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Notes on Staying Sane in an Election Year

January 8th, 2024 | 11 min read

By Jake Meador

The first presidential election I remember at all well is the 2000 Bush-Gore campaign. The first I could vote in was the 2008 Obama-McCain race. Given that, I can't honestly say there has ever been an election in my lifetime I remember as being something less than an angry, hateful spectacle—though, of course, one can well make the case that "angry, hateful spectacle" is actually quite a normal description for American presidential campaigns:

That said, whatever one might make of the elections of the distant past, I do not think myself mistaken in saying the elections of the present have been consistently nasty and unpleasant.

This regrettable fact, of course, does not simply roil the American political body, but it also afflicts the body of Christ in America as well. As we prepare then for another election year, a year in which this election will, doubtless, be referred to frequently and with no memory of prior elections as "the most important in our lifetimes," I offer some notes in hopes that they can help our churches, at least, to resist the greatest excesses of stupidity this year and perhaps even to model a still better way to our neighbors.

Note 1: Remember that politics matter.

For some, the solution to the problem of rancorous and inane election fighting is to adopt a kind of bastardized Hauerwasianism—sneering at the political realm as Hauerwas sometimes does but almost never with anything like Hauerwas's attentiveness to the church or deep devotion to the law of God. It is a kind of ironic detachment from politics that seeks to address the problems of politics by denying their importance. This will not do.

God appoints political leaders for a purpose. At their best, our politicians help to reward the good and punish the evil, to make it easier to be good in a world cursed by sin. Good political authority is uniquely positioned to promote justice and peace in the world and so it is right and good to seek to see such leaders gain power if you live in a democratic system and can help them to do so. (Vicious authority, of course, can also unleash great evils on the world which might otherwise have been avoided.)

Even apart from their behavior or policies, the office of political authority is itself significant. It is, after all, a commonplace in the reformed tradition (and perhaps in others as well) to argue that the fifth commandment does not narrowly mean only that we ought to honor our parents, but rather it gestures toward the broader interconnectedness and hierarchy of all social relations. The fifth commandment, then, is chiefly about parents, but not only about parents. The fifth commandment exhorts us also to honor civil authority. Paul's words in Romans 13 are themselves an echo of that command—and we should recall that Paul wrote those words under the regime of Nero, a man whose evils exceed those of an overwhelming majority of other rulers one might consider.

For all these reasons, we should remember that civic participation and political agency are things we steward for the glory of God and the love of neighbor. Virtuous, wise, and discerning political action is a form of neighborly love. Public policy can be a profound expression of love.

To take one example in my family's life, were it not for Obamacare my parents would have had a far more difficult and complicated time following my dad's brain injury. They are still in their home today partly thanks to the provisions of Obamacare. Or to consider another example from the other party, President Bush's PEPFAR program has helped save millions of lives through making care more accessible to people with HIV and AIDS. It is also true, of course, that the Dobbs decision will likely save the lives of tens of thousands (at least) of unborn children this year alone.

It will not do, then, to try and avoid the many miseries of an election year by simply detaching ourselves from politics altogether. Politics are important and affect our lives in many ways.

Note 2: Remember that politics are complex.

Your political life as a Christian consists in far more than simply who you vote for or what party you are registered with. Indeed, both of those things are often a vanishingly small part of your political life, or at least they ought to be.

I have known humble, generous pious Christians who have voted for President Trump. I have also known courageous, steel-spined devout believers who have voted for Presidents Obama and Biden. (If it matters, I have never voted for any of the three and have actually left my presidential vote blank in the past two election cycles—not that my vote matters anyway since I live in one of the nation's reddest states.) It is unwise, then, to make who one votes for a test of Christian fellowship. Certainly, there might be sinful reasons a person would vote for a candidate. But then there might also be acceptable reasons for someone to vote for a candidate. A simple vote in itself actually says fairly little about what a person may or may not believe regarding political life. (It is, of course, another matter to lie about a candidate. There is no circumstance where that is licit.)

The matter of party registration is likewise complex. In recent years, prominent Reformed pastors have been attacked on social media over their political affiliation. But often if one lives in a major city that is dominated by one party, to register with the minority party is effectively to deny yourself any local political agency, at least with regards to voting. By registering with the majority party you might at least get to influence things by voting in that party's primary, which is often the de facto general election for the city or congressional district.

All of this is to say that participation in electoral politics in a system such as the United States's is quite complicated and virtually always involves making compromises. If you find yourself conversing with a Christian brother or sister who has voted in a way that offends or perplexes you, the best thing to do is simply ask them about their decision and then listen to their response without becoming triggered or cutting them off mid-sentence so you can say something offensive and unnecessary.

Note 3: Remember that most politics are local and not electoral.

One of the unhappy realities of American life today is that our common life is so degraded that when we talk about "politics" or even "public life" people's minds immediately race to electoral politics, the two parties, and national political campaigns.

That being said, the overwhelming majority of Americans and the overwhelming majority of people reading this essay or attending your church have virtually no influence over national politics. The place where our agency can be most felt is in local affairs. This could, of course, mean formal state- or city-level politics, such as running for state legislature or city council. But for most of us our political agency is even smaller and less direct than that.

I remember once talking with a pastor friend about this issue. He had taken a call at a church whose previous pastor was something of a transformationalist who excelled at defining lofty, ambitious goals for the church's life in its city and making people believe that they really could take whatever hill he had identified. My friend is more of a pietist as well as a realist and knew that they had an exceedingly small church of under 200 people in a very large, very post-Christian, secular city and that most of these visions his predecessor had left behind were little more than delusions of grandeur. And so he had spent time trying to help his parishioners develop a more specific, localized, attainable vision of public life.

Finally, one perplexed member asked him what his five-year plan was regarding the church's outreach strategy. My friend thought for a moment and asked the member what she specifically had in mind. "Well, how are we going to help solve poverty in our city?" she wanted to know. My friend thought for a second and said, "I don't know about how to solve poverty. But are you inviting people into your home who have less money than you do? Are you opening your home to the poor? Start there."

To be sure, this advice can be abused into a kind of ineffective quietism that neglects political responsibility. That is not what I have in view here. Rather, I want to suggest that the bulk of our political thought and energy should go toward arenas where that energy might actually yield fruit. The plain reality, given our system, is that my vote this November means virtually nothing. I live in a deep red state, so our electoral votes will go to former President Trump. I live in a deep blue city and neighborhood, so our city-level races and state representatives will be Democrats. As a private individual, there is very little I can do to affect this.

But what I can do is try to be known to my neighbors, invite my neighbors into my home, and participate in the life of a local church body of believers made up of other people attempting the same things. I can also seek to use my particular vocation to serve and build up the local church and common life in Lincoln. These are areas where my energy and attention may actually lead to real change, rather than serving merely as a kind of personal vanity project intended to make me feel important and help me gain a social media platform, all while having virtually no effect on anything real.

Note 4: Remember that politics are not ultimate.

Another pastor friend of mine is fond of the story, possibly apocryphal, of a European church being hit by a bomb during public worship during one of the world wars; after the smoke had cleared the church, which had been singing a hymn prior to the explosion, kept on singing.

The story of the monks of Tibhirine, depicted in the 2010 film Of Gods and Men tells a story not unlike that:

That story is also somewhat reminiscent of John Calvin's preaching ministry in Geneva: Upon his return to the city three years after being forcibly kicked out by local government Calvin returned to the same pulpit he had occupied previously and simply carried on preaching through the same biblical book he had been in prior to his expulsion. Matt and I are both fond of quoting Oliver O'Donovan here who once said that sometimes the sternest form of political judgment imaginable is to simply talk about something else.

There will be many, many attempts made this year to colonize your imagination. Cable news and political podcasts and morning radio and social media reactionaries will all be there, demanding your attention. Indeed, they will at times suggest that if you fail to attend to them then you will yourself somehow become complicit in the evils they are decrying.

Ignore them.

I am not saying to ignore politics, ignore public life, or adopt an above-it-all indifferentism to any of these things. We have already talked about how politics matter and how they provide one arena through which we can love our neighbors. Rather, I am telling you to refuse to participate in the sensationalizing spectacle of political discourse in an election year.

Instead, recall the advice of St Paul, who tells us to rejoice in all things and to pray without ceasing.

Of course, it is perhaps worth noting here that if we are to rejoice in all things there is some sense in which we need to be aware enough of things that we can rejoice in response to them. We need things we are attending to that we must rejoice in light of or, as it may be, in the face of. We mustn't allow our minds to be so captivated by politics that we lose sight of all the other things God is doing in us and in the world.

A friend of mine, a former volunteer in his church's campus ministry, once lamented to me how obsessed the young men in his ministry were with politics. "If I ask them what God is showing them in Scripture, I get crickets," he told me. "Same thing happens if I ask about their prayer life or how they are encouraging friends in their faith." Then he continued, "But if I ask them something about second amendment rights or Tucker's latest segment, they'll talk without stopping for an hour." This dynamic cuts in more ways than one, of course. I rather suspect, for example, that if you were in a blue city campus ministry you would not struggle to find many professing Christians that can't say much about prayer or Scripture but can talk for hours on end about mental health and self care.

If you find that your heart is cold to the things of God but agitated and aggressive in response to political or cultural events, then it is probably a very good time for you to begin judging politics not by listening to news and forming opinions (which you then share loudly on social media) but rather by tuning out much of that news and spending time with God in prayer.

Indeed, we should remember that there are times where extreme action is required for the sake of our own soul: If Christ could tell his followers that there are menaces so great that plucking out your own eye is not to extreme a reaction, then I dare suggest that deleting social media apps from your phone or simply tossing your phone in the trash is, likewise, not too extreme an act.

Note 5: Remember to devote yourself to the Scriptures, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and prayer.

The ordinary practices of Christian discipleship are not optional. Or, said slightly differently, the ordinary practices of discipleship cannot be neglected without inflicting harm on one's self. If you find that politics are driving you to neglect fellowship with fellow Christians or to neglect your personal spiritual disciplines, then your Christianity has, perhaps, been transformed into a kind of handmaiden to your politics, the religious justification to which you appeal to justify your beliefs.

Tragically, there are also times where Christian communities as a whole become colonized by ideology. When this occurs, we should not fault the individual trying to remain sane and faithful for finding that Christian fellowship has become difficult and complex. One of the unhappy traits of our time, I think, is that a great many churches and Christian communities have ceased to be Christian in any meaningful way, either because they have refashioned Christianity as a religious component of a larger nationalistic cultural project or because they have reduced the faith to a utilitarian tool for psychological well being. When whole communities are seduced away from the faith in this way, that is to be lamented. Nor should we condemn the individuals who opt out of that (who are still seeking to follow Jesus) while ignoring the communities that have, at best, lost their first love.

In any case, it is perilous to attempt the Christian life without the ordinary practices of discipleship, which include dining together with fellow believers and participating in public worship with fellow believers marked by Word and Sacrament. As much as it depends upon you, then, do not neglect Christian fellowship and gathered public worship. The neglect of these things will, indeed, become a cause of spiritual distress in you, not a cure.

In some cases, this will mean recognizing that you have political differences with others in your church but that these are ultimately not significant because you remain united to them through Word and Sacrament, and your church remains faithful and healthy and dedicated to both of those things. In other cases, it may be the case, in fact, that the paucity of healthy Christian community in your place is a calling on you to try and create that community. If that is the calling you have been given, however, you must remember that this is not a calling toward building your own platform or building a bespoke community of people who all believe all the same things about politics and just meet together to pray from time to time before going to brunch or the shooting range.

The community you are seeking to grow in your place must be one marked by fidelity to God's Word, which is a sword that cuts across all our ideologies and prejudices and idolatries, calling all of us equally to repent. The call to form new Christian communities is not a call to lift yourself up or to reenforce your own beliefs. It is, if anything, a call to crucifixion, to the mortification of your vanity and whatever false wish-dream communities you might imagine in your mind.

That is a hard word, to be sure.

But then there is good news: At the end of all things, the end of despair, the end of discord, the end of your very self, there Christ awaits with a feast laid out for you.

We labor now in anticipation of that day. May we not forget that, as we embark on this election year.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).