Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
After the Elections: A Vision for Re-Constructive Politics
Just a few days ago, large numbers of our fellow citizens flexed their political muscle and elected a candidate who engaged their frustrations over economic disintegration and social collapse. Donald Trump’s behavior, both on the stump and in the past, was anathema to a great many people, inside as well as outside the party that nominated him. His victory over an establishment candidate from the other party may be read less as an endorsement of his demeanor, his past and present behavior, and his fitness to serve as president and more as evidence that he convinced his supporters that their frustrations could have both voice and vote at the highest levels of government.
Conversely, large numbers of similarly affected fellow citizens failed to flex their political muscle. By the accounts now emerging, Hillary Clinton was unable to mobilize an economically similar but culturally dissimilar coalition, which elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Perhaps Fredrik deBoer will be proved right in his assertion that Democrats simply nominated the wrong candidate and should have stuck with their own populist instincts and thus with Senator Sanders. But the enthusiasm gap translated Trump’s so-called “Rustbelt” strategy into a winning one.
The task of reviving civil civic discourse for the purpose of recovering solidarity within the political community is a daunting one in light of these twin outcomes. In the aftermath of a contentious, disappointing, and stressful election campaign, I want to present a vision of politics that equips us for the important reconstructive tasks that lie ahead now that the votes have been counted. As Christians, we are in a position to make a small but substantial contribution to this revival and recovery.
The Context of the 2016 Campaign
The United States is a diverse society, but we struggle to give that diversity political expression. Even in this past year, which has torn up more conventional wisdom than any other election season, the range of political offerings was notably broad at the outset. Libertarian, Populist, Democrat, Republican, Progressive, and Green options were all on the table. The range and scope of these is worth pausing to acknowledge.
These offerings shrank rapidly through the primary season—but not in a conventional way. On the Democratic side, Senator Sanders’s progressive populism drew wide support and pulled the party and its eventual nominee to the left. On the Republican side, a more traditional populism rejected the Party establishment and nominated a candidate who has continued to hold that establishment at arm’s length. One may fairly conclude that our more diverse society made some of its voices heard. Unfortunately, the rapid re-emergence of society’s bifurcated vision of the purposes of politics and government overshadowed any gains for diversity. Instead, our social diversity lacks a hospitable vision of the political order as seats around a table where everyone gets to eat and speak. We may start out with multiple perspectives represented, but these rapidly dwindle to two and, worse, the two seem increasingly locked in mortal combat.
This does not mean that social pluralism is an illusion. It isn’t. It is a solid fact of life. To give it political expression, however, we need to transcend our antiquated two-party system whose built-in representative deficiencies have been compounded by a several decades-long ideological divide that has given us zero-sum partisan combat. But an even more uncomfortable reality lies closer to hand.
I’ll let Kevin den Dulk of Calvin College deliver the bad news from an article he wrote for the most recent edition of Comment magazine:
It would be a small comfort if partisanship were limited to the political sphere. We get angry with the political opposition, get some catharsis in the voting booth, and then get along when the election is over. But affective polarization doesn't work that way. We tend to use partisan attachments to make an entire range of choices well beyond conventional politics.
Den Dulk goes on to describe how everything about the choices we make, from where to live, whom to marry, what media to access, even where we worship, is found to correlate with partisan preferences. Confirming these specifics, the Pew Forum reported in 2014 that the polarization that once characterized Congress only was now descriptive of the population as a whole.
Added to this is a “slow-motion” catastrophe of central import to the 2016 election and its outcome: the gradual erosion of what sociologist Charles Murray called the “founding virtues” —marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity— that have all but disappeared from the bottom thirty percent on the income scale. The situation, he warned just a few years back, is so dire that “it calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation.”
In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam tells much the same story. Putnam describes communities once diverse in wealth but not divided by it, with internal tensions but still recognizably cohesive places where anyone’s children were, up to a point, everyone’s children—the “Our Kids” of the title. These communities are now divided along lines of wealth and status and neighborhoods, and, as an inevitable result, divided in their access to opportunity.
What has gone wrong over several decades indicts all of the agencies of civil society: personal choices, government programs, family arrangements, and the decisions of city planners and private developers, to say nothing of a whole range of employers and the decisions they’ve made. It is a story of the weakening of the ties that bind, the coming apart of a once more cohesive society, and fertile soil for a populist movement.
“Ultimately,” writes Putnam, “growing class segregation across neighborhoods, schools, marriages, civic associations, workplaces and friendship circles means that rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds, removing the stepping stones to upward mobility … Moreover, class segregation means that members of the upper middle class are less likely to have firsthand knowledge of the lives of poor kids and thus are unable even to recognize the growing opportunity gap.”
Kevin den Dulk picks up the theme of a society more diverse than ever but more divided than ever, divided by ignorance and, as a result, vulnerable to the power of partisanship:
We are heading into an uncertain era of intensifying division, reinforced by new opportunities to organize our lives so that we rarely have any meaningful interaction with people who don't share our commitments. The rhetoric of the current election strikes me as a clanging alarm bell of polarization, twenty-first-century-style.
Ahead of framing political preferences, let alone allowing these to frame other basic life choices, we as Christians have a responsibility to ensure that we hold a view of politics and government more aligned theologically with the Good News. The story Putnam and others tell suggests a comprehensive, civil society-wide failure that calls for a biblical vision of humble stewardship.
A Biblical Foundation for Political Reflection
As theologian N.T. Wright observes, humans bear God’s image for a particular purpose: “to reflect the worship of all creation back to the Creator and by that same means to reflect the wise sovereignty of the Creator into the world. Human beings, worshipping their creator, were thus the intended key to the proper flourishing of the world ... Those who do this are formed by this activity to become the generous humble stewards through whom God’s creative and sustaining love is let loose into the world.”
What does generous humble stewardship look like in the political arena?
The Center for Public Justice puts it this way,
The principle of public justice recognizes that much of what contributes to human flourishing is not government’s task. This limits the scope of government’s work to promoting policies and practices that uphold the ability of other institutions and associations to make their full contributions to human flourishing.
The principle of public justice also recognizes that much of what contributes to human flourishing is government’s task. Government is authorized by God to promote what is good for human flourishing. This is often referred to as securing the common good –promoting the well-being of an entire society in right relationship with the larger world that God made. As part of this, government is also the institution authorized to restrain sin through law and provide lawful retribution for injustice.
These references to human flourishing and the common good position government as one human institution among many charged with tasks of stewardship. Government emerges here as neither more nor less important than families, business firms, charitable organizations, schools, hospitals, and churches. In a real way, government’s task is a humble one.
In this vision of politics and government, families, business firms, charitable organizations, schools, hospitals, churches and, yes, governments, together cultivate the created order. Whether we look back to Genesis 1:26-28 to understand the human tasks of stewardship or look forward to the renewed created order, we are linking politics and governing to our Hope, to Jesus Christ. Jesus is the most important interpreter of the means and the ends and the true character of politics.
Scripture recognizes Jesus as the rightful king in whom God has invested “all power and authority in heaven and earth.” When the Roman authorities executed Jesus, his dying represented the truest exercise of power. We have always understood Jesus’s death as a powerful act, especially in that most common of Christian declarations, “Jesus died for my sins.” Christ’s sacrifice accomplishes nothing less than this.
But we are slower to recognize that the cross accomplishes much more as well. Jesus was executed by Caesar’s representatives, under Caesar’s authority. Rome dealt with those it considered hostile with dispatch. Crucifixions were common and public and designed to humiliate, to emphasize that the leader or movement that had defied Rome was utterly finished. But Pilate’s world, and by extension every expression of political power, from the dictatorial to the democratic, was turned upside down. Calvary is profoundly political. It disconnects power from coercion or force, from the battle of wills that forces some to yield as others prevail. Instead, it connects power to the language of love, an important foundation for political understanding, reflection, and engagement.
Humble Stewardship and the Character of True Power
In important ways, the 2016 campaign has demonstrated the difficulty of bridging gaps as a political project alone. The real diversity conversations have to begin out here in society. The virtues that need deploying are those that the scriptures refer to as fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These virtues are correlates of the character of true power outlined above. Their utility for remaking relationships, both political and personal, is what commends them in the present circumstances. And we are going to have to draw on their sustenance to undertake the tasks of rebuilding communities to overcome the many decisions that have been permitted to divide them.
If we don’t undertake these interpersonal and community-level conversations, then promoting a principled pluralism as a means of honoring the deep differences of perspective in the political community will become an even harder task than it is presently. It is already difficult because it contends with the zero-sum competition that our political order currently incentivizes. The rhetoric of the 2016 campaign supplies ample evidence of how far we must travel. But these tasks are integral to that stewardship of the created order that the Reformed tradition knows as a divine mandate, a command from God.
It is here that the humble stewardship N.T. Wright describes, and the commitment to politics as public justice that the Center for Public Justice articulates, can bring real resources to bear. In Wright’s words, “the good news is not only that God is sorting out the world, but that his rule is a different kind of rule entirely from those that give monarchs a bad name.” And he goes on, “When God is faced with the corruption of monarchy, he promises not to abolish monarchy, but to send a true king to rule with utter justice, making the poor and needy his constant priority. The human vocation to share that role, that task, is framed within the true justice and mercy of God himself.”
The Trump victory is loaded with ironies. Many a fellow Christian pushed past the advice of pastors and friends to vote for Trump, his numbers among evangelicals resembling those enjoyed by Romney and Bush before him. Arthur Brooks credits the morally ambiguous Trump with restoring dignity to the white working class, even as his appeals were fueled by xenophobia and misogyny. Perhaps a partial explanation is found in Salena Zito’s observation that “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
As the new administration takes shape and sets policy direction, the divisions in American society and the collapse of the institutional framework that prevents so many from enjoying basic social health and ordinary prospects for economic advancement loom as large as ever. A biblical vision of the nature and purpose of politics offers us a robust set of resources—fruits of the Spirit even—for tackling the problems and pathologies of our diverse but divided culture.
-- Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College and author of Power Made Perfect? Is there a Christian Politics for the Twenty-First Century? (Cascade Books, 2016). He is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.
Extending Justice—Sharing These Ideas with Others
- What have been some of the central themes of the conversations you have had with your family, friends, and colleagues after the elections? What have been the areas of hope and what have been the areas of despair?
- The author talks about bridging diversity not being a political project alone. What does that mean to you? What are the different roles that individuals, institutions, and the government play in helping citizens live with deep difference?
- As our country undergoes the upcoming transfer of power and the new administration begins to set policy directions, what are some concrete steps you can take to participate in the ministry of reconciliation with your friends and neighbors?
 Kevin den Dulk, “Looking at the Election Through Polarized Lenses,” Comment. 9-29-2016.
 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Crown Forum, 2012
 New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015.
 N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion. HarperCollins, 2016.
 Wright, Revolution, pp. 79-80.
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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.”