I have spent much of the last two years investigating the connections between politics and Christian discipleship. Many people have commented how relevant, timely, and needed such an analysis is. My response is often that my findings are more relevant to a long-term and expansive view of politics and spirituality than to the specifics of this (2016) or any other election. At the same time, even amidst the blur of commentary leading up to and after the 2016 presidential race from which I usually shy away, I feel compelled to offer some of those insights. I believe that discipleship is a political activity oriented toward the kingdom of God (a political metaphor), and I deeply care about how discipleship plays out in the world, especially among those with whom I am in relationship.
I also recognize that I have a personal investment in Election 2016, and, indeed, in all politics, which I redefine as a collective process of pursuing and negotiating a common good for the political communities of which we are a part. Politics goes way beyond elections. And insofar as politics involves you as my neighbor, or my family member, or even my fellow citizen, I owe you myself, my truth. I offer it not in haughtiness or indignation, as I am so tempted to do, but at a common table, with thanksgiving in my heart.
Here is some of my truth: I know that voting is a limited form of choice connected to vast arrays of reasons, motivations, experiences, and sensibilities. Just because Donald Trump has said publicly and repeatedly racist, misogynistic, fear-mongering things does not mean that people agree with those or that those things about him attracted their vote. And just because Hillary is under a cloud of suspicion for corruption and potentially criminal political negligence does not mean that those are things that Hillary voters support. I get that. I get that some people think they are placing the plight of unborn children above all other considerations in their vote. I get that people see Hillary Clinton’s transgressions as more off-putting than Donald Trump’s. I get that federal politics is broken and could use an outsider’s touch. I get that many people have felt left out of the conversation, economically, socially, politically and discovered a potential voice in Trump. I get that people have deep partisan and philosophical ties that transcend individual candidates. I think I understand all those impulses. I don’t feel them the same way maybe some of you do, but I understand them at a certain level.
Another main insight that my research in moral psychology, theology, and human anthropology has shown me is that voting is a behavior, like many others, that is driven more by intuition than by logic or reason. We have reactions or impressions toward people, issues, and situations that are intuitive before they are logical. Unless we are completely disinterested in an outcome, the vast majority of the time we engage in what is called ex post facto reasoning. What this means is that we have an intuitive reaction that comes from the gut and then almost instantaneously afterward we form a rational explanation. The process is undetectable to us, but it is driven by the gut or intuition and emotion. When our gut and our rational explanation do not coincide, we experience dissonance and cannot function until they are resolved. Most of the time we rationalize our gut rather than revise our reaction because of information.
I am not explaining this in order to say your rationalizations are therefore wrong and somehow mine are right and pure. It is just the opposite. I rationalize what is in my gut just like you do. And I’m doing it right now, though I’d like to think there is still the possibility of stepping back and examining what is in our gut, and potentially shaping it differently. What ultimately drives those intuitive responses are all kinds of things—who we are surrounded by, what we do, who and what we love, how we’ve experienced people and circumstances in the past.
In my first presidential election (1996) I voted for Bob Dole. Yup. Good ol’ Bob. I don’t think it was because Jack Kemp played for the Bills, but maybe that played a role. At the time, I thought Bill Clinton was evil. I worked for Steve Forbes’s campaign leading up to 2000. In 2000 I ultimately voted for Dubya. He was likeable. Still is. I liked the idea of “compassionate conservatism.” In fact, I still do.
What was in my gut then? My family growing up was not full of staunch Republicans. But at a critical time leading into my early voting years, familial, church, and other social impressions predominated my affective (emotional) experiences. Singing praise songs on the way to “pro-life” rallies. White suburbia and its aspirations. An association between Christian identity and Republican politics. You see, all these things created impressions and sensibilities—identity, emotion, love, disgust—that took priority over any rational deliberation.
In 2001, my wife and I moved to Guatemala. I was introduced to the ways in which American neoliberal economic and political policies destroyed the lives of indigenous peasants in ways that were contrary to the touted American ideals of democracy, equality, and justice. Dissonance. We moved into the inner city of Buffalo where some 70% of our neighbors were living below the poverty line. Dissonance. We got involved in foster care. Dissonance. Jillana worked with immigrants and refugees. Dissonance. These experiences shaped me in such a way that my rationalized picture of the world had to catch up, and I am eternally grateful for them.
St. Augustine was one of the first and best theological anthropologists. He understood that we are driven by what we love, and that when our loves are disordered, so are we. He understood love for God to be the ultimate and highest organizing love, but it was always either connected to or in competition with other, earthly loves. Those loves drive our gut, and, I think in most cases, they drive our votes in one way or another.
We live in Portland now. We have relationships with women and children who grew up in destitute poverty and broken homes. Many of my students, friends, and neighbors are immigrants, Latinos/as, gay, black, Muslim. I have worked with survivors of sexual, physical, and spiritual abuse. I have at least a dozen students who are undocumented because they were brought to the U.S. as children and are only able to work and go to school because of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. We love them and they love us. These experiences have deeply formed me. And your experiences have formed you. A corollary to this, of course, is that our lack of certain experiences have also created blind spots for us.
So when Donald Trump says he is going to build a wall and deport millions of people, I have in my heart Pedro who plays the trumpet in a mariachi band and is a coach and social worker to at-risk youth. When Trump says he is going to create a registry for our Muslim neighbors and ban their entry to the U.S., I have in my heart Cyrus and Manaizheh who taught me how to make rice with potato on the bottom of the pan and needed my help setting up their internet. When he objectifies and dehumanizes women, normalizing a culture of unwanted sexual advances, I have in my heart the stories and pain of men and women who have courageously overcome abuse or assault and are now ministering to others. When he says he is going to double down on the unconstitutional and inequitable policy of “stop and frisk,” I have in my heart Josh, Andre, and Damon, who have shared their alternative universe as young black men with me.
Our daughters are intuitively put off whenever they heard Donald Trump speak because they recognized him as a bully. They have been affected by a culture of fear because their friends, too, feel their bodies under threat from the toxic speech he has uttered. Of course I have them in my heart. Even if, as some say, it was all “just talk,” it has had a real, lasting psychological effect on many in our community that we know and love, and by extension, on us. It is not a “let’s wait and see” situation. It is a situation where someone’s actions and behavior put in a national spotlight has done real damage already.
We are not sad and disappointed and angry because Hillary lost and Donald won. I would have smiled at a Kasich, Bush, or Rubio victory. I may have even voted for them. We are sad and disappointed and angry because we are intimately connected, even in our life and position of privilege, to many other precious lives who find themselves under real threat. When they hurt, we hurt. And a vote for Trump, to us, was a vote for their degradation.
I get that you may not have seen it that way, and I regret not engaging in this conversation more proactively. Like many, we were shocked that Trump could be taken seriously and have much to learn from the fact that he was. Not just that racism, sexism, and homophobia are still around. We already know that. But also that there are many who have felt disenfranchised and condescended to by a wealthy, educated, liberal elite, and Washington machine. I know that in my patterns of thinking I sometimes participate in that condescension and elitism. I vow to work on that.
I share all this not because I think I am “right” and you are “wrong,” but because our sensibilities, our gut, seem to have been formed differently, especially in the primary relationships that shape our loves. As a Christian, that is a problem for me, much more than any differences we might share as Americans or in our ideas about politics.
When I read scripture I see a God who came into this world starting in the womb of an unwed, teenage mother, born in a barn, who quickly became a homeless refugee, and who favored the marginalized in society. One of Jesus’s most consistent and enduring messages was love for one’s neighbor, whom he defined in the parable of the good Samaritan as one who materially cared for a cultural/religious other. The Old Testament is full of prophecy calling Israel and the governments under which it was exiled to do justice to the poor, the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow.
I am not saying all that adds up to a vote for Hillary. What I am saying is that it does add up to a Christian call to cast your lot, your fate, your life with folks who have been more marginalized than you. Loving your neighbor as yourself does not mean loving yourself and your interests first. It very specifically means putting others’ interests ahead of your own. And in order to do that, we must be in touch with those others and their interests.
David Brooks recently described a family that has what he calls “an intolerance for social distance”—not letting their neighbors go unnoticed or uncared for. It is not a liberal or conservative thing, but it is a Christian thing. I believe that if you truly have an “intolerance for social distance” by sharing life with people from marginalized groups in relationship everyday, you would also cast your vote with them. And I have a very difficult time understanding how that could possibly have been a vote for Trump.
So the fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, or anyone whose primary identity in this world is a follower of Christ for that matter, troubles me. I get why it is the way that it is, but I also believe it shouldn’t be. As Christians we should be making a place at the table of our lives for all those who are other to us. We have a lot to learn, and only when such tangible neighbor love is borne out in reality will our rationalizations have any merit. St. Augustine said: love God then do as you will. What he meant is that when our loves are properly formed and ordered, so are our actions. A corollary to this is: tangibly and materially love your Muslim, Hispanic, gay, survivor, undocumented, black, white, immigrant neighbors then, and only then, vote as you will.