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Even a casual observer notices the overall lack of civility that currently pervades our political discourse. Peter Baker and Katie Rogers of The New York Times blame President Trump. While conceding that he’s not the only one, they observe that his “coarse discourse increasingly seems to inspire opponents to respond with vituperative words of their own.” As a case in point they cite Robert De Niro’s “four-letter condemnation” at the Tony Awards.

Political pundits identify this kind of bellicose language, and its concomitant behavior, as “the politics of rage.” I suppose this is apt. Consider the fact that at least one politician—Representative Waters of California—encouraged supporters to harass members of the Trump administration for their “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Moreover, according to Meredith Talusan, a transgender author and intersectional journalist, resorting to violence is necessary since “people in power have no motive to change their ways unless they feel threatened.”[1] Summarizing the matter in as few words as possible, legal scholar Steven D. Smith of the University of San Diego’s School of Law, characterizes the entire political landscape as a rather “unedifying spectacle.”[2]

How can Christians stand out during such a time as this? What should be the tenor of their political discussions—either with other Christians or non-Christians? Paul’s words to the saints in Philippi seem appropriate: “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (4:5). “Reasonableness” can also be rendered “gentleness,” “graciousness,” “consideration,” or—and this is my personal favorite—“magnanimity.” Our culture would do well to bring this word back into its vocabulary.

To be magnanimous is to be generous, big-hearted, forgiving, and free from vindictiveness. Sadly, these traits and character qualities are in short supply at present: “[T]he language of public life has lost the character of generosity, and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions,” writes novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson.[3]

As a Christian, I wonder if the heightened level of sensitivity stems from an overinvestment in politics, to such a degree that people equate their identity with their political convictions. To phrase it as a question: Has politics become a religion for some people? I’m inclined to think so, and I’m not the only one.

In her book Patriotic Grace, Peggy Noonan observes, “For more and more Americans, politics has become a religion. People find their meaning in it. They define themselves by their stands.”[4] While using different language, a number of theologians and philosophers agree with Noonan. As fundamentally liturgical and eschatological beings, theologians note that we are by nature worshipers—we want to give ourselves to something ultimate. In rejecting God and therefore denying eternity, we in turn “absolutize the temporal.”[5] Politics becomes the end-all be-all of our existence. We cut ourselves off from the transcendent and attempt to live within what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame.” But this can only satisfy for so long. We will look for satisfaction in another way: “Through consumption, pleasure, or a certain kind of tribalism, all of which have a way of temporarily distracting us from our longing for eternity.”[6]

Some time ago a friend posted on Facebook, “Different day, same people complaining.” To be sure, if we’re not careful our everyday small talk can easily slide into nothing more than grumbling and complaining (cf. Phil. 2:14). Likewise, if we fail to guard our lips—as the Scriptures admonish us (Ps. 141:3)—our political discussions become nothing more than exercises in windbaggery, as we pummel our friends and coworkers with whom we disagree—all behind a thin veneer of valor, of course.

Christians must eschew this kind of behavior and posture. Instead, may we be known for our sanctified rather than sanctimonious language. May we head Paul’s words: Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:6).

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[1] Meredith Talusan, “We’ve Always Been Nasty: Why the Feminist Movement Needs Trans Women and Gender-Noncomforming Femmes,” in Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, eds. Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding (New York: Picador, 2017), 197.

[2] Steven D. Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 26.

[3] Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), xiv.

[4] Peggy Noonan, Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It (New York: HarperColllins, 2001), 50–51. Alan Jacobs notes that people are emotionally invested in thinking the way they do. See Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (New York: Currency, 2017), 76.

[5] James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 22.

[6] Mike Cosper, “Piercing the Immanent Frame with an Ultralight Beam,” in Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, ed. Colin Hansen (Deerfield, IL: The Gospel Coalition, 2017), 154, emphasis added.