Americans will go to the polls today and will elect “the leader of the free world”—the promotion the President of the United States gets in Hollywood films. As a denizen of this same free world, I am surprisingly unable to vote. Despite the fact that the entire globe is impacted by today’s vote, it is a tremendously local affair.
And it is an affair that the locals take seriously. Many of my American friends are quite passionate about expressing their partisan voices. Whether Democratic or Republican, the Americans I know are much more open about sharing their political leanings than my fellow Canadians. This passion is increasing, I think. As each election passes—and there seems to be an election in the U.S. every few months—the rhetoric grows exponentially more intense as this election is the one that will make or break America (and the world as we know it).
It is not only the intensity of the moment that is growing, but the inability of the political voices I hear to understand how anyone could possibly vote ____________ (insert your least preferred party name here). Obama is the anti-Christ, and Romney the whore of Babylon, from what I hear. Obama uses Lenin’s dentist, and Romney is the bastard son of Ayn Rand. Obama hates people who love freedom and Romney hates people who aren’t rich–which adds up to a lot of people! The 99% are, apparently, 100% sure of their positions.
Now, I do get it. I understand why people get upset and invest so much in party politics. I have trouble understanding how people can be so committed to a political system based one or two key issues, but in a democratic society we get to choose. Neither party satisfies me, honestly. But, of course, I don’t get to choose—I’m Canadian, remember. So I want you Americans to choose well. I want you to get involved in the process, throw yourself into the system, think intelligently about the issues, and then passionately draw others into the moment of seeing things from your angle. I grew up in a family of politicians. I get it.
I would like to offer a caution to Christians on this path, however. If you are authentically invested in your Christian faith, you will vote (or volunteer for a candidate, or run for office) in such a way that you express your Christian worldview. You may find a party or candidate that best reflects your understanding of faith as it works out in your community. As you do this, though, do not forget what is “the most important part.”
In his classic book, The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon, Screwtape, is offering advice during a time of war to a junior demon, his nephew Wormwood. Wormwood has asked his uncle whether he should encourage his patient (the man he is trying to tempt into hell) to be a Patriot or a Pacifist—quite sensitive positions at a time when a Patriotic party (the National Socialists of Germany) were at war with England. To be a Patriot was to stand behind England but risk the same errors of their enemies; to be a Pacifist was to turn one’s back against neighbours who had just sent their beloved sons to war. It is an important fork in the ideological road, and Wormwood wants to know which road will most likely lead to destruction.
Screwtape, however, is not impressed with either path in and of itself. The ability to draw a soul into destruction, according to the senior demon, did not rest upon getting him to choose a particular path, but getting him to choose that path in a particular way. “All extremes,” Screwtape argues, “except extreme devotion to the Enemy [i.e., God], are to be encouraged.”
Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism.
In today’s partisan culture, we could easily make some substitutions for Patriotism and Pacifism: Left and Right, Conservative and Liberal, Progressive and Traditional, Republican and Democrat. Any of these dichotomies can threaten to come to the centre of our faith-perspective, with commitment to these expressions being essential to our Christian practice. Screwtape paints a picture of what it looks like when one makes these extremes central to faith, when we make our Cause “the most important part” of our faith:
Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, crusades [and blogs like these], matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours—and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here….
In the community sphere, all of these extremes lead to these further dichotomies: Right and Wrong, In and Out, and, of course, Me and You, Us and Them—the kinds of things we fight wars over. But in one’s spiritual life, the subtle shift of our favourite Cause to the centre of Christian faith is spiritually deadly. It makes our Christianity the means to an end—whether that end is personal fulfilment, community betterment, family security, or societal revolution. Once we have done that, I believe, we’ve left the Christian faith and converted to whatever “ism” we thought, some time before when our faith was young, best expressed the things central to the heart of God for our world. It is a tragic, and increasingly common, exchange.
Parties and Presidents, cultures and civilizations: these things will come and go, and future generations will judge us by whatever lenses they use to view their world. Being a Christian bigger than this election, bigger than this Now that seems to dominate. American Christians: I encourage you to choose well, not least because the entire world will experience the benefits and deficits of your choice. But as you choose, remember that your choice is the expression of your faith, and not the determinant of it.
For in the end, I don’t believe Christians are called primarily to Conservativism or Liberalism, but to Faithfulness.