A Brief Survival Guide for our Upcoming Political Onslaught
By Matthew Lee Anderson
July 23, 2012
Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith and The End of our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. He writes at Mere Orthodoxy. You can follow him on Twitter.
This Presidential election will be the most important election we will ever face.
You know, just like the last one. And the one before that.
We won’t know until it’s long been over whether this election is any more important than the others. That’s the sort of claim that can only be examined through the long lens of history.
What we do know, though, is that this Presidential election will be one of the most expensive of our lifetimes. Most normal folks (of which, sadly, I am not one) are still enjoying summer barbeques and trips to the beach and are only keeping one eye on the race. But in a few weeks, the onslaught of political advertisements will be inescapable and political questions will begin to be a regular feature of all our conversations.
As a conservative, I struggle with the pervasiveness of politics that happens with every Presidential election. Near the heart of the conservative temperament is the affirmation that as important as our government is, it’s the spheres beyond it that matter most. Yet most political rhetoric is driven by what our candidates promise to do for us, rather than promising to simply get themselves out of our way.
We won’t know until it’s long been over whether this election is any more important than the others.
With that in mind, I offer the following toolbox to help you navigate our upcoming political maelstrom without losing your soul.
- Pick up Republic or a little John Locke, or maybe some Hobbes or Machiavelli. Contemporary political discussions are dominated by policy and polls. Moving behind all that and examining politics from that perspective will help keep you in the discussion without getting trapped down by the daily ups and downs.
Immerse yourself in some good literature that has nothing to do with politics. In critiquing the sort of feverish passions that politics evokes, my favorite theologian, Oliver O'Donovan, once noted that “there are many times—and surely a major Election is one of them—when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else." If you wish to be informed about politics without being dominated by it, then ensure that you’ve got a compelling non-political reading list set up for the next few months.
There are many times—and surely a major Election is one of them—when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.
Hone your ability to ask questions. The great thing about the next few months is that everyone is going to have an opinion about events. And that is going to make for a lot of fun, interesting conversations about important issues. It’s a great time to practice asking better questions of our friends and neighbors, questions that probe their presuppositions and that help us learn more about them.
Find a few reliable, level-headed commentators on both sides of the aisle and aim for depth, rather than breadth. Ezra Klein at The Washington Post is a decent read, and it’s hard to find a more thoughtful voice than Ross Douthat at the New York Times. The daily grind of the political race produces a volume of commentary that is simply impossible to keep up with, so don’t aim for mastery as much as you aim for depth and substance.
Remember that all politics is not national politics. We are a generation that loves talking about the importance of being local, but when it comes to politics are generally only concerned with what happens at the national level. Carve out a chunk of your time to read about and act on a local level.
Pray. The first and fundamental obligation of the Christian toward politics is to pray, to ask for God’s providential care for those who are in authority over us--and those who might be. There is no true remedy for the ebbs and flows of political passion besides that of communing with God and entering into the powerful peace that we are promised in Christ.
Election seasons are seductive: they will pull your heart in places that you don’t necessarily want it to go. But they are also excellent opportunities to deepen ourselves, to enter into our civic life in new and more healthy ways, and to grow in our pursuit of understanding of both God and our neighbour.
But none of that will happen without us realizing the dangers about us, that we are about to be tossed about by every wind and wave of political passion. It is a season that will test us, that will challenge our resolve. But as Christians, we know that no matter how large the squall ever becomes, our anchor in heaven will ever hold sure.