It so happens that my weekly column drops on Election Day. I didn’t plan it that way, but it would be foolish to write about something other than this top-of-the-mind matter.
Everyone agrees a lot is at stake. However, there is strong disagreement over what is considered a dangerous risk and what is a desired outcome.
Most of us are baffled by how those who differ from us cannot decipher truth from fiction and good values from bad in the same ways we do. The only thing we all agree on is that political advertisements can’t end soon enough – although some will linger due to expected runoffs.
Unlike most elections, this one has involved significant early and absentee balloting. Therefore, today marks the end of a voting period more than the day to vote. And no one knows how and when the counting of votes will reach its conclusion.
This ritual of citizenship has produced more noise and anxiety than most election cycles. And the deep divide between political allegiances has become a more personal, deeper chasm among many friends and families.
Add in the stress from election results being suppressed due to the recent dismantling of democratic norms – along with additional anxiety over encouraged violence and possible resistance to the peaceful transfer of power that has long been an American hallmark.
My friend Bill Tillman, an excellent Christian ethicist, wrote a line several years ago that jumped off the page for me. He said, “Tell me what you fear, and I’ll tell you something of what you believe.”
That truth has been revealed again and again. It is precisely why one’s political philosophy – often rooted in resisting or rejecting something fearful, either real or imagined – tends to shape one’s belief system.
That, of course, is the opposite of having the values of one’s professed faith shape one’s political philosophy. But a slight scratch below the religious surface usually reveals evidence of fear-driven politics.
Among many conservative Christians, there is deep fear of change – particularly the loss of cultural dominance in which those who look, speak and think like them no longer hold political power. Others of us fear the continuation of a nation that refuses to live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all.
Once someone’s fears are known, it is not hard to determine what that person believes – about God, justice for all, and the value and dignity of others.
That’s why someone professing to be “Christian” tells us very little about that person. Christianity is redefined to match political preferences rather than the primacy of the life and teachings of Jesus determining one’s politics.
And fears seem more palatable now. The pandemic has already accelerated anxiety amid this ongoing crisis.
When exaggerated, fears lock us into defensive positions that see those in disagreement as foes. Feeling threatened allows little room for self-reflection or potential for change.
Such fear explains why hardened positions don’t change even when presented with factual data that contradict such misunderstanding or misinformation.
Maturity calls for delineating healthy fear that leads to positive, loving responses from unhealthy fear that causes defensiveness and selfishness at the expense of others. Such unhealthy fear rejects all truth that doesn’t align with one’s more comforting though inaccurate vision of reality.
The resulting post-truth era will impact our nation and churches long after the votes have been counted and the contentious election-in-a-pandemic is behind us. The loss of truth as a crucial shared value is a steep price to pay for attempting to soothe one’s fears.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was right when, in his book Morality, he wrote, “A world of truth is a world of trust, and vice versa.”
Being factually wrong – or even in violation of Jesus’ commandments – seems of little concern to many as long as the held position in some way decreases their anxiety and justifies being at odds with perceived enemies. Truth, and therefore trust, are sacrificed on the altar of fear and alternative facts.
Rebuilding trust will require reestablishing truth as that which is factual rather than that which is a comfortable and familiar personal preference. Truth is more than a flexible idea to be used as we please; it is what sets us free.
A second and connected challenge we face will be relational. Fear reflects belief, which reflects values. The revelation of those values in those we thought we knew well has occurred in surprising and disappointing ways during this election cycle.
The differences are more than just mere economic or governing philosophies. They reflect ultimate values about honesty and the intrinsic, God-given worth of every person.
It would be foolish to think such deep divides can be simply erased by Thanksgiving. And, perhaps, they should not be. More time and work will be required for relationship mending – and simply ignoring or accommodating that which is harmful to others adds to the harm.
We can be baffled and disheartened by the fear-driven values of those with whom we disagree politically and theologically while recognizing the former shapes the latter.
We do not have justification, however, for dismissing them as having less value in the eyes of God. We all must do what is right relationally – hard as it may be – because Jesus said so.
In “Look at Miss Ohio,” singer/songwriter Gillian Welch has the song’s subject with the ragtop down, hair blowing in wind and confessing, “I want to do right, but not right now.”
It’s a good lyric. But doing right is what we most need. And now is the right time.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.