August 3, 2012
By Clay Cooke
Recent Capital Commentary articles by Michael J. Gerson and Amy E. Black have underscored the salient issue of political polarization in America. They have suggested that the United States is an increasingly divided nation defined in large part by the ideological battle over “big government”—whether, that is, government is viewed primarily as the savior or cause of society’s ills.
It seems fair to say that this polarization is the most pressing political challenge we face on a day-to-day basis. We encounter it by way of the media, constantly absorbing stories about a divided American public, a heated presidential election or a partisan Congress. We are further inundated with culture wars inflamed by news outlets that are themselves partisan. And perhaps felt most personally, in the present age of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit (to name a few), we experience this antagonistic rhetoric by way of social media, where we can indirectly spar with friends and strangers alike on the latest hot-button issues.
Yet it is striking how infrequently I—and I believe many others—encounter this sharp divisiveness or uncivil discourse in face-to-face interactions. While folks seem to enjoy a good political feud on cable news, Capitol Hill or Facebook, genuine political dialogue seems to be largely avoided in direct, person-to-person exchanges.
As one who wishes to take his citizenship in the Kingdom of God seriously, I learned some years ago that I needed to move beyond my comfort zone in order to openly and graciously discuss my faith with others. As one who also hopes to take his American citizenship seriously, I am learning that I may need to take this same step in the political arena. For if those of us who worry about ideological gridlock do not participate in honest-but-civil political dialogue, then who will? Not the news media, not many of our elected officials and apparently not most of the social media world either. It is therefore our responsibility to ensure that caustic discourse does not acquire a monopoly in civic life.
The conclusion we are left with, then, is that ameliorating bitter partisanship may need to begin with this simple step: Let’s talk politics. That is to say, let’s intentionally pursue in person, sensitive and perhaps even awkward conversations about the common good. For it is in the art of conversation—where a person is a face and a life, not just a computer or television screen—that we learn to give and take, to listen and try on other points of view. This type of conversation is what our republic needs; it needs engaged citizens willing to blaze the trail of convicted-but-civil political discourse. Perhaps if we can re-learn this art, we can then take it to news and social media, and maybe even Capitol Hill.
As to those who are willing to take the risk of charitably discussing political issues in person, it is important to remember two things: First, from a Christian perspective the present U.S. government is neither savior nor enemy; it cannot solve all of America’s problems nor does it create most of them. For this reason, the lens of “big/small government” is unhelpful for overcoming the pervasive partisanship in our country. Instead, we need a distinctly Christian lens for viewing the role of government—one that perceives civic life in terms of justice, not how big or small the state becomes.
Second, as Christians it is essential to recognize that we are not ultimately defined by having the right answers to society’s problems. We are, instead, more accurately characterized as those who confess our complicity in the world’s sin and who, as a result, engage in repentant rather than triumphalist political dialogue. This form of discourse reminds us that we may find real, but not final, political solutions this side of heaven. Instead of placing an arrogant and domineering conviction in the “saviors” of big or small government, we can place a confessional faith in the Savior, Jesus Christ. This trust—this confessional and repentant posture—can open us up not only to consistent interaction with Jesus, but to consistent political interaction with our fellow citizens as well. In both cases, we are invited into a situation where simple, face-to-face dialogue fosters true deliberation. As we build this trust, we relent from our entrenched polarization in order to graciously wrestle with the issues—and one another—until the common good wins. Thus, in our faith and in our politics it is important to stress, “Let’s talk!”
—Clay Cooke is pursuing a PhD in Ethics at Fuller Seminary, with a minor in Historical Theology.