Anger and Politics: A Deadly Combination

November 6, 2018
Today is election day, and I have been puzzling for weeks over what I should write. At first, I wanted to write some guidelines for helping us discharge our civic duty wisely, focusing on the primacy of truth. Then, I heard about Sen. Ben Sasse’s new book Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal. I soon wanted to write about the roots of political polarization, how it has impacted the church, and how we as Christians should respond to it.

But then the news broke about the rash of explosive devices that were addressed to prominent opponents of President Trump, and it suddenly became clear to me what I must write about. Anger and politics don’t mix.

We ought to know this by now. We have seen it played out all over the world, from the gas chambers of Nazi Germany to the killing fields of Cambodia. The former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan should always be at the front of our political minds And yet, here we are, mired in an endless cycle of politically-motivated hatred fueled by feelings of anger and alienation.

How Did We Get Here?

How did we get here? Twenty years ago, Dallas Willard put his finger on one of the problems. In The Divine Conspiracy, he pointed out that we live in a society that thrives on anger. Political theorists (especially those of a leftward bent) even tell us that it is necessary to effect the changes that we want. The problem, as Willard so skillfully points out, is that anger doesn’t really solve any significant societal problem. Rather, it very quickly mutates into contempt (the rejection and evaluation of those who do not share one’s perspectives), and contempt (as well as anger, does nothing to convince others of one’s rightness. It only elicits anger and contempt from those towards which it is directed.

Sasse, too, has much to say that is valuable on our present question. In summarizing the argument of his book for the PBS News Hour (see the episode that aired on October 23, 2018), he noted that we live in an increasingly disconnected society. People move around so much, and are so enthralled by their technology, that they do not make meaningful, identity-forming connections with those in their community (their family, their neighbors, people in a local house of worship, etc.). Because they do not have these secure roots out of which to grow a healthy identity, they tend to derive their view of themselves from their political identification. This can be nothing but unhealthy because politics, by its very nature, emphasizes the gulf that exists between the various competing groups in our country.

Perhaps, however, there are a couple of other factors that we need to consider. First, it is important to consider the extent to which we really are different from one another—and the extent to which those differences contribute to a sense of disenfranchisement. Try thinking about it this way. If Andy Crouch is right and we need a certain measure of “meaningful authority” in order to flourish as human beings, how many of us genuinely have that authority in a country that is as large, diverse, and polarized as we are. Imagine being a Republican in California. Imagine being a poor, African-American in a county full of middle-class white people. Imagine being an evangelical in Hollywood.

Many of us feel disenfranchised. Sure, we may have the opportunity to vote and to sit on juries, but we do not feel that we have the power necessary to truly impact how our culture is structured, how our government entities rule us, and how our neighbors (both individual and corporate) go about their business. And such disenfranchisement will always result in anger.

A second factor is related to the first. We no longer value—or even recognize—truth. We are a sea of competing stories, competing values, and competing visions for the future. And we marshall a sea of competing truth-claims to support our visions, values, and stories. Truth is nowhere to be found in this maelstrom; after all, it might just get in the way of my rightful claim to power.

Who Is to Blame?

So, who is to blame for the mess in which we find ourselves, and does it really matter? I am loathe to participate in the great American sport of assigning blame, but, in this case, I am willing to make an exception. There is plenty of blame to go around, and that fact needs to be trumpeted at every opportunity.

Whether his supporters like it or not, President Trump deserves some blame for the situation that we now find ourselves in. He has cultivated a politics of hostility permeated by an ethic of dishonesty. But his political opponents have no claim to the moral high ground. The disdain with which they treat their political opponents is legendary, and it constantly poisons the well of political discourse.

The media—traditional and otherwise—has no right to the moral high ground, either. Its steadfast unwillingness to acknowledge its own biases, even in the face of mountains of evidence, is appalling. It has made itself the enemy of so many by using information to disenfranchise those who it considers to be backward or bigoted. Likewise, academia has also forfeited its right to claim any moral superiority, for it has all-too-often substituted hot-blooded activism for sober reflection.

Perhaps we in the church are the most egregious transgressors on this point—not because we do not have legitimate grievances, but because we, of all people, ought to be wary of the ways of anger. And at this point, I am pointing my finger of condemnation directly at myself, although I am perfectly aware that I have plenty of company. It is so easy to allow our feelings of disenfranchisement and our lack of faith in the sovereignty of God to motivate us into words and actions that are utterly inconsistent with the calling and grace that we have received.

Moreover, we as Christians must understand that we cannot sacrifice the truth without imperiling everything that we hold dear. When truth is absent, power becomes the only concern. And when power becomes the only concern, injustice will soon follow.

What Do We Do?

So, what do we do about the anger that so permeates our political life? Willard rightly urges us to consider how we might live a life that rejects anger and contempt, that refuses to control others by means of our negative emotions. Sasse is also right that we need to put down our devices and, in humility, get involved in the lives of those around us.

But these answers, as good and right as they are, are not sufficient. For one thing, careful Bible students will observe that anger is not always forbidden to us, and, in any event, it is an emotion that cannot be micromanaged out of our lives. (Willard has good, though not entirely satisfactory, responses to these objections, but they are beyond the scope of the present discussion.) Moreover, the social scientific literature on prejudice and discrimination has shown that mere contact with people of different groups does not ensure a more positive disposition to such people. Indeed, it often increases the amount of negative feelings that one group has for another. The groups come into contact with those things that they dislike about one another, and that reinforces the negative mental picture that they have of one another.

Instead, I think that we need to supplement the proposals made by Willard and Sasse with two additional disciplines (sets of practices with which I think both Willard, if he were still with us, and Sasse would agree). First, we need to get back to the inherently Christian idea that truth matters more than power. We need to be people that everyone else in our society can rely upon to stand on the side of truth no matter what.

This will not be as easy as it sounds. Imagine being an African-American civil rights activist who says, “This officer-involved shooting is entirely legitimate,” or the white police officer who says, “This officer-involved shooting is a quintessential example of institutional racism.” Imagine being the conservative talk-show host who says, “We have a moral responsibility to take in those who are fleeing gang-related and domestic violence,” or the Latina activist who says, “We cannot simply have open borders; we need to have an orderly immigration system that rewards those who do it the right way.” Imagine being the Republican politician who publicly grieves the President’s lack of honesty, or the Democratic politician who openly condemns the hatred that was directed at George W. Bush. Such people do exist, and they are worthy of our admiration. But they deserve a lot more. They deserve our imitation.

Second, we need to encourage the inherently Christian practice of viewing people as individuals worthy of respect simply because they are human. Many observers have noted the destructive impact of identity politics on our society, and Sasse is right that it would be better to focus on the identity we share (our identity as Americans) than on the identities that divide us. Nevertheless, I am almost as leary of an uncritical nationalism as I am of an angry tribalism. It is true that we cannot simply ignore the processes inherent in social identity (group identification, social competition, prejudices, etc.), and we simply must acknowledge that certain groups of people have been disenfranchised because of their race, religion, gender, etc. But that does not mean that we can treat every African-American, every police officer, every woman, every immigrant, etc. merely as a representative of her or his group. We must treat them as individuals, and we must consider our own group identities to be secondary to the identities given to us by God and by the Constitution of the United States. (No, I am NOT equating the two. I am simply noting the similar roles that they have in determining how we are treated by one another and before the law.)

Accepting Reality

Disagreements will happen. The country will, on occasion, make the wrong choice. Losses will happen. We have to learn to accept these harsh realities, for it is the price we pay for living in a fallen world with the freedom to choose our own destiny.

Moreover, as Christians, there is the distinct possibility that we will be mistreated. There is the distinct possibility that everything we worked so hard to build will be taken away from us. There is the distinct possibility that another vision of the good life will dominate the future of our country and the fortunes of those we love.

I do not say these things with condemnation or condescension. I am right there with you. I pray that these things do not happen, and it makes me angry and afraid when I see them on the horizon. Still, I know that we have to accept these realities. If we don’t, we won’t be able to live faithfully in this world. It is the very practical, the very gritty context in which our devotion to Jesus above all else must be lived out.

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