In a recent New York Times piece, Emily Badger and Niraj Chokshi revealed the following curious fact:
“In 1960, just 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be unhappy if a son or daughter married someone from the other party. In 2008… 27 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats said they would be ‘somewhat’ or ‘very upset’ by that prospect. By 2010, that share had jumped to half of Republicans and a third of Democrats.”
Get ready for a remake of the Sidney Poitier classic, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which a kindly and patrician couple of Republicans are shocked to discover their daughter is engaged to a (gulp) Bernie Sanders supporter.
But seriously, what is going on??
By most people’s reckoning, the 2016 Presidential campaign was one of the most divisive in American history. The vitriol and animosity expressed by supporters of one candidate toward supporters of another was astonishing. Even those of us who are non-partisan and who refused to support any particular candidate found ourselves abused on social media if we posted anything critical of a candidate. And I mean any candidate.
But according to Badger and Chokshi this gulf of fury and self-righteousness wasn’t a new thing in 2016. It had been building for many years.
Back in 2008, Bill Bishop wrote The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded American is Tearing Us Apart in an attempt to understand the deep fault-lines developing across American society. Americans weren’t just being sorted into red or blue states. Society was being sorted into black/white/Latino/Asian categories. Americans were finding themselves categorized as liberals or conservatives, as boomers or Gen Xers, as Protestant or Catholic, as mainline or evangelical, etc. etc.
Bishop wrote, “As people seek out the social settings they prefer – as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable – the nation grows more politically segregated – and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups.”
Add to this, each group lives in its own echo chamber, with its own preferred TV news networks, talkback hosts, newspaper columnists, social commentators, blog writers, conventions, etc.
Bishop continues, “…like-minded, homogeneous groups squelch dissent, grow more extreme in their thinking, and ignore evidence that their positions are wrong. As a result, we now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear, and the neighborhoods we live in.”
Badger and Chokshi confirm this. Quoting Pew Research, they found that 68% of Republicans and 62% of Democrats say they identify with their political party primarily out of their opposition to the other party. Indeed, 45 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats felt that the other party was a threat to the nation.
They conclude by quoting Shanto Iyengar saying, “We have all of these data which converge on the bottom-line conclusion that [political] party is the No. 1 cleavage in contemporary American society.”
That means partisan politics is a more divisive issue than race.
The obvious acrimony of recent political campaigns in Britain and France reveal that this is certainly not exclusively an American problem.
In this over-heated environment, it’s incredibly tempting to choose a side. And then to hitch our sense of identity and self-esteem to whether that side “wins” or not.
Surely, we know that trying to win some culture war by electing the “right” party to power is folly. What Christian genuinely believes that the two-party political system is ever going to deliver the kind of liberation Jesus promised?
In fact, Christians should have very little confidence in the political process at all. And that’s not a cynical stance.
We know that the goal of the political process can’t simply be “liberation” FROM something. We must be liberated TO something. Otherwise we are liberated only to ourselves and self-expression, which is another form of bondage.
The church is called to offer such a space: a social reality which displays the Kingdom of God as a foretaste of things to come. Christians know there can be no political theology of liberation without ecclesiology, and no liberation without the people of God.
Christian shouldn’t be looking around for the next political liberator. We need to be looking inside for evidence of spiritual renewal – the renewal of the mind, and the living out of a new set of habits and values.
I can’t describe this better than the great Stanley Hauerwas who wrote,
“When he called his society together Jesus gave its members a new way of life to live.
“He gave them a new way to deal with offenders – by forgiving them.
“He gave them a new way to deal with violence – by suffering.
“He gave them a new way to deal with money – by sharing it.
“He gave them a new way to deal with problems of leadership – by drawing upon the gift of every member, even the most humble.
“He gave them a new way to deal with a corrupt society – by building a new order, not smashing the old.
“He gave them a new pattern of relationship between man and woman, between parent and child, between master and slave, in which was made concrete a radical new vision of what it means to be a human person.
“And he gave them a new attitude toward the state and toward the ‘enemy nation’.”
We need that new attitude deep within us now more than ever.