusion about their fellow Americans who disagree with them. Obama’s slap-in-the-face victory should have served as a wake-up call, a reminder that there was a real world out there beyond their fantasies, and ignoring it wasn’t going to get them anywhere. It was time for conservatives to take a good hard look in the mirror and say, “Gosh, we’re not very attractive anymore. I wonder why?” It was time for them to recognize that the majority of the country felt differently than them about Obama and its policies, and if they wanted to continue to claim to love America, they’d better find a way to accept this fact, and recognize that living in a society means accepting policies you don’t always like. Some, to their credit, have done so, and hopefully more will in the weeks and months ahead. For many leading conservatives however, confronted with the awful truth that they’ve been living in the Matrix, and there’s a real world out there to face up to, the response has been to retreat into the comfort of fantasy land, only now with a more militant edge.
The new rallying-cry of the Right is Romney’s appalling and much-maligned “Forty-seven percent” remarks. Conservatives are preparing to raise that as their banner (even while having the gall to accuse Obama of inciting “class warfare”!), adjusting the number slightly upward to 51%. It doesn’t matter that most people considered the moral sensibilities behind Romney’s remarks reprehensible. Nor does it matter that it was pointed out on all sides that they bore no relationship to the facts. It was simply not true that anything like 51% or 47% of the American people were freeloading off the largesse of Obama, nor that those who were freeloading were generally Obama supporters. But that didn’t matter. Because this fantasy provided an explanation to help rationalize what had happened. The reason the Right didn’t win was because it couldn’t win. It was hopeless. Why? Because a majority of the American people were now in the pay of the enemy. They were bribed. They didn’t give a hoot about the Constitution or the future of their country, so long as they received a never-ending supply of free stuff without ever having to work for it. Rush Limbaugh declared that it was hard to win when you were running against Santa Claus. Of course, this is pure fantasy from a statistical standpoint. Over half of Obama’s votes came from people earning more than $50,000 a year, a demographic that did side with Romney, but by a narrow margin (53%-45%). Not only that, but the group most likely to vote for Romney (by a 55%-44% margin) were retirees. Freeloaders, feeding from the public trough of Medicare and Social Security, right?
But the purpose of the narrative was not to describe facts. It was to help make sense of what otherwise seemed inexplicable. For so thoroughly had the Right equated their vision of the world with truth that the revelation that most did not share their vision could only be explained by positing that these voters were evil or irrational. Even better, such an explanation provided an excuse. Republicans need not blame themselves for their failures, when scapegoats were so near at hand. If 52% of the population were lazy and greedy and cared nothing about the direction of the country, then there was nothing the Right could’ve done.
A chasm of mutual incomprehension, in short, has opened up in American society. I had hoped that the election would provide an opportunity for self-examination, for taking stock, for righting this sinking ship of a decadent society. But on the contrary, it has seemed to only confirm the determination of conservatives to live in a separate parallel world, one in which they represent the true American and can write off a majority of their fellow citizens. Needless to say, if conservatives want to put forward a vision for America, it will have to be a vision for all Americans, a vision that can include them, their hopes, fears, and aspirations. By seemingly resigning themselves to the fact that they are and will be a minority, arrayed against a morally decadent majority incapable of judgment, the Right seems to be preparing for an age of factional strife in which a victorious minority can impose its will on the people. And even for those of us who think that many conservative values would, on the whole, be good for America, that is a frightful prospect.
We are at a crossroads, with three paths before us. 1) Conservatives can accept that they are a minority, and retreat, yielding the field of American public policy to the victors, and go into hiding as the prophesied doom approaches. 2) Conservatives can turn militant, harden their platform into one of racial and class warfare and hope their chance comes to impose it upon an unwilling majority. 3) Conservatives can recognize that they live in a divided country, with different values, different understandings of the good, and different views about how to reach it, and then try to figure out how to negotiate these differences, sticking to their principles while accepting the need to make compromises in practice, as the price of continued life together.
I hope and pray there are enough now willing to take the third option, and if so, I would try and console them with the thought that the divisions are not half so great as they imagine. Obama is not a raving socialist, nor are American liberals particularly liberal. They are a tad to the left on a political spectrum that is, by global and historical standards, quite narrow indeed. If we cannot figure out how to talk to people who share, in fact, most of our basic cultural and political assumptions, then we have lost the power of speech altogether. Such a call to learn to live life together is not a call to compromise with evil. First of all, I do not think it self-evidently obvious that the 51% who voted for Obama are evil—they had many good reasons, not least of which was the atrociously insincere candidate the Republicans put forward. But even if they were (and to be sure, some elements of the Democratic agenda, particularly among the most fervent pro-choice advocates, are evil), we mustn’t forget that we can only combat evil if we attempt to understand it. Just as we get nowhere by refusing to plumb the reasons why a Muslim suicide bomber would want to kill American civilians, we get nowhere by refusing to plumb the reasons why many Americans would want four more years of Obama. Comforting ourselves with the fairy tale that they just want Santa Claus will not get us anywhere.
2. Now, some theology.
I was troubled yesterday by the inundation of my Facebook feed with Christian brothers and sisters seeking solace and comfort in God in a time of trial. Let’s remember, they said, that God will never leave us nor forsake us. Let’s remember that Jesus is the King, and no earthly election can change that. Let’s remember that God is in control, and he is working his purposes out, mysterious though they may seem.
Why should this trouble me? Why would I be bothered at such fine and Scriptural sentiments? Well, two reasons. First is the “methinks the lady doth protest too much” consideration. To clasp your hands to your chest, hyperventilate, and repeat over and over, “I’m fine. I’m fine. I know it’s all going to be all right. It’s going to be all right” is generally a sign that you are not fine, and you don’t really think it’s going to be all right. Many folks yesterday seemed to speak as if they’d just lost a close relative and needed to find comfort in God in a time of such bewilderment and distress. I would rather them seek comfort in God than elsewhere, but if such comfort was needed, it suggests that many had a rather mixed up set of priorities (not to mention a tenuous grip on reality, since, as I said above, an Obama victory was almost a foregone conclusion). Second, and related, was the fact that only a Romney loss seemed to call for meditation on the discontinuity between God’s kingdom and our politics. In the lead up to the election, we heard little enough from Christians on the right about the need to keep things in perspective and remember that the result of the election is a fairly small thing in God’s eyes, and will not obstruct the progress of his kingdom. On the contrary, we were repeatedly told how much hinged upon it. A Romney victory, it seems, would have been taken as visible proof that God was at work—here was God’s grace and his government made manifest. Only a Romney defeat called for the sentiment that God moves in mysterious ways—his hand was now hidden, and we must simply trust.
Again, I’m glad that many Christians came to that conclusion, but I would ask them to remember that God’s hand is always more or less hidden, that he always moves in mysterious ways, and that whichever of these two candidates had won, it would not have been the visible manifestation of his gracious rule. If it takes a Democratic victory to keep Christians from immanentizing the eschaton, and remind them that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, then let’s have a few more such victories.
Perhaps more troubling, though, was the determination of some to persist nonetheless in discerning God’s hand of eschatological judgment made visible in the election. For these, Obama’s victory was not to be met with a humble acknowledgment “God moves in mysterious ways, and we’ll trust him, although we don’t know what he’s up to.” They did know what he was up to—judgment. Doug Wilson, after offering the standard reassurances that Jesus was Lord, and was in control even if we didn’t know why, immediately contradicted this agnosticism, declaring, “Given the wickedness of key elements in Obama’s agenda . . . we know that whatever the Lord is doing, it is for judgment and not for blessing.” We can know the will of the Lord in this case, and it was his will to judge this nation. Of course, Scripture gives us conflicting guidance when it comes to such attempts at prophetic discernment. We have cases like Job and the Tower of Siloam where we are taught clearly that we must not attempt to divine the Lord’s will in the vicissitudes of history—in particularly, we must not equate particular tragedies with acts of divine wrath and judgment. On the other hand, in the prophets, we find countless examples of just such equations—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, the whole lot of them, have little hesitation in saying, “This Assyrian invasion is the Lord’s punishment. This pestilence is the Lord’s punishment.” How do we reconcile this? I would tentatively suggest that the reconciliation is found in the fact that these are precisely prophets doing this. The ability to discern God’s hand in history is the definition of the gift of prophecy, and it is a gift that has, I would argue, ceased (although we can certainly debate that). This doesn’t mean we can make no attempts at discernment, but they must usually be highly tentative (there are times, of course, when discernment is important and possible—e.g., Germany in 1933—but they are rare), and they do not carry prescriptive weight.
This last point is key. If we know exactly what God is doing in particular events in history, then we can know exactly whose side we should be on. We can know what actions are for cursing and which are for blessing. And we can, on this basis, tell Christians exactly how they should respond to these circumstances. We are no longer left with the murky compass of prudence, but should be able to perceive all things clearly in the light of God’s judgment. The implication of remarks like Wilson’s, it would seem, is that we can know that those who voted for Obama were helping call down God’s curse upon us.
And in fact, Wilson draws precisely this conclusion—”Professing Christians who voted for Obama were either confusedly or rebelliously heaping up judgment for all of us.” Every “principled vote,” he says, offered in faith before the Lord, should be respected, “even if the vote cast differed from our own.” But he apparently has in mind votes for a third party vs. votes for Romney, since he goes on to classify all votes for Obama under the heading of unprincipled votes. Now, if I can know that a professing Christian is heaping up judgment for the rest of us, how should I be expected to treat that Christian? Will I want to live together with him in love and seek to understand him, or will I try to distance myself from him? It is hard to see how this kind of rhetoric can square with the doctrine of Christian liberty, or how it can be expected to have any effect other than intensifying divisions among Christians and rendering mutual understanding increasingly impossible. It is the theological equivalent of what the commentators at Fox News are doing—consigning all Obama voters to the realm of wickedness and irrationality, instead of trying to understand them.
Many Christians are clearly of the opinion that if pastors were doing their job right (including a more vigorous use of church discipline), there would not be many Obama supporters in the church. One friend wrote—
“we need to be serious about our Christianity. It’s not hard to see why President Obama was reelected. He won 43% of the Protestant vote, and 50% of the Catholic vote. I’ve got to ask – how can you be a Christian and vote for a blood-thirsty, baby-killing, free sex-loving agenda? How can you? I’ll tell you how – because our pastors and our churches have failed. They’ve not only failed to boldly proclaim the Gospel (which condemns both murder and free sex, as well as a host of other immoralities), but because they’ve failed to hold their congregations accountable. This is where a free and open membership has destroyed the church. Pastors must be serious about their obligation to Christ and His Church. What are the keys for, after all? If your members are in sin and are unwilling to repent, then they must be excommunicated. I’m not saying our churches can’t be full of sinners. They are, they must be, and they always will be. But our churches should be full of repentant sinners. ”
Faithfulness to Christ’s kingdom, this suggests, requires a particular affiliation in the earthly kingdom, and this needs to be policed by the ministers of Christ’s kingdom. You couldn’t find a much better example of why Protestant two-kingdoms doctrine is necessary.
Now, my beef with this is of course not that faithfulness to Christ’s kingdom never has anything to do with worldly politics. Obviously, I think it has a great deal to do with it, and there are times when a Christian’s duties should be clear. But even when they are clear (e.g., end the slave trade, protect the needy, resist abortion), the means to those ends are not always clear. In the present case, we have not been given a candidate who makes any plausible claim to stand for Christian principles. What we are left with is a prudential decision between two candidates who are likely to do a good deal of harm, in which we try to decide which will do the least harm. We should not consider it remotely obvious, in this circumstance, that one was the Christian choice, and that everyone who voted otherwise was a servant of wickedness or incapable of discernment. After all, as Steve Holmes has pointed out in a helpful essay, the large majority of Christians outside the US hoped for an Obama victory. Is that because all of them, too, are waiting for Santa Claus, or are heaping up God’s judgment on us? Really? It’s time for us to stop hiding in the ghetto, man up, and face the arduous task of persuasion and debate in a world where our own perspective is not the only plausible one, where we will meet disagreement at every turn, and no doubt find ourselves surprised to discover that it is, from time to time, intelligent disagreement.
(In addition to Holmes’s essay just linked, I recommend, for further reading, Matthew Tuininga’s reflections, a piece published by the Atlantic yesterday, and Peter Leithart’s butt-kicking prognosis at First Things.)
(UPDATE: See also this astonishingly trenchant analysis by Alastair Roberts of the differences between the way British Christians and American Christians approach politics, which resonates with a great deal of my own observations after more than three years here in the UK.)