Politics is unique in its capability to divide. By nature it is contentious and oppositional, drawing lines and setting people and groups against each other in their interests, policy agendas, underlying moral commitments, and basic understanding of both the means and ends of governmental power. Such conflict is actually a positive in a healthy political system, when it can be effectively organized and marshaled to produce sound pluralistic, representative governance.
Our current political environment is not a healthy one. We are probably more polarized by ideology and politics than we have been in the past half century. The two major political parties have shape shifted to the point where middle ground has virtually disappeared. Congress is so riven along party lines that the most basic tasks of governance are an extreme uphill climb. Partisan competition has morphed into personal and tribal animosity, with those in one tribe hardly deigning to talk to those in the other, viewing them not just as wrong but as a threat to the republic. President Trump’s pugilistic personality and bombastic rhetorical style have seemingly freed up others to lessen restraint in their political personas. With the national media tending to follow Trump’s tweets down the rabbit hole, objectivity is often traded for advocacy or even vitriol. Add special interests and advocacy groups who keep their constituencies in a perpetual state of manic indignation, channel it through the prism of nonstop news cycles and social media to amplify the noise, and the result is a toxic brew of simmering resentments and zero-sum winner-take-all politics.
Politics as Christian Witness
This debased political moment has obvious implications for faith-based educational communities, which are hardly immune to the perils of political discord. We might be tempted to simply avoid politics in the classroom, given how quickly political conversations can devolve into acrimonious exchanges that can chill learning, harm relationships, and do damage to the unity of our Christian communities. That urge needs to be overcome. If anything, the contentious tenor of contemporary politics makes it more imperative that we address it in our classrooms with our students.
Gerson, Michael. “Under Trump, Christians May Have It Easier.” Washington Post, Jan. 23, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/under-trump-christians-may-have-it-easier-theyll-also-be-in-grave-spiritual-danger/2017/01/23/16cdb6ac-e19e-11e6-a453-19ec4b3d09ba_story.html?utm_term=.fb66de912417.
David Ryden teaches political science at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and writes extensively at the intersection of faith and politics.
Several potential ground rules for discussing politics in the current climate:
•Loving one’s conversation partner requires a graciousness in spirit, extending charity in the face of difference, and striving to listen, understand, and value alternative views.
•Humility means admitting the complexity of the issues and avoiding turning tough issues into simple sound bites.
•Self-control entails civility, checking one’s tongue, and sustaining a respectful tone.
•Honesty insists on truth telling and fairness over demonizing and caricature.
•Being a peacemaker means foregoing outrage and the temptation to demonize or caricature those on the other side.