As a father of two boys, I’m grateful they are too young to track with the dumpster fire that is 2020. I’m glad they have no knowledge of all that has been lost, destroyed, closed, canceled, and humbled by this pandemic-crippled, politics-poisoned year. And yet the chaotic wreckage of this world is what they will inherit. It will be theirs to rebuild and reinvent. Will they be up for the task? As they grow into the next generation of leaders, will they chart a better course than the leaders who’ve let them down? Or will they—sinful as they are, as much as their forebears—succumb to the same temptations to prioritize power at the expense of virtue?
These are some of the questions raised by the new documentary Boys State, released today on Apple TV+. The winner of the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Boys State is a compelling and memorable look inside Texas Boys State—a mock government experiment (sponsored by American Legion since the 1930s) where hundreds of high-school seniors gather at the state capital for a week of faux state government. The documentary is at once inspiring and horrifying, not only because of what it reflects about the state of politics today, but also because its focus on the next generation provides both reason to cheer and fear.
Boys State is directed by documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss, whose recent credits include the Netflix series The Family (2019), which explored the intersection of evangelical faith and politics in Washington, D.C., and The Overnighters (2014), which I listed among the 15 best films about faith from the 2010s. Ross clearly seems interested in issues of faith and politics, and while he doesn’t overtly address faith in Boys State, the film nonetheless has much to offer Christians.
Sincere Convictions vs. Cynical Compromise
One consistent theme of Boys State is the unavoidable tension in politics between earnest idealism (sticking to the purity of one’s convictions, whatever the cost), and cynical pragmatism (doing and saying what’s necessary to gain or preserve power). The documentary focuses on four boys in particular—Steven Garza, Ben Feinstein, Robert Macdougal, and René Otero—and while all struggle with this tension, some lean more to one side or the other.
When winning is a bigger driver than conviction, ugliness abounds.
Steven, for example, is the purest idealist. The son of Mexican immigrants, he became interested in politics because of Bernie Sanders and clearly believes what he says about (unpopular-in-Texas) issues like gun control. On the other side politically, but no less earnest, is Ben: a Reagan-loving amputee who espouses individual responsibility and refuses to let his disability define him. The other two, Robert and René, lean toward cynical pragmatism. Outside of their desire to win, it’s not clear what they actually believe. The charismatic René, elected chairman of the “Nationalist” party before being threatened with impeachment, says at one point: “I’m gonna keep my job if it’s the last thing I do.” Robert, who campaigns to be the Nationalist nominee for president, is even more direct when he says: “I’m playing this like a game. . . . Sometimes you have to say what you have to say in order to win. Sometimes you can’t win on what you believe in your heart. You can’t win on a minority opinion in politics.”
Winning at All Costs
Robert’s words are troubling on many levels, but chiefly because they reflect the reality he’s grown up seeing. In part because of the horserace manner in which they’re covered, national electoral politics really has become a game. Reality TV. Survivor, government style. The rules are basically win at all costs. It’s all fair game: lies, manipulation, backstabbing, betrayal, “shock and awe” mudslinging. “It’s politics,” Ben says. “You play to win. . . . A message of unity is not winning anyone any elections. You have to use personal attacks. You have to find divisive issues.”
It’s tragic to see how these young men see politics chiefly as a game to be won rather than a commitment to realize. It’s discouraging to see how their politics intuitively prioritizes cult of personality over relational capital and consensus-building. But it’s not surprising. As partisan division and subsequent stalemate has ratcheted up in American politics, the notion that change happens through bipartisan collaboration has given way to an emphasis on brute, Darwinian victory or defeat. The goal is simply: get elected and get your party in power, and then punish the other side. But when winning is a bigger driver than conviction, ugliness abounds. You end up with people in office who get there mostly because they know what they need to do to win, not because they have commitments to virtue that will compel them to coherent actions once in power.
Lessons for Christians
Christians especially should beware of this pragmatic temptation. As believers in transcendent truth, revealed to us by God in Scripture, we of all people should be driven by conviction to political action, not driven by partisan politics to (convenient) conviction. Too many Christians today are willing to sideline biblical convictions when they are political liabilities, or let their priorities be shaped by wherever the political winds blow. Too many Christians seem more concerned with doing what’s necessary to win, or keep winning, than with doing what is right (even if it means losing). But the world is watching, and what they are seeing is not pretty.
Too many Christians today are willing to sideline biblical convictions when they are political liabilities, or let their priorities be shaped by wherever the political winds blow.
Boys State should prompt Christians to consider whether we might actually lose more by winning at all costs than we would by losing with our principles intact. But it also leaves us wondering whether political change can ever happen without some degree of convictional compromise. If consistent fidelity to biblical convictions is a strategy that can’t win elections in our current two-party system, what does that mean for Christians seeking to make a difference in politics? For young boys or girls of evangelical faith, are they fated to be politically homeless or impotent unless they compromise on one biblical point or another?
The film raised these troubling questions for me, and more. But it also left me with at least one hopeful thought. If all is truly fair game in politics—as it mostly is for the mock politics of Texas Boys State—then the next generation shouldn’t feel beholden to the old alignments and rigid binaries of the politics they’ve inherited. If the teenagers in Boys State can invent political parties and platforms from scratch, through collaborative discovery of shared convictions, then maybe it’s possible for the next generation of politically frustrated, currently unrepresented citizens of faith to do the same.