Hope and Change?
It has been a wild election. The majority of our deeply divided fellow citizens, many of whom are clearly hurting or angry (or both), fed up with gridlock in Washington, and eager for change, chose a new president, in what has seemed a joyless and bitter contest between two of the least popular candidates in recent history.
The election results are, in many quarters, interpreted as a mandate for significant change; evangelical voters in particular were widely seen as hoping to restore America to a lost time of previous greatness, and pinning those hopes on an unlikely candidate to get them there.
But while our faith calls us to be people of hope, it also cautions against placing our hope in politics or politicians (seemingly a constant temptation for the politically-engaged faithful). There is a limit to what politics can do. The very structure of our system of checks and balances encourages gridlock when elected representatives are deeply divided. Law-making itself has been compared to sausage-making. Implementation and enforcement is often discriminatory and error-riddled. Even the wisest and best of leaders are finite and flawed. (Those who pledge during their campaigns to “give you everything” have, to understate, over-promised.)
Public policy can incentivize business development; it cannot instill energy and initiative. It can eliminate the marriage penalty in the tax code; it cannot cultivate stronger, more loving marital relationships. It can restrict a supply (whether of drugs, alcohol, weapons, abortion services, etc.) but not eliminate the demand.
Moreover, many of our most intractable political problems are actually primarily relational, cultural, and spiritual problems that have political manifestations and consequences. The relational and spiritual issues of loneliness, alienation, irresponsibility, despair, disengagement, pride, and anger, for example, often manifest in the family break-up and community breakdown that have decimated the social bonds and obligations that have long held our republic together.
This is not to say that politics is unimportant. Passage of the Civil Rights Act accelerated and catalyzed vital cultural changes far beyond the equal legal protections it extended to minorities. Political decisions can perpetrate injustice—or open up opportunities for flourishing. Politicians can encourage “the better angels of our nature,” or increase their own support and fundraising haul by fomenting xenophobia and division. What a society chooses to protect, incentivize, or prohibit can send a profound moral message. And one of the many ways we can obey the Biblical injunction to love one’s neighbor is by working to create and sustain, through politics and other means, conditions which make possible human freedom and flourishing.
But placing our hopes for restoring our country to some lost ideal on a fallen politico or finite system is to ask for disillusionment; politics can be the noble of work of (in the words of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) finding “proximate solutions to insoluble problems;” but it cannot give us the security, connection, and community we crave.
Perhaps one of the most important roles our faith plays as this strange election concludes is to remind us that our greatest hopes and needs—for love, connection, meaning, redemption, forgiveness, and purpose, the very relational bonds and “habits of the heart” that make limited government possible—cannot be met by politics or political leaders, but only by and through the One whose kingdom is not of this world.
- The above reflection is adapted from the previously-published article “The Limits of Politics” in Patheos.
- Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness,”The Trinity Forum Reading, 2012.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America,” The Trinity Forum Reading, 2010.