Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
A Political Campaign Worth Savoring
By Stephanie Summers
June 30, 2014
This article is the second installment in a series on political campaigns and public justice.
“The obvious starting point should be to heed the teaching and example of Jesus who we confess to be the Christ. We should do what he taught his followers to do: serve your neighbors in love, do justice, seek to live at peace with everyone, do not lord it over others but act as servants (Luke 9:23-27, 46-48; 22:24-32).” – James W. Skillen in The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction
Christ’s lordship extends to every area of life, including political campaigns. One implication of this theological reality is that political campaigns ought to do justice. The seeming impossibility of this feels a bit like being behind schedule on a road trip and craving a nourishing meal and a good stretch. But because we need to keep going, we settle for what the drive-thru serves up by way of dashboard dining.
Imagine instead being part of a political campaign so known for doing justice, it is actually worth savoring. How do we get there?
Let’s start by examining the road we’re currently traveling.
There is an online game designed to educate schoolchildren about the campaign process. It illustrates how far from doing justice we really are in what we, as citizens, have come to expect from those running for political office. After players chooses five key issues on which they will run, they make only four types of moves throughout the remainder of the game: raising money, running polls to get information about undecided voters’ opinions on one of the issues, running ads to those voters based on responses to the poll data (in which the ad is either attacking one’s opponent or highlighting one’s stance on the single issue), or giving a speech (again about a single issue – either an attack speech against the opponent or an adulation speech promoting the candidate’s own stance).
I regularly reference this game with young adults to highlight how we have lost our way when it comes to doing justice in political campaigns. While it is easy, and in many ways right, to blame politicians for serving us a campaign menu that is the equivalent of what we get at the drive-thru -- issue-oriented, short-term, and pragmatic -- we would do well to recognize that we have driven ourselves to this destination. When citizens approach government as part of an interest group competition, where each seeks its own goals rather than the good of all, we tell those in office (and those seeking office) that we want the issue-focused menu of “money-poll-ad-appearance”. This distorted view of government energizes an electoral process where candidates raise funding from supporters of the single issues, which furthers their ability to extend appeals to voters on a very narrow number of issues. Voters in turn decide elections based on this limited menu that contains only candidates’ stances on these funded issues.
Many Christians are unconcerned about the limited menu, choosing to focus instead, to extend the analogy, on the brand of drive-thru chain. This desire for a more refined experience is most often expressed as uncritical support for candidates who speak with civility. For Christians making such choices based on the tone of political campaigns alone, let me urge caution. It is possible for a candidate to be exceedingly civil and at the same time narrowly focused on one or two issues that will bring the most financial support or votes.
As many Christians have developed an aversion to uncivil political discourse, our taste has been rightly cultivated towards civility, but not necessarily towards substance. This is a crucial distinction. What is often missing in civil campaigns is any desire on the part of citizens to hear from candidates their political vision for the good, or an effort to discern that the candidate understands that the role of an elected official is not to promote single issues. Instead, we decide we prefer the single-issue menu, since civility tastes pretty good going down.
A political campaign worth savoring is one infused with substance. While this may seem daunting, we have a civic duty to invite candidates to share their comprehensive vision for what government is for, what role other institutions in society hold, and how exactly the candidates intend to work for the good of all. God has given government the responsibility to not only treat equally under law different religions and points of view, but to do justice to the institutions and individuals that make up society.
As citizens, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to elect many public officials who are not in Washington, D.C., but who are our literal neighbors, which makes extending such invitations and cultivating substance quite possible. A political campaign worth savoring is one where citizens and candidates focus together on how best to promote a truly nourishing vision of public justice.
- Stephanie Summers is Chief Executive Office of the Center for Public Justice.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”