The 2016 Election and The American Church

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Last week, John Stonestreet of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview asked me to participate in a Breakpoint symposium with other writers and thinkers (John Stonestreet, Mindy Belz, R. R. Reno, Rod Dreher, and more). We were given the space of 350 words to respond to the following question:

“What has the 2016 election revealed about the state of the Church and its place in American culture, and how ought we (the American Church) move forward from here?”

I encourage you check out the various answers, which go in a number of different directions. I chose to answer this question by widening the view so we can see how political engagement is taking place. The question before us is not only about political positions, but also political posture and how Christian convictions are brought to bear on how we engage in the future.

Here’s my answer:

First, the Church’s political witness has fractured along many of the same fault lines we see in the wider culture, where one’s vote is more likely to be influenced by generation, race, or political affiliation than by religious conviction.

Secondly, the Church’s political passions have, like the wider culture, been fueled by self-selected social media and news organizations that do more to affirm the rightness of preexisting views than to inform and challenge with truth instead of spin.

Third, the Church’s political posture has degenerated into a despairing defensiveness, proving we are just as susceptible as the rest of society to apocalyptic rhetoric and demagoguery from both the right and the left.

Overall, the 2016 election has shown how the Church’s political engagement is shot through with ressentiment—the Nietzschean concept warned about by James Davison Hunter, in which we ground ourselves “in a narrative of injury. . . a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged.” Surveying our political landscape driven by rights, wrongs, and a mindset of entitlement, the Church has adopted the same posture as other groups, and has embraced fear as the primary motivator for political involvement.

Moving forward, the Church must look for ways to reclaim and embody the Christian virtue of hope—the only sword sharp enough to cut through the marrow of ressentiment. Society often reduces hope to a wish, a human longing for a future that may or may not be certain. The Christian sees hope as rooted in God and His promises. Hope challenges the Church’s fear of injustice going unnoticed by reminding us of the future when God will right all wrongs. We trust not in our own efforts to bring about a particular vision of the future, but in God to restore His creation and make everything right again.

Further, hope challenges ressentiment with cheerful courage in the face of opposition. Hope calls us to replace bitterness and grievances with confidence in God’s good purposes for the world, and love for the people who may injure us.

Hope also calls us to personal repentance and relational restoration. In hope, we extend the hand of fellowship to believers who have wounded or disappointed us. In hope, we apologize for our own harshness and hard-heartedness. In hope, we recommit to one another as an act of faith: a sign that communities matter, that people matter more than politics, and that mediating institutions (like the Church) are indispensable to the common good.

I’ve got a lot more to say about this election, but it will have to wait for a few days and weeks. For starters, I do believe this contrast of ressentiment and hope to be crucial for our involvement in the Trump era. There are a number of good responses to this question over at Breakpoint’s Symposium. I recommend you check out the others also.

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