Why I’m Talking Politics So Much: It May Not Be What You Think

For some years of my life, I said I hated politics and wanted nothing to do with it.

I said this for an admirable reason and for an unworthy reason.

Admirably, I didn’t want to be part of a process of dividing the electorate to gain advantage for one party, winning for “us” to make losers of “them,” and throwing truth and decency under the bus for the prize of winning. I suspected then, as I feel even more strongly now, that this kind of winning by division wins elections while rendering the nation ungovernable. My faith taught me that was a deceitful goal, a false value, a pollution of both ends and means. In that sense, I could still say that I hate politics.

But there was also something terribly egocentric about my statement. I wanted to rise above the fray, to take some holier-than-both-sides posture of pristine superiority. Frankly, that was a power play: throw both sides under the bus to leave me alone standing. It was as dirty and despicable as what I was condemning in “politics,” maybe more dirty and despicable, because it was careless about the suffering of others and obsessed with my own ego-brand. (Perhaps that’s a main reason Trump bothers me so much: in him I see a reflection of my own inner egotistical narcissist.)

I became more political in my last several years in the pastorate. My Christian friends will understand what I mean when I say that I felt “compelled by the Holy Spirit” to do so. In the 1990’s, I was disgusted by Bill Clinton’s personal decadence, and worried about the effect his bad personal example would have on the electorate. (I believed then, as I do now, that character counts.) Meanwhile, I was seeing, embodied in figures like Newt Gingrich, an increasingly obvious swing toward authoritarianism in the Republican Party. That swing culminated, not just in Donald Trump’s election, but in the wholesale submission to the “dear leader” by every single Republican member of Congress (although one or two, like Mitt Romney or Justin Amash, have occasionally uttered a word or two of resistance, and deserve credit for doing so).

I was deeply involved in the first Obama campaign and tried to be involved in the second, although I felt the Democratic Party machinery seemed to have faltered by 2012. In 2016, I felt that faltering even more strongly with the Clinton campaign. But along with many of you, I tried as hard as I could to oppose Trump and all he stood for. And, of course, our side lost.

(Back in the Obama years, a friend in Congress, a Democrat, once told me that Republican machinery successfully unites people around lies, and Democratic machinery fails to unite people around truth. Although I was disappointed in the Democratic Party’s ability to mobilize around a fresh, visionary message in 2012 and 2016, I think they’re doing better in 2020. There’s still a long way to go, especially because the electoral college could require Democrats to win the popular vote by something like 54%.)

In these twenty years of increasing political engagement, despite my frustration with Democratic Party machinery, I have to say that in every single engagement I’ve had with party activists, I have been impressed, even inspired. These are hard working and sincere people, dedicated to all the values I’ve preached about for so many years. (And to my pro-life friends, as I’ve written about at length elsewhere, I have never met a single Democrat who is pro-abortion, in the sense that they want more abortions to happen rather than less. But I have met many Republicans are pro-guns; they don’t just want people to have the right to have guns, they want more guns for more people — or at least, I suspect sometimes, for more white people.)

I feel I need to sharpen this point: In general, I have found more intense sincerity, sacrifice, moral earnestness, and commitment to justice and peace among social and political activists — people working against racism, people working for environmental protection and regeneration, people working for the poor and vulnerable, people working against political corruption, people working for the common good — than I have among church-goers. Among too many church-goers (thank God, not all!), what I have found is a desire to consume religious goods and services from their preferred vendor.

Of course, I remain committed to the Christian church in its many forms. But I’ve been attracted to where I see the most sincerity, sacrifice, moral earnestness, and commitment to justice, peace, and the common good. I see these qualities as the work of the Spirit, and where the Spirit is working (not just being talked and sung about, but working), that’s where I want to be. (In case you’re wondering, I sense those qualities of genuineness in every single conference call and Zoom meeting I’m on with the Biden campaign, and I’ve been on a lot lately. And I sense it among the new generation of churches that are rising from the rubble of Christianity’s self-immolation in Trumpism.)

But I need to make something clear. I do not believe politics will save us. I think the Republican Party, as currently configured behind a racist authoritarian, will hasten our self-destruction, but I am under no illusion that any political party can save us.

The fact is, I do not see a lot of evidence that our current systems are salvageable.  I would be happy to be surprised, but I think the global economy, the oligarchs that run it, and the systems that run them, are currently like a car with no breaks heading for the rim of the Grand Canyon.

So, you might wonder, why do I keep laboring if I don’t have confidence that my team will save the day? Here’s why: I have made a commitment. To quote one of my favorite songs from my childhood, I have decided to follow Jesus. I am not sustained by the hope of winning or positive signs of hope. I am sustained by my commitment to be the kind of person who lives by compassion and wisdom, love and truth, empathy and connectedness, no matter what, win or lose. I need no promise of a happy ending, short-term or long-term, because my commitment is to a way of life, not a political plan for victory.

That’s on my good days. I have to admit, there are bad days when I really wish I had more hope, more optimism, less of a feeling of impending doom. (I hope you don’t mind me being this honest.) But then I remember that hope is about expectation and expectations are just resentments and disappointments waiting to happen. (Which is why, all of my fellow Biden/Harris supporters, I think we need to spend some time preparing ourselves spiritually and emotionally for the worst, even as we work our hearts out for the best.)

This, I think, is what Jesus sorted out in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was going to do God’s will no matter what, win or lose, succeed or fail, even if it meant shame, humiliation, torture, defeat, and death. You might say, “Yes, but didn’t he know about the joy set before him? Didn’t he know about resurrection?” Maybe. But maybe Matthew 27:46 (Why have you forsaken me?) tells us that even he wasn’t given that confidence. Maybe Jesus’s experience was more like that of Shadrach, Meshak, and Abednego in Daniel 3:16-18.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.

In other words, whatever happens, succeed or fail, we are not bowing our knees to the stupid idol of an egotistical and violent tyrant. We are who we are. We are people shaped by compassion and wisdom, by truth and love, by empathy and connectedness. We can’t just go along with this idiocy, even if it’s gold-plated.

That’s why I’m involved in politics. It’s not simply for the love of politics, although I have come to love much about politics. It’s for the love of life, the love of truth, the love of neighbor, the love of this precious earth, and in and through them, the love of God.

So, if you’re annoyed with me, that’s OK. I can imagine times when younger versions of me would have been annoyed with me too. But I hope you’ll at least understand why I’m doing what I’m doing. Living by compassion and wisdom, truth and love, empathy and connectedness will be, in the end, our only good option, whatever our party, religion, race, nation, or generation. It’s not just who we vote for, as important as that is: it’s who we become.