Christopher Wells on the way forward after the U.S. Election
The whole world is witnessing major political shifts. In such a context of destabilization, questions of law and order and fear of the Other naturally arise; and so does devolved political discourse, as too many turn to silos of right thought, carefully curated on social media and in our preferred neighborhoods, schools, and defined and defended churches. My own Episcopal Church, once the Republican Party at prayer, now incubates the converse, with many leaders feeling no compunction about publicly endorsing one candidate, running down the opposition, and then lamenting defeat as if they have no friends or family on the other “side”, nor any experience or comprehension of their vulnerabilities.
People of good will with college educations and those who may be characterized as economic liberals – for whom the system generally works well – need to face the divisions in our country by learning to listen, and speak respectfully, to non-secular non-elites. More than that, our ideals, including freedom of worship and expression and “the principle that we are all equal in rights and dignity” – values that we cherish and defend, as Hillary Clinton insisted in her concession speech – must lead us to work across party lines in a spirit of cooperative friendship. In the process, we will find that justice and good order, and the rule of law, are best defended in reasonable partnership with those across the aisle. For Christians, these are simply non-negotiables. They are an essential part of our identity, and witness in truth and reconciliation when they are faithfully borne.
Much of what Donald Trump said on the campaign trail, and aspects of his character and past behavior, are distressing. While legitimate questions may be asked about global trade and national borders, and about larger patterns of development and under-development, we should reject facile anti-immigrant policy proposals and any and all retrievals of nativist sentiment. On Anglican principle we should uphold and defend the continued usefulness of the post-World War II institutions that have done so much to ensure peace and prosperity among nations, notwithstanding the nearly endless wars of the last 75 years.
At the same time, we need better, fairer protections for the most vulnerable in our country, and here Mr Trump and Bernie Sanders at least agreed in diagnosing our ills. It seems significant that many protest votes were cast – by not voting, or voting for a third-party candidate – by evangelicals, persons of color, and millennials. While Mr Trump turned out the white vote by just one more point than Mitt Romney, according to national exit polls, Mrs Clinton fared worse among non-white voters than President Obama did in 2012. Mr Trump captured the working-class and poor, post-industrial vote; but it was not monochrome, and it was more than Republican. Most deeply, the division of our moment separates the often-secular elites from the often-religious ordinary folks tired of being talked down to, dismissed, and disrespected. We all should read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and understand how vulgarity, racism, and tribalism have long since been set loose in our politics and culture, on right and left, for which all must take responsibility in the name of civilization.
President-Elect Trump, President Obama, and Secretary Clinton need our prayers and gratitude for their readiness to serve, and they will need our help to ensure that their gracious statements in the wake of the election are amplified and put into practice. We all, moreover, owe Mr Trump “an open mind”, as Mrs Clinton counseled, and we may take comfort in knowing that the work of government, when it is done, calls forth compromises that defy easy classification and can be claimed by all. Perhaps, God helping him, President Trump may make some progress here, and all persons of good will should provide encouragement to this end.
Christians will not quite be able to agree with President Obama’s statement that we are all Americans first. But Christians in our country are at least Americans second, and we should strive to be good ones as the President has urged, by presuming the good faith of our fellow citizens and seeking common ground whenever and wherever these may be had. Prescinding from the process, perhaps to keep our hands clean, is not helpful, and cynicism is always a practical failure, rooted in spiritual despair.
The gospel itself includes politics properly practiced in the classical sense, and in the sense presumed by our commitment and call to good order, governance, and shared faith. It would be hard to think of a better theme for Advent, which inculcates preparation for the promised apocalypse of Our Lord: the final revelation and unveiling of his return, judgment, and right ordering of all things. These are always upon us, and they form our faith and hope for both justice and mercy. Their practical payoff is due “fear” that leads to humility and awe in the face of our fleeting and fragile lives; repentance for our sins, not shifting blame to others (Luke 18.9-14); resolve to remain focused on the most important, ultimate concerns; and the commitment to living faithfully in the interim – that is, with courage, joy, and confidence in the promises of God.
Dr Christopher Wells is Editor of The Living Church