January 23, 2020
My wife and I were recently headed due west on the ribbon of blacktop leading out of our hometown of Sioux Center, Iowa, when the call came. It was a member of my congregation, a mostly blue-collar collection of 700 Reformed Iowans, many of historic Dutch extraction. The voice on the other end, a retired farmer, began with the sort of politeness that often marks the upper Midwest: “Pastor, I have a question for you. You are praying for President Trump to be impeached. I am praying for him not to be. How can God answer a prayer like that?”
The prompt for his question was an article in the Atlantic in which I had been quoted lamenting the morally caustic calculus with which a Trump presidency has confronted my red-leaning congregation. However, the root of the question ran much deeper. As the conversation unfolded, it was clear to me that his concern was less a theological question about whether God could answer conflicting prayers and more a pastoral question about whether Christian community could contain conflicting political identities. It was not an idiosyncratic concern.
What I am discovering after 11 years of parish ministry in the same congregation, including several caucus and election cycles, is that political polarization is an expression of tribalism, which is itself a corruption of identity and community. Put another way, a root of our political polarization, on the right and the left, is a failure of healthy identity formation.
While laudable in many respects, the grammars of intersectionality and identity politics have balkanized our self-conceptions. Few of us live out of a core intrinsic identity but rather a constellation of extrinsic identities. As a result, we no longer inhabit a shared community but rather atomistically drift between communities. In that vacuum, political ideologies have now become a primary source of unifying self-conception and community formation, often trumping religion.
The effects on community are profound. As a pair of Princeton University biologists have recently discovered, the same self-reinforcing feedback loop of social influence and interaction bias that enables a division of labor in ants, creates a polarization of neighbor in us. Our ideologies animate our physical geographies, which is why 81% of my Sioux County neighbors voted for Trump while 85% of San Francisco residents voted for Clinton. When such ideologies become a primary source of identity and community, debate becomes a threatening source of personal and communal deconstruction. To question someone’s political ideas is to attack their person and their people. Perhaps that is why political dialogue on social media or online comment sections often degenerates to ad hominem attacks.
Addressing those dynamics in my parish context, I have found a number of helpful strategies.
First, as a colleague of mine puts it, we in the faith community need to “mind our p’s.” Standing on the authority of scripture, the Christian community appropriately addresses its context with a prophetic voice that is inherently political but must never be simply partisan. Unfortunately, the horizon lines between the prophetic, political, and partisan are fluid and difficult to draw, highlighting the need for communal discernment. In my context, the authoritative oversight of a lay council and the monthly friendship of an ecumenical clergy group provide such communal feedback.
Second, there is a fourth “p” we need to mind—that of pastoral care. Polarization both creates and feeds on high levels of anxiety and fear. Ironically, the emotion that most defines my highly progressive and conservative friends is a shared experience of fear. Wise clergy seek to create spaces where such fears can be honestly named and non-anxiously acknowledged. Framing those spaces is a pastoral posture that is “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19) and resists the temptation to caricaturize, demonize, paternalize or rhetorically excommunicate those with whom we disagree.
Third, pastors and church leaders such as myself can benefit from some institutional humility. I avoid endorsing particular candidates or policies not only on legal grounds (the Johnson Amendment) and sapiential grounds (to keep the peace) but also on philosophical grounds. The Reformed theological tradition of which I am a part has a helpful concept of “sphere sovereignty.” God has creationally endowed different institutions, such as the government and the church, with their own mandate and competence. As a pastor, I can articulate moral principles. I can also seek to equip congregants who have technical competencies to prudentially live out their faith through their professions, including in government. However, I should be highly reticent, in my capacity as representative of the institutional church, to endorse particular policies, parties, or candidates.
Finally, at a foundational level, faith leaders can invite their congregations into a unifying baptismal identity. My congregation is blessed with many young families, which also entails regular infant baptisms. When I pour out the waters of baptism in the triune name of God on a squiggling infant, I do not know what economic class they will grow to inhabit, or what sexual orientation they will be drawn to, or what political party will prove generative to them. Yet they are welcomed as they are into the transformational embrace of a covenant community. In the Book of Galatians, the Apostle Paul speaks of that deeper identity, writing, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26–27). From that foundation, Paul makes a startling application: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile [race], neither slave nor free [class], nor is there male and female [gender], for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The waters of baptism run deeper than our present pools of identity politics.
It was to that shared identity that I turned when speaking to my retired farmer friend about impeachment. While the in-breaking Kingdom of God finds various levels of expression in each of the political parties of twenty-first century America, it finds perfect expression in none. Reflected in the waters of baptism is a truer picture of who we are and a sparkling invitation to the shared, beloved community into which we are invited together.
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