When voters go to the polls for US midterm elections this November, many will be motivated by a sense that the other side seeks to bully them.
According to a poll from the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, nearly identical percentages of Democrats (74%) and Republicans (73%) believe members of the opposing party are “generally bullies who want to impose their political beliefs on those who disagree.”
Similarly high percentages of Americans in both parties believe that members of the other side tend to be “generally untruthful and are pushing disinformation.”
These statistics reflect what a group of social scientists have termed “political sectarianism”—a “poisonous cocktail of othering, aversion and moralism” that “poses a threat to democracy.”
Sectarianism poses a threat to democracy because self-governance only makes sense in a culture where citizens care and think about someone other than themselves. According to a recent survey from Pew, however, most American voters believe public servants (let alone other voters) are in office to promote their own personal interests.
Here’s the deeper danger: Political sectarianism—and the culture it promotes—enables a destructive and suffocating social imaginary. Toxic politics deforms the whole person, along with their relationships and practices. It causes spiritual harm. Our civic culture doesn’t shape governance alone; it affects ever-expanding realms of the social and emotional.
We also need to come to terms with how much it claims and dictates our theology.
On the first Sunday after the tragic 2017 shooting massacre in Las Vegas, my pastor, David Hanke, shared the following two statistics from Barna in his sermon: First, that 57 percent of practicing Christians believe they have a right to defend themselves with violence. Second, that 11 percent of practicing Christians believe Jesus would agree with them.
The first point has been argued by believing Christians for millennia. The second, however, is where the main problem arises.
“It’s not just about violence; it’s about anything,” Hanke told us that morning. “If you are convinced about something and you don’t think Jesus would agree with you, that’s a problem. Our culture wouldn’t be so violent if we could all own how much we love it. It’s actually hard to see where violence might be necessary, because we are so entertained by it and in love with it.”
The social scientists who put forward the concept of “political sectarianism” harbor a similar concern.
“Democrats and Republicans have grown more contemptuous of opposing partisans for decades, and at similar rates,” they write. “Only recently, however has this aversion exceeded their affection for copartisans … Out-party hate has become more powerful than in-party love as a predictor of voting behavior.”
Think about that. Out-party hate has become more powerful than in-party love. Many voters would choose to forgo helping themselves if it means passing up the opportunity to harm their opponents. We’ve lost the imagination for a politics that helps people and instead bought into a political logic that justifies hurting them. And we tell ourselves, This is just how the game is played. They’ll do it to us if we don’t do it to them. But would Jesus agree?
Despite the disappointments and mistakes of the past, I’m convinced that we have everything we need to tell a different story.
First, despite the rise of political sectarianism, Americans, including many Christians, are fighting against this anti-social imaginary. They do so mostly through local engagement, not through national politics. They do so through action, not symbolism. And they do so for concrete purposes, not with abstract culture change in mind. We need to put these practical Christian actions (and the resources behind them) into contact with the distorted narratives that dominate our political life.
Second, the Christian faith offers tremendous resources for combating political sectarianism and so much else that ails our politics, but we have to connect those resources to our public life and politics. Christians don’t need to be reminded of kindness, gentleness, and joy. But many do need to be convinced that the way of Jesus is up to the task of politics. They need to be convinced that the public arena, too, is a forum for faithfulness.
That doesn’t mean making every policy a matter of religious dogma. Quite the opposite! One of the greatest contributions Christians can make to our politics right now is caring about it without making an idol of it, and then reminding our country that political decisions are very rarely a simple issue of dogma—religious or secular—and more often about prudential matters.
We should pursue faithfulness even when it can’t be reduced to a proposition.
Third, this faithfulness can be offered as a loving service to our communities and our nation. Most Americans don’t like what our politics is doing to us, but they’re too exhausted to push back and build something new. The public is more open than we think to public leaders who make genuine contributions, rather than impose themselves on others and grab power. It’s times like these—when everything seems contested—that it’s most worthwhile to step into the fray if we have something to add. And we do.
These convictions ground The Center for Christianity and Public Life, a new nonpartisan institution based in the nation’s capital that I, along with our board and staff, have launched this week. Our mission is to contend for the credibility of Christian resources in public life and for the public good. We advance that mission through two parallel streams of work: civic influence and spiritual formation.
No single organization or leader will solve the problems we face. There’s no silver bullet to the social and political dysfunction we see, and we should be wary of quick fixes. It will take many diverse leaders, organizations, churches, and Christians encouraging each other and partnering together to advance a basic vision of faithfulness to God and loving service to the public. This vision is key not just to our organizational vision but to the Body of Christ.
As we survey our public life and see what Parker Palmer called our “politics of the brokenhearted,” we need to have compassion. So many people feel harassed and helpless. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Matt 9:37).
I’m eager for more workers.
Dallas Willard defined joy as a “pervasive and constant sense of well-being.” How many of us would say our politics is full of a pervasive and constant sense of well-being? How many of us would say we bring a spirit of joy to our politics?
The loudest voices urge division and exclusion. They tell us that politics is only about conflict, that politics is where we go to play out our resentments and hatreds. They’re loud precisely because they feel so threatened, so fragile. Their well-being is always at risk. Their anger reflects a lack of confidence and conviction, not an abundance of it.
But politics needs people with joyful confidence who seek security not in politics but in Jesus. We can break the vicious cycle. There’s a better story to tell. And we should tell it as we live it.
Michael Wear is the President and CEO of the Center for Christianity and Public Life.