Civility, Humility, and Politics

This November, I’ll have been voting for 20 years. That first year I voted was when I was 18, and it was the election of 1996. My interest in our political process had been active since I was a child, but was particularly ignited when in 1992 my state’s governor ran for President of the United States. I had always felt like Arkansas was not looked to for much in the United States—maybe chicken and Wal-Mart. So, the idea that the nation would look to Arkansas for leadership was exciting to me. It made me feel like the kinds of politicians that I might help put forward at a state level really might amount to something even more important. Perhaps that’s one reason I get so stirred up and sickened when I see some of the balderdash in which our state representatives and governor get tied up.  I have several friends who are running for public office, from state representatives in Arkansas and Oklahoma, to one running for US Senate. So, November holds an election that is of personal interest, as well as of interest to my concern for the implementation of a politics that I see most beneficial for our society. Many have said that this election has sunk to a new low in the  tenor of the debate, and though it seems pretty nasty, I don’t know that we can quite make that assertion so easily if we are students of history. Nonetheless, civility and humility are virtues we should strive to enact in our political discourse, and should be rewarded by voters. Recently, I listened to a podcast of a conversation between Richard Mouw, president emeritus of (that other seminary in Southern California) Fuller Seminary, and Vincent Bacote, director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College, and hosted by current Fuller President Mark Labberton on civility in the public discourse around this election. That podcast was  oriented particularly toward how we, as people of faith, people who proclaim Jesus in love and grace to the world, might better participate in our political process particularly when the divisiveness of polarization seems to have taken hold. I recommend it,

I was around 12 or 13 when I first subscribed to Newsweek Magazine. I was an “engaged citizen” at an early age. I remembered delving into the assignments for my “Citizenship in the Community,” “Citizenship in the Nation,” and “Citizenship in the World” merit badges, and I was an alert student (when I wasn’t flirting with the girl in the desk behind me) in my 11th grade Civics class. I have voted in every major election, primary election, and in many statewide elections as well. Being an active supporter of political candidates or particular issues is part of who I am. Oddly, I have chosen a vocation where I take special care to “suppress that voice” when I am in particular situations, and most legally so the pulpit. Nevertheless, sometimes members of my flock have felt distanced from me because their own political stances are not aligned with what they perceive mine to be. (Oddly, I’ve never had actual conversations about politics with some of these folks) There have been occasions where people have told me they wish I was “less political” in the context of my sermons or in my work as a pastor. I have taken special care to never be overtly     political in my sermons, because I take very seriously the separation of church and state (I’m a board member of the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance, a local chapter of a national organization dedicated primarily to the preservation of this separation). However, I can stand in the pulpit and say “My, isn’t the sky lovely today?” and someone is bound to hear me complaining about the weather. That’s the nature of the  spoken word—it can be delivered in one way and received as the listener wants to hear it. Such a truth requires the humility and civility I mentioned before as foundational elements of our conversations—and something many have decried as missing from our political season.

May this month hold the beginning of a better, healthier, more substantial, less toxic environment for our public discourse. Unless you become a hermit, you can’t avoid politics. Politics are simply the way we conduct our lives in relationship with others. As Christians, we’re called to do so with faith, hope, and love. Our greatest Christian focus during a presidential election could have been summed up by one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, who said when he was brought to the future by two dopey teenagers for their high school history presentation in the       critically acclaimed non-fiction documentary Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: “Be excellent to each other, and ……party on, dudes!”