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Why the 2020 election has been so divisive, how Christians can respond redemptively

Why the 2020 election has been so divisive, how Christians can respond redemptively

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a Make America Great Again campaign rally on October 19, 2020, in Prescott, Arizona. With almost two weeks to go before the November election, President Trump is back on the campaign trail with multiple daily events as he continues to campaign against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden who has stopped campaigning for the week. | Caitlin O'Hara/Getty Images

Kate Rubins is the only American voter not currently on Earth, but she did not let that fact stop her from voting in this year’s election. Rubins is an astronaut currently spending six months on the International Space Station two hundred miles above our planet. However, she is also a registered voter in Houston, Texas, where NASA is based. 

So, the Harris County Clerk’s office uploaded a secure electronic ballot to NASA’s Johnson Space Center Mission Control Center. Rubins, using specific credentials, accessed her ballot and cast her vote, which was delivered back to the county clerk’s office by email. 

There have been years when an astronaut voting from space would be one of the most unusual stories in an election. 

In 2020, it’s not even close. 

The Associated Press is calling the November 3 contest “the most consequential US presidential election in living memory.” As of this writing, the election remains undecided as absentee ballots are being counted in key battleground states.

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A YouGov poll of 1,999 registered voters found that nearly half—47 percent—disagree with the claim that the election “is likely to be fair and honest.” Slightly more than half—51 percent—believe we won’t “generally agree on who is the legitimately elected president of the United States.” A different YouGov poll found that 56 percent of voters expect to see “an increase in violence as a result of the election.”

As another indication of fears over security threats, gun purchases are breaking all-time records this year. 

Why the 2020 election has been so divisive 

A week before the election, at least 66.6 million people had voted nationwide, breaking the record for all votes cast before Election Day and 48 percent of the total voting in 2016. Voters cast ballots in a one-room schoolhouse in Iowa, a water department laboratory in Philadelphia, and a bowling alley, a laundromat, and a billiards hall in Chicago. 

A ninety-four-year-old woman traveled more than three hundred miles each way to vote. A man in New York City who grew up in the Palestinian territories founded a nonprofit organization to serve more than fifty thousand free meals to people standing in line to vote on November 3. 

However, sentiment leading up to the election was not all positive by any means. One American wrote an article titled, “I Bought a Gun Because I’m Terrified of What Will Happen After Election Day.” Predictions of our democracy’s demise have been echoing on both sides of the partisan divide. 

Why has the 2020 election been especially vitriolic? 

One: Politics have become more personal and all-consuming than ever 

Ethicist Russell Moore, citing political scientist Christopher Frieman’s Why It’s OK to Ignore Politics, writes: “Politics is rarely about how we cooperate to solve civic problems and is more about the expression of one’s entire identity. Politics now is about whether you prefer Wal-Mart Superstores or Whole Foods markets, whether you prefer NASCAR or soccer, whether you drive a Prius or a pick-up, and on and on. 

“Sadly, it also tends to track whether you will wear a mask to your Wal-Mart or Whole Foods or whether you think the whole thing is a hoax. There are all sorts of problems with this kind of totalizing political identity, and only one of them is that it is exhausting.” 

Two: Politics today are focused on some of life’s deepest and most divisive issues 

A presidential election is always consequential. Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 led to the Civil War; his reelection in 1864 helped ensure the North’s victory. The outcome of World War II would arguably have been very different if Franklin D. Roosevelt had not been president. John F. Kennedy’s decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis may have prevented a nuclear conflict. 

However, politics today are especially focused on divisive, deeply personal issues. Legalized abortion is either the holocaust of more than sixty million babies or a woman’s right to her own body, depending on your viewpoint. The legalization of same-sex marriage will either undermine the family and religious freedom in America or guarantee marriage equality to all our citizens, depending on your perspective. Legalized euthanasia is either the victimization of some of our most vulnerable citizens or the right to death with dignity, depending on your worldview. 

Issues ranging from racial equality to economic justice are personal for us all. The coronavirus pandemic has cost well more than two hundred thousand American lives at this writing and deeply affects us all. 

In the midst of such issues, right and wrong bring life and death consequences. Those with whom we disagree politically are advocating positions that we find deeply immoral and even dangerous. 

As one example, it is tragic but unsurprising that 61 percent of Democrats consider Republicans to be “Racist/Bigoted/Sexist,” while 54 percent of Republicans consider Democrats to be “Spiteful.” Only 4 percent of each party considers members of the other party to be “fair.” 

Three: Political parties and elections have become platforms for personal advancement 

Yuval Levin’s latest book is titled A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. With his usual brilliance, Levin diagnoses the conflicts, rancor, and despair of the present moment as a failure of leadership. 

Historically, our cultural institutions—from government and military to media, education, business, religion, and civic groups—have served to mold the character of their members in line with their mission and values. Their leaders sought to serve the institution and its members and thus the greater good. 

In recent years, however, leaders have come to see their institutions as platforms for personal advancement and status. 

Government leaders have fallen victim to the cult of celebrity. Many in the media have sought to serve their personal “brands” through their reporting and visibility. Universities have become platforms for faculty and students to demand social changes aligned with their activistic agendas. 

Business leaders have sought personal wealth and advancement to the detriment of their employees and society. Religious leaders, their authority undermined by clergy abuse scandals and personal ambition, have become celebrities rather than shepherds. 

Social media is exacerbating the problem. Rather than molding us through engagement with contrary positions and experiences, it exposes us only to news and opinions with which we agree. It then serves as a platform for trumpeting our personal opinions and seeking as many followers and likes as possible. 

Even the family, once the foundational institution for molding character, has been redefined as anything we wish it to be. We have become consumers who then use our choices with regard to gender and sexuality as platforms for personal expression. 

As political parties and elections have become “cults of personality,” they have empowered antipathy on personal levels. It’s not just that you “like” Donald Trump or Joe Biden—if you’re like many Americans, you may detest the other candidate. As a result, you may detest those who supported him and his party. 

Such animus makes civil discourse especially challenging. 

Four: Social media and cancel culture have exacerbated our divisions 

Social media and digital technology have made it easier than ever for us to hear only from those with whom we agree. We can curate our news feeds to ensure that we receive content only from channels and sources we affirm. We can close our digital ears to opinions that might sway ours. 

And we can speak antagonistically toward others while hiding behind personal anonymity. Social and digital media allow us to adopt any public name or persona we wish. They enable us to engage in vitriolic ways without accountability or consequences. 

In addition, this technology enables us to act against those with whom we disagree in unprecedented ways. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat describes “cancel culture” this way: “You are not being canceled if you are merely being heckled or insulted . . . no matter how vivid and threatening the heckling becomes. You are decidedly at risk of cancellation, however, if your critics are calling for you to be deplatformed or fired or put out of business.” 

For example, when Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue made positive statements about President Trump, there were calls to boycott his food company and its products. This despite the fact that his company had donated two million pounds of food to food banks during the pandemic and that he had worked previously with the Obama administration. (For more on cancel culture, see “What does the Bible say about cancel culture?“.) 

Social media makes it possible for the average person to act with practical antagonism on a new level. 

Five: America has lost a sense of consensual morality 

Jonathan Sacks’ magisterial new book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, is the most important book I read this year. The author was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in the UK for more than two decades. He is the recipient of the Templeton Prize among numerous other recognitions. 

Rabbi Sacks correctly claims that morality is essential to a healthy society and its freedoms. He quotes George Washington: “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.” And Benjamin Franklin, who noted, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” A team cannot win if its members do what they want to the exclusion of what is best for the team. An orchestra cannot perform well if each member plays what they want rather than what the conductor directs. 

When a society loses its collective moral compass, it outsources moral standards to the government to legislate morality. But Rabbi Sacks warns that this cannot work: “Morality cannot be outsourced because it depends on each of us. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.” 

And we will lose our ability to relate to each other with civility. Rabbi Sacks notes: “To be sure, many elections in the past have been raw, rude, and raucous in their rhetoric. That is part of the competitive nature of electoral politics. But something new is happening: the sense that the other side is less than fully human, that its supporters are not part of the same moral community as us, that somehow their sensibilities are alien and threatening, as if they were not the opposition within a political arena, but the enemy, full stop.” 

To explain this animosity, he points to the deepening individualism of Western society since the 1960s. When we were facing the Great Depression and two world wars, our external threats and financial challenges united us against common enemies. Recent decades of relative peace have atrophied such unity. 

Added to the “narrowcasting” effect of the internet and the “disinhibition effect” of social media anonymity as described above, these factors contribute to a broken moral compass and its results for our divisive culture. 

How can Christians respond redemptively to our chaotic culture? 

Three months before the 1864 election, President Abraham Lincoln wrote, “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.” By November, however, he carried the election with ease, claiming 212 electoral votes to anti-war Democrat George B. McClellan’s 21 and winning the popular vote by more than 400,000. 

One significant reason was that, by election day, nineteen Northern states had passed legislation allowing soldiers to vote from the field. Seventy-eight percent of the military men who exercised their right to vote absentee opted for Lincoln. By contrast, only 54 percent of civilians voted for the incumbent. 

The decision to allow soldiers to vote absentee was highly contentious: states with Republican majorities approved such voting, while states with Democratic majorities did not. Claims of fraud and suppression of Democratic soldiers’ votes were widespread. 

Historians commonly rank Abraham Lincoln as our greatest president. If the democratic process by which he was reelected was this controversial, we should not be surprised that the current election is contentious. 

The House of Representatives decided the elections of 1800 and 1824. The 1876 election was rife with corruption and back-room deals. The 2000 election was decided when the Supreme Court ended recounts and George W. Bush won Florida, and thus the presidency, by 537 votes out of about six million cast in the state. 

Our often-controversial elective process mirrors the democracy it empowers. We have no political caste system and no succession by heredity. Candidates from wealthy families and candidates from impoverished backgrounds have been elected president. A system that enables everyone who meets constitutional requirements to run for elective office and that encourages every citizen to vote and to participate in the process will inevitably prompt dissension and divisions. 

Such divisions are especially exacerbated these days, for reasons we have discussed. Studies have found that liberals and conservatives are so different today that they use different words to express similar ideas. Scientists have even discovered that partisanship impacts how our brains process words and political messages, meaning that political alignments have something to do with how our brains function. 

No matter who is declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, democracy will remain challenging. How should Christians respond to the chaos of our culture? 

Let’s consider three biblical priorities. 

Be the hands of Jesus 

Everywhere we turn, we see needs Christians are called to meet: 

You and I are metaphorically and literally the hands of Jesus (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:27). As the temple of his Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16), we are the physical expression of Jesus’ continued earthly ministry. 

In his seminal work, The Gospel of the Kingdom, theologian George Eldon Ladd writes: “The gospel is the supernatural redeeming gospel of Jesus Christ, and the kingdom is to be established by the church’s proclamation of the gospel. The gospel must not only offer a personal salvation in the future tense to those who believe; it must also transform all of the relationships of life here and now and thus cause the kingdom of God to prevail in all the world. The gospel of redeeming grace has the power to save the social, economic and political orders as well as the souls of individual believers.” 

The greater the need, the greater the opportunity for God’s word and grace. 

Be gracious to those with whom you disagree 

In Kindly Inquisitors, author Jonathan Rauch advises that “we should all take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. That means we must place no one, including ourselves, beyond the reach of criticism (no final say); it means that we must allow people to err, even where the error offends and upsets, as it often will.” 

However, Rauch describes himself as “an unrepentantly atheistic Jewish homosexual.” His statement betrays the postmodern relativism of our day. We should all get along since we might all be wrong. In a culture that rejects objective truth, tolerance is what we have left. 

By contrast, Christians know that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16) and is “truth” (John 17:17). The psalmist testified, “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6). We know that “every word of God proves true” (Proverbs 30:5). 

As a result, for those with whom we disagree over biblical truth, we cannot be gracious on the grounds that “we might be wrong.” This is adamantly not because we are better than others, but because God’s word is true. The old adage, “God says it, I believe it, and that settles it,” is better stated, “God says it and that settles it, whether I believe it or not.” 

While we cannot compromise on biblical truth, we can be gracious in how we share this truth with others. In fact, we must. If we answer the biblical mandate to “make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15a), we must also answer the biblical mandate to “do it with gentleness and respect” (v. 15b). 

In my latest book, Respectfully, I Disagree: How to Be a Civil Person in an Uncivil Time, I offer practical ways to express such civility. For example, we are to be “filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18) so that we can manifest the “fruit of the Spirit” and civility: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23). 

Jesus taught us, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15). In other words, we are not allowed to talk about people with whom we disagree but to them. Such a stance eliminates slander (Psalm 101:5) and gossip (Proverbs 26:20). 

How different would our divisive culture be if everyone obeyed this simple precept? 

Pray for our leaders 

Paul was adamant: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1–2). This despite the fact that the Roman kings for whom he sought intercession were among the most ungodly and corrupt leaders in history. One of them, in fact, eventually ordered Paul’s execution. 

From the apostle’s day to ours, Christians have been called to pray for our leaders, whoever they are. The more we disagree with them on personal, political, and policy grounds, the more they need our intercession. 

Writing for Christianity Today, Bonnie Kristian suggests that “for those whose candidate lost, we should pray for calm, endurance, and comfort in what may be a moment of real fear.” Conversely, “for those whose candidate won, we should pray for responsibility, humility, and grace.” 

She adds that we should pray for the new president to have wisdom in selecting staff and advisers. We should note that “prayers for peace are needed, because our Constitution assigns the president perhaps his most unfettered power in the conduct of war—and its conclusion.” We should remember that “some policies of every presidency, whether at war or at home, inflict unjust harms,” so “we should pray for our president’s victims, for their receipt of justice and restoration.” 

She concludes that while the president is not “our exemplar, the life around which we conform our own,” we should “pray that discipleship will cultivate in us any of his virtues we admire—and that sanctification will excise from us any of his vices we revile.” 

How can Christians trust God in difficult days? 

Let’s close by focusing on our personal lives and faith. Whoever wins this year’s election, our nation will continue to face enormous challenges. How do we turn to God for the strength and hope we need each day? 

I suggest three keys to reframing obstacles as opportunities and challenges as invitations to hope. 

One: Look back 

God advises us: “Take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 6:12). 

The 1918 pandemic killed more than 675,000 Americans in a nation of 103 million. In a nation of 328 million, this would equate to more than 2.1 million deaths, nearly ten times the current number. God sustained our nation through World War I, the pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II, and all that followed. 

When we look back at what God has done, we can find the hope to trust him for what he will do. 

Two: Look up 

Our Father encourages us: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). Paul added: “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). 

Thus we can claim 2 Corinthians 9:8: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” When we look up to who God is, we find the hope to trust him for all that we need. 

Three: Look around 

Our Lord’s call is clear: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). 

In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis wrote: “I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can.” 

When we look back at what God has done, we can see his help. 

When we look up at who he is, we can see his heart. 

Then, when we look around, we can extend his hands to a hurting world. 

Conclusion 

In 1923, the Pledge of Allegiance read, “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” In 1954, responding to the Communist threat of the day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower encouraged Congress to add the words “under God.” 

As a result, millions of schoolchildren now pledge allegiance each school day to “one nation under God, indivisible.” 

Here’s the problem: many of us learned to recite the pledge with a pause between “one nation” and “under God.” Such a comma separates our unity as a nation from our faith in the Lord. 

With this comma in place, we cannot truly be “one nation.” We cannot be “indivisible” in the face of deepening divisions and escalating dissension. Unless we find unity in the sovereignty and grace of our Creator, we will find it nowhere else. 

When George Washington took the inaugural oath as our first president, he added the pledge, “So help me God.”

To the degree that we are “one nation under God,” with no comma, we will be “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” 

So, pray for Americans to be “one nation,” to be united no matter the outcome of this election. As Abraham Lincoln noted (quoting Mark 3:25), “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” 

And pray for us to be one nation “under God,” surrendered to his word and his will in our souls and our lives. 

Then, as you pray, answer your prayer personally. 

Are you “one nation” with your fellow Americans today? 

Have you been slandering a candidate or a fellow citizen? 

Has your attitude been godly? 

Is there a relationship you must restore? 

Are you “under God” today? 

Is your life fully surrendered to Jesus as Lord? 

Can he use your time, talents, and treasure as he wishes? 

Do you belong to him? 

Robert Louis Stevenson observed, “To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end in life.” 

Let’s pray and work to this “end” for ourselves and our nation, to the glory of God. 

Originally posted at denisonforum.org

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Adapted from Dr. Jim Denison’s daily cultural commentary at www.denisonforum.org. Jim Denison, Ph.D., is a cultural apologist, building a bridge between faith and culture by engaging contemporary issues with biblical truth. He founded the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture in February 2009 and is the author of seven books, including “Radical Islam: What You Need to Know.” For more information on the Denison Forum, visit www.denisonforum.org. To connect with Dr. Denison in social media, visit www.twitter.com/jimdenison or www.facebook.com/denisonforum. Original source: www.denisonforum.org.

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