As of this writing, the 2020 presidential election is undecided. Four key battleground states—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Georgia—are counting tens of thousands of absentee ballots today.
Democrats expanded their majority in the House of Representatives by at least five seats. Control of the Senate will come down to races in Maine, North Carolina, Michigan, and Georgia.
While we wait for further results, here’s what we do know: the health of our democracy depends on how we relate to each other once the election is over.
On January 27, 1838, in one of his first major speeches, Abraham Lincoln addressed “the perpetuation of our political institutions.” He stated, “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we live through all time, or die by suicide.”
What must you and I do in these tumultuous days to help our nation “live through all time”?
“America has been at civil war for some time”
Writing in Christianity Today, Bonnie Kristian notes that our Lord warned us against both malice and murder (Matthew 5:21–22). She then comments: “The rejection of love that motivates us to murder someone, Jesus said, is just as real and grave a sin when it leads us to despise her. By that standard, America has been at civil war for some time.”
Her evidence: “Negative partisanship is on a decades-long rise,” while “Americans who lean toward one major party and its platform increasingly believe members of the other party are close-minded and morally inferior to their own group.” She cites research indicating that “hate for the other side is more compelling than support for one’s own.”
Pew similarly reports that in 1997, 64 percent of Americans expressed confidence in each other’s ability to make wise political choices. Today, that number stands at 34 percent. Similarly, 73 percent of Democrats and Republicans say they “not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on basic facts.” (For my analysis of our cultural divide, see my new website article, “The most consequential election in living memory”: Why the 2020 election has been so divisive and how Christians can respond redemptively.)
“But things have always been this way,” you might respond. Actually, that is not true.
Recognize our unprecedented peril
Geopolitical analyst George Friedman reports that anger and animosity have always been part of America’s elections. He points to the fact that “Andrew Jackson’s wife was called a prostitute” and cites “the corruption that marred previous elections, like Rutherford B. Hayes’ or John Quincy Adams’ second election.” Such bitterness began with our first contested election in 1796 and persists today.
Friedman argues that “loathing candidates is normal and even healthy in a liberal democracy,” as it demonstrates passion and commitment to our political process. However, he states that “beginning in 2020, supporters of one candidate began to despise the supporters of the other candidate with visceral rage.” As a result, “Each camp has come to see the other as contemptible. . . . Each is seen as morally depraved, and each is shunned by the other.”
Consequently, when the election results are known, “A vast part of America will continue to loathe another vast part of America. To me, what is frightening is that this time it won’t go away. It has in the past, but I don’t think it was like this in the past.”
Friedman is unfortunately right. The issues that divide us–such as abortion, biblical marriage, and religious freedom—will only escalate in importance over coming years. We live in a day of 24/7 news cycles that amplify tensions to gain audience share. And social media gives everyone a microphone from which they can broadcast hatred for those with whom they disagree.
It is one thing to oppose political candidates. This is to be expected in a healthy democracy. It is another, however, to oppose each other, to condemn “the other side” as evil and dangerous. But for many Americans, this is where we are today.
The opportunity in this crisis
It remains to be seen whether the results of the election will lead to a lessening of tensions and a return to greater community. But this crisis of civility is an opportunity for the gospel.
Jesus told us that when we “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” we show that we are “sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44–45). When we care for the hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, and imprisoned, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
Loving people whether they love us or not shows the love of God to an unloving world. Meeting needs in Jesus’ name honors Jesus and draws hurting people to him.
Charles Camosy, a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, reminds us that we will be judged “on whether we allowed Christ’s face in the least among us to move us to visit prisoners, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger.” This means “doing deliberate, countercultural work in our own lives to contribute to the creation of a culture of encounter and hospitality. A culture in which we become busy (even obsessed!) with the needs of the other, especially our vulnerable neighbor, in a personal, embodied context.”
While Americans fight with each other over the election and its results, let’s be people who are too busy loving to hate, too busy serving to slander, too busy caring for our neighbors to harm our neighbors.
During the campaign, Americans were often told to “vote like your life depends on it.” Now Americans must love like our democracy depends on it, because it does.
The process of rebuilding our national civility starts today.
May it begin with you and with me.