Amidst an election season marked by increased anxiety, Christians should remain politically engaged while simultaneously understanding that the role of politics has become distorted in American culture.
Politics is vital, worthy and sometimes even noble — but not ultimate — according to Trinity Forum President Cherie Harder. The country’s problems are actually social and spiritual, Harder diagnosed, and while those problems have a political manifestation, they won’t be solved politically.
Harder spoke October 30 at a forum in Merrifield, Virginia as part of a lecture series on Christian engagement with contemporary culture sponsored by The Falls Church Anglican entitled “The Promise and Limits of Power”.
A former Special Assistant to the President and Director of Policy and Projects for First Lady Laura Bush, Harder reported that the excitement and anticipation of previous U.S. Presidential elections once found in Washington, D.C. and across many parts of the country had been more recently exchanged for worry, fear and anger.
Citing the Federalist Papers’ concept that the proper end of government is the pursuit of justice, Harder also noted that Saint Augustine in his work City of God wrote that the purpose of government is to advance justice. Faith, Harder explained, informs ideas of justice and human nature — but it doesn’t provide a blueprint.
Harder cautioned that politics can be distorted by placing too much emphasis upon it. Drawing from Then-Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 nomination acceptance speech and Businessman Donald Trump’s eight years later, Harder noted that the speeches over-promised, delivering the message “I alone can fix it.”
Christians should not, however, give up on politics entirely, according to Harder. Observing that “fundamentalist institutions” have an instinct to withdraw from public life, Harder charged Christians are “not called to hide in the corner, we’re called to be salt and light.” Withdrawal from public engagement would result in the spread of evil.
Harder also reported that some gauges of American life have undoubtedly improved in recent decades, with lower nationwide crime rates and substantial declines in abortion and divorce. The former Policy Advisor to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on domestic social issues identified that the problems have changed but they still point to things that politics is incapable of fully addressing. Some of the social trends are actually troubling for the most vulnerable economic classes, even as they improve for college-educated and well-to-do Americans.
Drawing from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, Harder noted that “both of these guys, a lefty communitarian and a conservative libertarian had a remarkably similar diagnosis of what’s going on in the country, which is the people who are the most vulnerable — the most in need, the most isolated — have been largely impervious from the gains in social connectedness that the more well-to-do, the more privileged and educated have enjoyed.”
“While we often tend to think about blue-collar, working class as being the heartland of American Christian values, often those places are the ones that are most-hit by cultural decay, and suffer the most consequences as a result,” Harder reported.
These trends, Harder explained, have hurt working class communities far more than affluent ones, and contribute to the atrophy of civil society.
“As families go, so do communities, largely” Harder assessed. “It is connections that build those kinds of civic, community, and social bonds that not only enrich our lives, but also unite us and knit us together as a nation.”
Harder offered five suggestions for how Christians should continue to engage. First, vote. Second, “model the community that we and others need” — counteracting the isolation, alienation and breakdown of social bonds that Christians can mend. 19th century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville identified in Democracy in America that American virtue did not stem from Washington, but rather from the exercise of free people through “intermediating institutions” between the state and individual that maintained strong social bonds.
Third, Harder encouraged Christians to extend hospitality. Citing data that isolation negatively impacts a host of medical conditions and quality of life, Harder charged that “loneliness can be lethal”.
“It is a spiritual, relational, cultural issue that we have opportunity to address,” Harder assessed.
Fourth, Harder noted that Christians can care for the content and tenor of public conversation.
“Lead by example,” Harder exhorted. Reporting that the use of words like character, conscience and virtue all decreased precipitously in the 20th century, Harder suggested that the expansiveness of our vocabulary affects how we think, and has a significant impact upon our public conversation.
Fifth, the Trinity Forum president also challenged Christians to read, an activity that encourages one to think, requires sustained attention and encourages empathy, in contrast to electronic media, which is often passive or distracting. Harder also advised building connections with neighbors, friends, and family members.
“Our politics are showing how much we need to make this happen, because social bonds are breaking down,” Harder emphasized. “Our hope is not in our own systems of politics, but in God, the giver of grace.”
Update: Audio and Video of the talk is now available on the website of The Falls Church Anglican. You can view it by clicking here. http://www.tfcanglican.org/pages/page.asp?page_id=342965&programId=252464