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I Hate Talking Points

It has happened to me a lot during this campaign. The latest debate was a bit better but even during this most lively exchange …

It has happened to me a lot during this campaign. The latest debate was a bit better but even during this most lively exchange I found it difficult to listen. Every time the candidates went into their stump speech, my ADD kicked in like a Ferrari in overdrive.

In my opinion, there has been even more auto-recitation masquerading as dialogue this election cycle. In fact, after three debates, millions of hours of news coverage and gazillions of dollars in political ads, I still do not know exactly what is going to happen to the capital gains tax in light of the down turn. I also don’t know, precisely, how the surge strategy will work in the impossible-to-navigate Afghan mountain terrain and what would really happen if our government sucked up billions in upside-down mortgages.

In light of these fits of ADD induced by political rhetoric, I found myself literally unable to watch any post debate news coverage. I tired for about 10 minutes but I could feel the talking points of “McCain was erratic and will probably use a nuclear devise during his first week in office,” and “Obama wants to take Joe the Plumber’s money and spend it on communist youth camps”–literally giving me a migraine.

I had reached talking points revulsion.

In contrast, watching McCain and Obama make fun of themselves and each other at the Al Smith charity dinner made me feel like singing the national anthem. Later that night McCain made a repentant return to Dave Letterman. Dave, cranky as always, asked some of the toughest questions I have heard in the entire campaign.

What’s wrong with us when the late night talk show comedian does a better interview than the major network anchor and the candidate is more candid and honest next to Paul Schaffer than he was next to Jim Lehrer? Why did these two non-debate formats strike me as so different? So healthy?

I am sensitive to this talking points thing because of my long history of dealing with cults. I know cults because cults love the campus. It only makes sense. Students are the future; they are idealistic and abundant in numbers at lunch-time on any college quad. To cults, the campus is a great hunting ground for brain washing activities.

When I watch the debates and commercials I am reminded of my discussions with cult leaders. Talking to a cult member is really frustrating because all they do is go into their talking points.

I am convinced that our political culture of destroy-the-opposition-at-all-cost via easily digestible sound bites has made our candidates sound like cult robots too.

Here’s the really troubling thought–maybe it is not just politicians and cult leaders who abuse the talking points strategy. When we cast vision for spiritual change are we any more credible?

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Leadership is vision casting. Convincing people to work, give and go is the essential mechanics of change, whether it is personal or institutional. Jesus did it when he told his disciples to pick up the cross and we do it every time we launch a new church plant, small group ministry, campus group or capital campaign.

Like the candidates, we have our talking points. We call them “vision statements,” “core values” and “action plans” but they are in fact talking points–the stuff we talk about to those we are trying to persuade. There is nothing wrong with this but if we are not careful these leadership tools can easily take over the process instead of serve it.

There is a subtle line between genuinely calling people to godly work and becoming a scheming leader. The difference has everything to do with our moral credibility. Even a great cause can be lead by manipulation. A truly moral leader is concerned with both the validity of the cause and the moral purity of the techniques used to communicate that cause.

Some questions to ask ourselves:

  • How honest are we with those we are leading? Do we clearly outline the risks and returns of the vision? Do they understand the cost from the start?
  • Is vulnerability encouraged in our key leaders or do we set ourselves up as Jr. Messiahs?
  • When the vision runs into opposition, do we marginalize those who oppose us? Do we reduce their arguments (or even their person) to cartoon caricatures of who or what they really are? Are we tempted to negatively define our opposition or do we work with them to find reconciliation?
  • Do we use humor and self-effacement to win people over? Are we comfortable being the punch line now and again? Are we hard to offend?
  • Are we just on the talking points or do we truly listen and dialogue?

Vision casting is important. It’s not a sin, of course, to cast a powerful plan for the future. However, letting our talking points have priority over and above our moral credibility is.

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