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The presidential debate and a viral video: Two surprising explanations for our divisiveness and three biblical responses

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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The presidential debate and a viral video
President Donald Trump, left, and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, left, take the stage for the start of the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Let’s begin with some surprising good news: politicians can agree to get along. I’m not referring to last night’s presidential debate, which we’ll get to in a moment, but to a video tweeted from the governor’s race in Utah which has gone viral.

Democrat Chris Peterson and Republican Spencer Cox appear side by side, though socially distanced. They introduce themselves and tell us we should vote for them. Then they take turns making statements that are countercultural and refreshing:

  • “There are some things we both agree on.”
  • “We can debate issues without degrading each other’s character.”
  • “We can disagree without hating each other.”
  • “Win or lose, in Utah we work together.”

Their video has 3.3 million views as of this morning. 

Meanwhile, President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden met last night at Belmont University in Nashville for the final presidential debate before the November 3 election. The discussion was less belligerent than the first debate. Once again, who won depends on your partisan perspective: conservative John Podhoretz says the president “had the debate of his life,” while CNN‘s Chris Cillizza writes that Joe Biden “managed to land the best lines of the night.” 

How has our culture become so divisive? Let’s consider two surprising factors. 

“Seemingly on the brink of nuclear war” 

On this day in 1962, the quarantine of Cuba began in response to the discovery that the Soviet Union was building medium-range missile sites there. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum website notes that during what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, “the world waited—seemingly on the brink of nuclear war.” A diplomatic resolution was eventually reached, but during the crisis, this was far from certain. 

In a recent podcast with my son, Craig, I noted that generations of Americans found unity in our common enemies. World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War forced us to work together to counter threats to our lives and our future. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have faced no unifying external threat. Our military engagements in Vietnam and the War on Terror deeply divided us. 

And, lacking a common enemy, we have become the enemy

Why anonymity is so dangerous 

Digital media makes incivility worse, for reasons that may (literally) not be obvious to us. 

The Director of National Intelligence and the FBI Director announced Wednesday that Iran and Russia have obtained US voter registration information in an attempt to interfere with the election. For example, Iran posed as the far-right group Proud Boys to send intimidating emails to voters. 

They could do so because email and social media enable content creators to be anonymous or to masquerade as someone they’re not. This is a massive problem in our culture. 

Geopolitical analyst George Friedman observes: “The Bill of Rights does guarantee free speech, but it did not anticipate the notion of total anonymity. Free speech assumes that the speaker is known, that what is said depends on who the speaker is and what the speaker has said in the past—that is, the character of the speaker. All that is impossible through these new media. . . . The founders did not expect speech to be divorced from responsibility. Social media specializes in it.” 

Such anonymity “encourages bad-faith actors to use that media and leaves the reader with no way to measure the credibility of the statement or the speaker.” 

Three biblical reminders 

Amid the divisiveness and negativity of our day, let’s close with three biblical reminders. 

One: Crisis is a call to faith 

Max Lucado points to the time Jesus walked to the disciples on the stormy Sea of Galilee (John 6:16–20) and then quotes verse 21, “They were glad to take [Jesus] into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.” Then Lucado adds: “Follow the example of the disciples. Welcome Jesus into the midst of this turbulent time. Don’t let the storm turn you inward. Let it turn you upward.” 

Two: Faith is a call to action 

James testified, “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). C. S. Lewis observed: “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.” 

Three: Action is a call to resilience 

Galatians 6:9 states, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” When we turn to God in the crisis, then turn to others with compassion, we need to “stand firm” in the moment (Ephesians 6:13), trusting that God is using our challenges to mold us into his best for us. 

Louise Glück, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize for literature, writes in her poem “Elms”: 

All day I tried to distinguish
need from desire. Now, in the dark,
I feel only bitter sadness for us,
the builders, the planers of wood,
because I have been looking
steadily at these elms
and seen the process that creates
the writhing, stationary tree
is torment, and have understood it
will make no forms but twisted forms

However, the more “twisted” the tree, the stronger its wood. Why is this fact good news for you today? 

NOTE: It may still be October, but Christmas is coming soon. Request your copy of Our Christmas Stories today so that you can begin reading this new daily Advent devotional on Dec. 1 and finish it on Dec. 26. Janet Denison, my wife, has compiled and written twenty-six encouraging and inspiring stories based on dozens of reflections she gathered from friends, family, and readers. Each of these stories points you back to the greater story of Jesus. I am certain you will be blessed this Christmas season by Our Christmas Stories

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