Politics at Twilight

Faithful Political Engagement in an Age of Ideology
by Ryan Tafilowski

It may have seemed like the low point of American parliamentary politics when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore to shreds—literally, not merely ideologically—her copy of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address in February 2020, but it’s not nearly the most dramatic thing that has happened on our congressional floor. It would be difficult to match the savage ambush of Julius Caesar in the halls of the Roman Senate in 44 BC, but one American politician came close some eighteen hundred years later. In May of 1856, as the nation was barreling headlong into the Civil War, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina thrashed Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane right there in the Senate chambers, leaving him nearly dead. Sumner had just given a speech in which he accused Senator Andrew Butler—a relative of Brooks’—of engaging in an illicit affair with “the harlot, Slavery.” For this affront to both his family and the values of the South, Brooks caned Sumner until, as he himself put it, “I had punished him to my satisfaction.” The archives of the United States Senate mark the event as a symbol of “the breakdown of reasoned discourse.” Seems like an understatement.

But even with this sense of historical context, it’s hard to shake the feeling that American politics has become uniquely broken in recent years. In his book Democracy and Tradition, Jeffrey Stout writes that “the social practices that matter most directly to democracy . . . are the discursive practices of ethical deliberation and political debate.”[1] These ingredients—deliberation and debate—are in short supply in our hyper-polarized climate. This represents a dire problem, since democratic processes can only function properly in a discursive society where reasons are exchanged, scrutinized, and revised, and in which citizens are held accountable for their views. On one level, the divisions causing our institutions to seize up are nothing new. Political historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer have argued that American politics has been steadily polarizing along the “fault lines” of class, race, political ideology, and gender and sexuality since at least the 1970s.[2]  And yet over the last two decades, the trend away from deliberative discourse toward a kind of scorched earth politics on both ends of the spectrum has accelerated at a staggering pace: virtue signaling and performative moral posturing, the outrage cycle and the politics of grievance, cancel culture—all exacerbated by our consumption of media carefully curated by algorithms explicitly devised to confirm the views we already hold. To get a sense of the breakneck speed of this cultural shift, try to imagine a Democrat winning the party nomination—let alone the presidency—with a traditional view of marriage, as President Obama did only twelve years ago. Or, conversely, what Republican would dare to (publicly) characterize Islam as “a peaceful religion, a religion that respects the other” as President Bush did little more than a year after the World Trade Center had been reduced to smoldering rubble?

On top of all this, we’re operating within a system that, unlike other Western parliamentarian democracies, actively disincentivizes collaboration. Because America is functionally a two-party state, politics has quite naturally devolved into a zero-sum enterprise. After all, there is no reason to reach across the aisle if the majority party can ram its platform through without having to build coalitions across party lines. As a result, to put it bluntly, we are living in an age of ideology where reasonable dissent even within one’s own party has become almost inconceivable. This kind of unreflexive tribalism is partially rooted in—and is without doubt perpetuating—a defective understanding of human nature. As First Amendment lawyer Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it, our civic discourse suffers from the great untruth that “life is a battle between good people and evil people.”[3]

So, the quest for ideological purity is badly disrupting our common life, in part because it is feeding our rapidly accelerating trend toward polarization. The demand is now not simply general support of a party platform, perhaps with some qualms, but total and pristine ideology—and that goes for both the Right and the Left. This is an especially difficult state of affairs for Christians who find themselves in a bind as they try to engage thoughtfully in the public square and to vote in ways consistent with the values of their faith. “Have you ever felt too progressive for conservatives, but too conservative for progressives?” ask Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler, executives at The AND Campaign, an organization devoted to bridging the gap between biblical values and social justice.[4] It’s not a rhetorical question, and I suspect I’m not the only one who can identify with it. I’ve often felt myself stuck on the horns of an insoluble dilemma: no matter which party I vote for, I am compromising—and often directly violating—some of my core convictions as a Christian. But these are the only choices I have; it’s not actually possible for me to vote with a clear conscience.

Where does this leave Christians who want to maintain faithful convictions to Scripture and vote their conscience when our political choices seem flawed at best? What does it mean to pursue the “common good” and love my neighbor as Christ commanded when so much of our politics centers on individual liberty? We’ll tackle these topics with Justin Giboney, founder of The AND Campaign, and a panel of Christians in politics at our event in September, The Politics of Neighborly Love.

[1] Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 293.

[2] Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019).

[3] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin, 2018), 70.

[4] See Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler, Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2020).

Join us on Thursday, Sept. 17, for "The Politics of Neighborly Love."

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Ryan Tafilowski

Ryan serves as theologian-in-residence for Denver Institute for Faith & Work, where he writes and teaches on the integration of faith and work. Alongside his work with Denver Institute, Ryan is an instructor in the Division of Christian Thought at Denver Seminary, where he teaches theology and the history of Christianity, and associate pastor at Foothills Fellowship Church in Littleton. He holds a Th.M. in ecclesiastical history and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has published in the areas of inter-religious dialogue, historical theology, and Christian ethics. Ryan lives with his wife, Adrienne, and their daughter in Lakewood. Most importantly, Ryan is a diehard fan of the Denver Nuggets—and he liked them even when they were terrible.