Talking Politics in a Tempestuous Election Year

Most everyone agrees: this is a low point for the American democratic experiment. Two of the most unpopular presidential candidates ever are running against one another; large swathes of both parties are ticked off that these are the nominees we’ve got; and people seem to be ready to vote more based on whom they don’t want to be president than whom they do.

Most people who are talking politics – especially this year – are doing it surrounded by people who already agree with them. Facebook curates our news feeds now, so we only get conservative-friendly or liberal-friendly news. And every conversation is 90 percent minimum snark or insults. This is the most toxic political environment I can remember, and folks older than I am say the same thing.

Our two particular candidates certainly don’t help the problem; but research is showing that Americans are becoming more polarized – and more violently polarized – on political issues than we have been in a long time. That we seem to be losing the ability to discuss, disagree, or debate charitably with people whose opinions differ from ours. Whatever the issue, there’s “our people” and “their people,” and heaven help the person who might wonder if “they” might have it right on an issue.

How should Christians navigate political conversation, especially when the climate is as charged and radioactive as it is this year? How can we avoid political trenches and discuss issues – even debate issues – without devolving into screeching fights or snarkfests?

1. Listen before you speak

Somewhere along the way, courtesy in disagreement has been demoted from a virtue to a weakness, and now to a vice. In talk radio, news, and presidential debates, the “right” way to handle disagreement seems to be something like running down your interlocutor with a semi.

To the contrary, the Bible enjoins us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). Rather than demanding the right to be heard, we ought to let others share their thoughts and opinions. Even more, go deeper: to ask them more about what they think and why they think it. To let them make the cases or share the stories about why they think the way they do.

This is even more important in today’s culture, because we’re being trained by the far wings of both sides to blow up when we hear the wrong word or phrase. We turn everything into an us-versus-them matter, and heaven help anyone who sounds like they’re on the “them” side. Christians – we whose hope for eternity is in a God of grace and humility – should be willing to listen, follow up, and engage before we speak.

2. Dialogue, disagree, and debate - with charity

That first point doesn’t mean that we can’t disagree or debate – or even that we can’t do it sharply. Our spiritual ancestors are on record calling political or religious figures things like “children of vipers” (John the Baptist), “whitewashed tombs” (Jesus), and “dogs” (Paul). Point 1 doesn’t at all mean that we can’t disagree, or even that we can’t try to persuade people of our opinion.

But as we do those things, we should be as generous as possible to the people we disagree with. Again, this is so vanishingly rare in modern political talk that it’s hard to imagine what it looks like; but if we’re called to have our speech “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6), we’re called to try for it.

This might look like:

  • Hearing why the other person thinks/feels the way they do
  • Making sure you represent their perspective like they would – don’t caricature it
  • Not automatically labeling their opinion as something awful

For example, in our missional community (MC), we once discussed gun ownership when we were talking about police violence. We didn’t all agree – some in the group were very strong-restriction, some were very limited-restriction, and about half didn’t have a strong opinion. The discussion didn’t take over our time, but it was healthy for us to be able to air out disagreements (and strong feelings), and then go on to talk about other things.

For another example, D.C.-area pastor Thabiti Anyabwile recently had a blog post-debate with another pastor over issues related to race, slavery, and the Bible: harder to imagine a touchier subject. In side-by-side paragraphs, Thabiti can call the other pastor "incorrigible" and his positions "reprehensible," and then praise him for "fairly representing[ing] and graciously challeng[ing] me." It's a great example of debating, even sharply, while also speaking with respect.

3. Remember our real hope

Part of the desperation that fills political talk – on both sides of the aisle – springs from rhetoric that this is the “last chance” for our country, or that the wrong president will bring our nation crashing down around us. We use end-of-the-world talk, which makes potential areas of disagreement that much more radioactive.

As Christians, we should take it upon ourselves to keep these elections in their right place. The right president isn’t going to usher in the kingdom of God on Earth; the wrong one isn’t going to bring the world crashing down around us. We can (should!) make judgments about who we think will be better for the country – that’s the glory of democratic elections – but we can do it without white-knuckled panic or apocalyptic hurly-burly. “Better” and “worse” don’t mean “Messianic” and “Satanic.”

We have the confidence to step back, breathe, and engage calmly in the midst of the storm because we know our hope. Our hope isn’t that capitalism and democracy will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, or that we’ll finally see the light of Nordic socialism. It’s that Jesus is going to come back and become the rightful King of the creation. To remake the world without any hints of the Curse our best institutions strive against. That’s what we look forward to, while we do our best with the government we have. That’s what we count on. And that’s what can give us the grace to listen, to disagree, and to stand together in the most contentious election season most of us have ever known.

Image: "Men Arguing," by Louis-Leopold-Boilly