Civility, it seems, is dead.
We’re in the middle of a presidential election, if you’ve not noticed, featuring two candidates a lot of people don’t want. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump currently have the worst approval ratings of any Democratic or Republican nominees in decades—and it’s the first time such ill-liked candidates face each other.
Because of this—and some other awful reasons—this election devolved from a competition of ideology into a comparison of scandals. These questions aren’t insignificant, but they’re making the election even uglier.
Still, the ugliest part of politics happens off of a debate stage. If you’re brave enough, get on Facebook and suggest your approval of one of the candidates, either one you choose, you’re likely to wind up labeled as a misogynist or a racist or a babykiller or a communist or some form of America-hater.
It’s a tour de ad hominem.
We’re talking about a new kind of shaming, in an era where shaming is already rampant and destructive. And, unfortunately, random social media trolls aren’t the only perpetrators. Candidate Trump called some Clinton’s supporters “animals,” and Clinton infamously referred to half of Trump’s supporters as “irredeemable” “deplorables.” A little later, pop culture juggernaut GQ doubled down, correcting Clinton’s math—because, at least for writer Damon Young, all Trump supporters are deplorable.
We could go on and on—in fact, the internet already has—but I’m confident you don’t need much convincing about the ugly nature of this election. In fact, that this election became less about conflicting ideas for achieving the same goal (the common good of Americans) and more about making sure everyone knows your opponents’ deep character flaws is axiomatic.
Certainly, this loss of civility—particularly when it comes to important issues—signals a bleak moment for the United States. But for Christians, the erosion of political discourse isn’t the most important thing going on here.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives probably the most striking ethical instruction ever written:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
In Jesus’ context, He addresses the reality many of His believers faced: legal, physical and relational persecution and heavy, often racial-focused oppression from Rome. But in our context, Jesus’ point remains.
At the end of His time here, Jesus casts a vision for his disciples of what His followers look like (and he even says it summarizes the whole Bible’s teaching). He says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And in the Sermon, he totally reshaped the definition of “neighbor.” Because “if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?” Jesus sees no virtue in social group wagon-circling.
He sees no virtue in Trump supporters attacking (verbally or physically) those who support Clinton. Jesus sees no virtue in Clinton supporters dismissing swaths of people as racists and misogynists because they plan to vote for a candidate who displays some of those qualities.
For centuries, theologians, pastors and politicians have put endless thought into how the church intersects with the state. This discussion is complex, nuanced by all kind of factors like biblical interpretation, church tradition and local contexts.
What is clear, however, is that God establishes the state for the protection and common good of its citizens. Within this state, Paul teaches, Christians “try to persuade others” of the message of the gospel of Jesus. This idea of persuading assumes, of course, the “others” think (and act) differently—the apostle envisions a public Christianity comfortable in a pluralistic society, one in which he can stand up, like we see him do at the Areopagus in Athens, and debate the thinkers of the day.
We don’t read about Paul manipulating or intimidating people into accepting his message. He isn’t hurling insults at people who aren’t convinced, and he’s not fear-mongering in some attempt to scare people into his tribe. Paul sees the mission of Christians to persuade other about the truth of the Gospel, not to shame for not believing.
As Christians, we think what you believe about God is the most important thing about you. And if the Scriptures teach us to have a civil posture when teaching people about God, then issues of lesser importance—like casting a vote for a four-year president of one country during one particular period of time—requires at least that.
This year, people have good reason to be anxious about this election. Most of the hesitations people talk about with these candidates are completely valid. For Christians, particularly, the moral questions surrounding both major-party candidates are huge. We’re dealing with one candidate who advocates a religious test for welcoming refugees (and potentially citzenship) and who, at the very least, has a history of mysogony and objectifying women. And the other candidate sits embroiled in a complex lying scandal and energetically supports the most radical pro-abortion platform in history.
The sanctity of life is a central issue for Christians; so is care for refugees. And virtues like honesty and fidelity should matter more in a complex world, not less. And so I don’t think someone wanting to use his or her vote to stop one of these candidates deserves blame—and neither does the person whose conscience won’t allow him or her to vote for either candidate.
Voting, especially this year, carries moral implications, and Christians can’t reduce the process to a form of relativism, either by shrugging away real concerns or ignoring the whole thing. For the here and now, politics matter and we can’t escape that. But while voting is about the public good, it’s also a personal choice each voter must be willing to live with. We can and should disagree with each other, and try our best to persuade others understand deeply important issues. But we can’t dehumanize each other in the process.
Remember, when the election is over we’ll have a new president, but we’ll still have the same neighbors.