Editor in Chief
As voters cast their ballots on Tuesday, Nov. 6, Americans’ beliefs and values will be more polarized along partisan ideologies than at any point in the past 25 years, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Since 1987, Pew has evaluated 48 value questions measuring “attitudes on government, business, the environment and social issues” and found that the average partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats has nearly doubled to 18 percentage points from 10 in 1987. Furthermore, this gap in opinions surged under George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, making party affiliation the greatest cleft in society today, more significant than race, gender or class.
A recent poll conducted by the Record — featured on pages 8-9 of this issue — shows that Wheaton College is also divided among various party affiliations, though less starkly today than in 2008.
In a political climate where polarization is growing, the state of the economy is disconcerting, foreign policy decisions are pressing and the makeup of America is changing, what effect should this have on Christian voters?
Christians and political engagement
In her book “Honoring God in Red or Blue,” professor of political science Amy Black addresses the ways Christians should and should not engage in divided politics, regardless of political affiliation.
“I want people to understand more about American politics, I want Christians to bring their faith to bear in American politics, to take their faith seriously,” said Black. “So many of the ‘Christian’ politics books out there seem to tell readers that there is only one way to think about politics; God is either a Republican or Democrat, it just depends on the author you read. I argue that Christians can and will disagree about politics and that is okay.”
Black also argues that the Church will never be affiliated with one political party nor should Christians expect it to be. Also, Christians should not be surprised that everyone does not fall into the same political camps.
“If God creates us with such diversity and gives us such different interests, talents and backgrounds, I think it makes sense that we might end up in different (political) places,” said Black. “I see that as a part of the beauty and diversity of God’s kingdom. It’s an opportunity for us to learn from one another.”
Professor of politics Bryan McGraw said that, while Christian voters may share similar theological beliefs, they should not expect other Christians to reach the same political conclusions.
While disagreements may be based on differing theological presuppositions, they also may be based on different emphases of biblical values or diverse perspectives on policy initiatives.
“It is entirely proper for Christians to engage in politics on the basis of our theological claims, but we should recognize that we can share a lot theologically and disagree a lot politically, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that — and we ought to be charitable politically in that regard,” McGraw said.
Furthermore, both McGraw and Black believe that Christian political engagement should be a formative process that builds character and offers a public model for non-Christians to observe biblical principles put into action.
“One thing (Christians) don’t recognize well enough is that our participation in various activities — not just in politics, but also in a vocation, in a career, in our families, in our churches — they inevitably shape us,” said McGraw. “We become certain kinds of people, at least in part, on account of the things that we do and how we do them.”
The way in which Christians interact with others of differing political affiliations or ideological backgrounds is an area in which this “shaping” can take place, said Black.
“Far too many people think that angry and loud talk somehow shows how much we care about politics. I reject that,” said Black. “We can be passionate about politics, we can care deeply about politics, but we must love God and love neighbor first. We can disagree, but we need to do so in a way that respects others as fellow image-bearers of God.”
Since Obama decided to run for the presidency, race has also come to the forefront of politics, another issue the general public, including Christians, must acknowledge. A 2009 Gallup Poll measuring views on racial relations showed that Obama’s inauguration had little effect on views of race in America.
“Fifty-five percent of Americans in 1963 were hopeful that a solution to the race-relations problem would eventually be worked out,” and, according to the poll, that number went to 56 percent in 2009 — over 45 years later.
Professor of political science Larycia Hawkins, who specializes in the intersection of race, religion and politics, commented that before Obama’s presidency, the general public incorporated his race into their assessment of him as a candidate, even if they did so subconsciously.
“Beginning with the primaries when Barack Obama decided to run for office, race was operative. Political psychologists call it ‘chronically accessible’ in people’s minds,” said Hawkins. “It was something that was used to evaluate him from the very beginning; not only him, but also his opponents. Opponents of Barack Obama also were evaluated on the basis of how they would fare against him. For instance, instead of voting for John McCain, someone could be voting in opposition to Barack Obama.”
What voting means
When thinking about political engagement, voting is commonly labeled as a responsibility of civic engagement. The way that people engage in politics is usually based on their understanding of what voting means and how it affects society.
McGraw challenges people to think about voting not as the only part of civic engagement, but rather as a small part in a “ménage” of civic duties.
“When you vote, what are you doing?” asked McGraw. “Well, I think you’re expressing a view of yourself and your community and what you would like that community to look like as best you can, given those constraints of choices. Voting is expressive rather than an exercise of power.”
This should not cause voters to discount the importance of voting, defending political policies and platforms; neither should it discourage Christians from holding to a political affiliation, said McGraw. Rather, it should inform voters that the ballot is not where civil responsibility ends.
Voting offers citizens an opportunity to utilize their say to shape the role of government.
“Government can be a source for good. I am not saying that everyone must think therefore that government can solve every problem. I don’t think government can,” said Black. “But God can work through government, and we as followers of Christ can work through government to help with the Kingdom project.”
After the election
When the 2012 presidential election is determined on Nov. 6, celebration will be in sight for a portion of voters but not for others.
No matter who is the next president, Christians should not expect their convictions to be completely satisfied in any election, said McGraw.
“We can’t ever expect our theologically-grounded moral principles to be fully put in place in a political realm,” said McGraw.
Moving forward from this election season, Americans may continue to be polarized on many issues, but for Black, cooperation is warranted from all affiliations to an extent.
“We don’t have to like or support their policies, but whoever is inaugurated in January deserves our prayers and deserves our respect as the person elected to serve the United States,” said Black. “Again, it doesn’t mean that we have to agree with everything the person does, but we need to respect our leaders and are commanded to pray for those in authority. It’s a lot easier to pray for those whom we elected, but that’s not what we are told.”
Photo Courtesy: barackobama.com
Printed in the November 2, 2012, issue of The Wheaton Record. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.