After almost two months of a nation-wide lockdown, states are slowly reopening—or at least some states. From all appearances, it seems the decision to “reopen” with moderate restrictions or to remain in “lockdown” with strict restrictions until a vaccine, treatment, or no new cases, is becoming a partisan issue.
For instance, red states like Georgia and Texas are reopening whereas blue states like Illinois and California remain shutdown. Many liberals and their media friends, according to a Wall Street Journal article, “assert that the GOP governors will have blood on their hands if they ease their coronavirus economic shutdowns.”
To be fair, this isn’t across the board. There are states, like Montana and Vermont, with democrat governors who are phasing in business operations. Nevertheless, the partisan issue is becoming more noticeable in this season of crisis.
What Makes it Partisan Politics
America is caught upon in this culture war of the kind of nation it will be or become. In other words, it is a fight over the future vision of American life (Hunter, Culture Wars).
Given the nature of this culture war, sides are created, and partisan politics are born. There are four characteristics to partisan politics that create a politically toxic environment. They are:
(1) Disagreement over the good life
(2) Demonization of the other
(3) Discouragement (and Disenchantment) among the masses, and
(4) Division (Disunity) in the country.
Disagreement over the good life. Partisan politics hold such a strong viewpoint of what they perceive is the “good” life. And unless you share some version of the good life, there is not partnership—only partisanship. Is the good life a free capitalistic society rooted in “In God We Trust,” or is the good life a communal equality rooted in “In Government We Trust.” And when people take concrete views about the political nature of a nation, everything is downhill from there.
Demonization of the other. When people cannot agree on a political vision of a nation, and they aren’t willing to partner together to laboriously (and painstakingly) work towards some kind of balance of the good life for the common good, it takes a turn for the worse. Rather than dialoging, people turn to demonizing. The demonization of the “other” involves a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge, which Nietzsche called “ressentiment.” Ressentiment, according to James Davison Hunter, is a form of political psychology. If we can’t bear with one another’s political ideologies, we might as well beat up one another’s personal identity.
Discouragement (and Disenchantment) among the masses. Over the last few decades, such partisan politics has created a culture that is politically toxic, easily offended, and highly sensitive. Many families cannot even get together for Thanksgiving without an argument breaking out over some political topic (the same goes for a religious or theological topics as well). Over time, such hostility, vitriol, and anger wears on the psyche of many where they keep (their political visions) to themselves discouraged to engage in any kind of political dialogue.
Division (or Disunity) in the country. If there is a disagreement that leads to demonization, which brings about wide-spread discouragement and disconnection, there should be no surprise that our country is deeply divided and disunified. Rather than seeing those who disagree as partners in nation building, we see them as partisans in the way of our nation building.
Leveraging the Crisis for Partisan Politics
Winston Churchill, in his famous quote, noted, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Given this coronavirus crisis, are we really shocked as Americans—and even as Christians—that politicians (on both sides) would use this season to push (or see how far they can push) their politics?
Politics, in its broadest sense, is the activity through which people, make, preserve, and amend the general rules under which they live. In other words, as Aristotle described it, politics is the affairs of the city-state. The city-state has four dimensions of its affairs: 1) Community, 2) Constitution, 3) Commander (ruler), and 4) Cause.
Aristotle taught that the city-state comes into being for the sake of life, but exists for the sake of the “good” life.
I put “” around good because that’s the ground where partisan politics and thus the culture wars in America are raged. One side is for personal freedom whereas the other side is more for communal equality. Personal freedom, driven by more of a free-capitalistic society, is seen by the other side as “leveling the playing field” where only the strongest survive and experience the good life. Communal equality, driven by more of a socialistic society, is seen by the other side as “leveling the playing field” where the government interferes in an effort to create an “everybody wins” environment, but winds up creating an “everybody loses” society.
I know it sounds very simplistic, but that is the culture war that Americans have been caught up in, and in this crisis season it can be clearly seen. And our culture has created such a toxic environment that leaves little room for anyone to hold a balanced view. As a result, our culture has rejected First-Rate Intelligence, which F. Scott Fitzgerald defined as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
Take for instance the current crisis and reopening. You can’t be for reopening the country and for protecting the lives of the vulnerable. You have to either be for reopening the economy or lockdowns for safety. And if you are for reopening and calling political officials out for their “overreach” you are classified as reckless and selfish. On the other hand, if you are for lockdowns and safety you are considered a liberal or a socialist. And people on both sides have their medical and economic “experts” who support their viewpoint.
The truth is our culture has left little room for people to hold balancing views. In fact, the political partisanship is so bad that each side instills fear into the masses. This fear, coupled with the discouragement to engage in a “political” dialogue, acts as a paralytic agent that—by default—makes many people [just] comply.
The Church’s Role in the American Culture Wars
What in the world is the church’s role in the American Culture Wars? I think this is the question the church has been trying to answer now for decades and will continue in the days and years ahead.
Does the church seek to “reclaim America” as some sort of a nostalgia campaign to restore America to some kind of Leave it to Beaver era? I hate to burst the bubble of those who think this way, but it “ain’t” happening. There are many reasons for this, but one in particular is that Evangelicalism is too fragmented—even politically—to mount such a campaign.
Does the church become even more discouraged and disengaged and let the culture go to hell in a handbasket while they pursue ministry and mission in the enclaves of their local fellowships? I don’t think this is the right answer either as I do believe that God’s exilic vision to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon has lasting effects for his exiles today.
Without having the space to fully expound on each of these points, let me name at least six components to the church’s role in the American Culture Wars.
- Don’t get sucked into partisan politics. As the people of God, we are not American elephants or American donkeys first, but we first and foremost belong to the party of the Lion of the tribe of Judah. Our allegiance rests with him and him alone. Jesus never entangled himself in the politics of his day but was able to wisely and winsomely navigate politically toxic traps and point to another kingdom and another way of looking at issues.
- Model unity in diversity. God’s church should be comprised of conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, white and black, brown and tan, old and young, and everything in between. Churches should be able to model on a micro level the kind of unity that can exist on a macro—national level. And this COVID-19 crisis—especially in light of the reopening of churches—can be a good case study in how the church can be unified in a sea of diverse opinions. God never called us to uniformity, but unity.
- Seek the peace and prosperity of the city, state, and nation in which God “sent” you. Based upon what God communicated to his people in Jeremiah 29, the people of God seek the “shalom” of a community, city, state, and nation by being a partnering peace—working together to make the city a great place to live. In addition, they are to be a preserving peace—caring (or helping to care) for the poor, marginalized, widow, and sojourner. And moreover, they are to be proclaiming peace—where they point to YHWH (Jesus) as the ultimate God and King.
- Pray and submit to governmental authorities. We know that Paul prayed for kings and all those who are in authority (1 Timothy 2). We know that Paul exhorted the believers in Rome to “submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authorities except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). As long as governments aren’t mandating or ordering that which contradicts our allegiance to King Jesus, churches should seek to be peaceful partners for the nation’s, state’s, and city’s common good.
- Peacefully protest policies and laws that harm the good life–or the common good—and work to reverse them. This is where wisdom and discernment are king. What is the good life—particularly in America? The Declaration of Independence expressed why our forefathers sought to separate from British rule, and goes on to note, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution explains, “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” And Abraham Lincoln, in his famous Gettysburg address, expressed, “..that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of Freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. American citizens have a unique opportunity, more so than many citizens living in other countries of the world, to protest—through voting, lobbying to change laws, and legal appeal—against federal and state governments that they believe no longer governs in a manner that is rooted in the good life according to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Christians, given their position as American citizens, as well as their call in the world to seek the peace (shalom) and well-being (good) of all (Jeremiah 29:7; Galatians 6:10) in accordance to God’s common grace in the world, have the responsibility to work for the common good through voting, lobbying to change laws, and through legal appeal.
- Demonstrate and declare the already but not yet kingdom politic of King Jesus. I believe God is on mission to create a people (kingdom) from all peoples for his glory. This is the mission that God has been on since the beginning and since the call of Abraham. You can trace this theme throughout Scripture—from Genesis to Revelation. But Jesus is the climatic crescendo in God’s mission in that he inaugurated the kingdom of God, and through his death and resurrection sealed its future consummation. Those who trust Christ as Savior and King become part of God’s people and therefore are to live under the rule and reign of King Jesus in all spheres of life. As they demonstrate the kingdom of God through their lives, they are to proclaim and invite those far from God—from every tribe, nation, and tongue—to repent of their sin and submit to Jesus as Savior and King. This is why the church is a city within a city, a people within a people, reflecting and representing an alternative kingdom. Thus, we have a different politic that operates subversively in the greater culture.
In closing, there’s no denying the fragmentation of American politics. At least from my perspective, the culture wars over the future vision of America can be clearly seen in how many politicians have and are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. My prayer and hope for the church is that rather than entangling themselves in such culture wars, they would seek to engage in a manner that strives to bring unity to our nation. But knowing that might be a pipe dream, my prayer and hope is that the church will be a prophetic presence and voice that seeks to point people to the ultimate king, Jesus, while also working for the common good (the good life) for all Americans.