The end of our long, tiring, and often vitriolic presidential election season in the United States came last Tuesday when Donald Trump became our new president-elect. Trump won more electoral votes but lost the popular vote, the fourth time in U.S. history such a result has occurred. The race was close, tempers were high, and reactions have ranged from apocalyptic despair to unexpected jubilation and everything in-between. How should Christians – regardless of how, or even if, they voted – respond?
Writing to early Christians in Rome, St. Paul the Apostle offered a succinct summary of the Christian ethic in the twelfth chapter of his epistle. It is worth reading the whole thing with the events of the last week in mind, but here I’ll just look at one verse: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Many are weeping and rejoicing after last Tuesday. A Christian who weeps ought to know how to rejoice with those who rejoice. One who rejoices ought to know how to weep with those who weep.
I realize that this is hard to do. Rejoicing with those we agree with is easy. Weeping with those we agree with is easy. Weeping with those who mourn the very thing that we celebrate – that’s hard. Rejoicing with those who celebrate the very thing that we mourn – that’s hard. But that is “the way which leads to life.”
This way is especially difficult, given the self-aggrandizement and demonization of others that have so often characterized this election cycle. Do you think everyone who voted for President-elect Donald Trump is racist, xenophobic, misogynist, Islamophobic, and homophobic? If so, I doubt you are rejoicing with those who rejoice right now. Do you think everyone who voted for Sec. Hillary Clinton is a pretentious, radically pro-choice, uber-progressive, out-of-touch, sore loser? Then you probably aren’t weeping with those who weep today.
All of this is compounded by the many narratives being woven together – by people of various political persuasions – that even while containing some truth often obscure the total picture. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his best-selling book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion that we often use our reason simply to justify the beliefs we already hold or want to hold. He wrote,
The social psychologist Tom Gilovich studies the cognitive mechanisms of strange beliefs. His simple formulation is that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” Then … we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks.
This works the other way as well:
In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must.
Basically, if we already want to believe (or disbelieve) one story or perspective on any given issue or event, we will find the evidence we need to support (or disprove) it. If we know before looking what we expect to see, we will probably see exactly what we expect.
Withholding our judgment and resisting self-justifying narratives, by contrast, is a rare and difficult skill. It requires the ascetic practice of watchfulness, regularly taking time in prayer and meditation to observe and evaluate our thoughts and passions before allowing them to shape our decisions and judgments. Watchfulness would mean adding to the questions “Can I believe this?” and “Must I believe this?” the question, “Do I just really want this to be true or false?” It encourages skepticism towards our own motives and thus, hopefully, critical thinking toward the media we consume.
To be clear, this does not mean that evidence and arguments are always self-serving. Rationality is a gift that can be used well or poorly. My point is to encourage its use for the sake of virtue. You likely have already read a news story or an editorial that confirms your beliefs about the presidential candidates and their supporters. There is probably some truth to it too.
But it is not the whole story, and you throw your reason – and thus your freedom – aside when you allow it to serve the passions of smugness, condemnation, indignation, or despair. Even when indignation, for example, is righteous or reasonable, it may still be harmful. As St. John Cassian put it, “Leaves, whether of gold or lead, placed over the eyes, obstruct the sight equally, for the value of the gold does not affect the blindness it produces. Similarly, anger, whether reasonable or unreasonable, obstructs our spiritual vision.”
This does not mean there is no place for emotion. Just like reason, emotion is a gift that may be used for either virtue or vice. It’s good to be happy over what is good. It’s good to be sad over what is not. It’s not okay to be happy at another’s sadness – that’s called mockery. It’s not okay to weep at another’s joy – that’s called envy. Are you angry? Do not forget that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Are you gloating? Do not forget that “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). These vices eat away at the soul and pollute the heart, obstructing our ability to love.
Take a long look at the exit polling data from last Tuesday – many different people voted for each candidate. Stories of rich vs. poor, white vs. non-white, men vs. women, elite vs. everyday people, native-born vs. immigrant, fear vs. love, simply do not tell the whole story. Many are frightened and anxious right now, and not without reason. Others are rejoicing that their long-ignored voices were finally heard, and not without reason.
The Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper warned against the false uniformity he called “the curse of modern life.” “[S]in,” said Kuyper, “by a reckless leveling and the elimination of all diversity, seeks a false, deceptive unity, the uniformity of death.” When we homogenize our views of ourselves or others, we embrace that false uniformity of sin. By contrast, “multiformity is the undeniable mark of fresh and vigorous life.” It is easy to overlook that diversity in others – and ourselves – but the easy way is the road that leads to destruction.
Politically, the United States has grown more and more polarized every year since at least the early 1990s. But we need not be. It is difficult to do, but we can – if only by God’s grace – choose to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. And in so doing, we can take a step toward overcoming our divisions through the life-affirming unity-in-diversity that characterizes the love of God.
Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture.