Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Grownup in the Room

It’s been one very weird election cycle, and it’s still eight long months until Election Day. On the left side of the aisle what seemed destined to be an easy stroll to a Democratic convention coronation for Hillary Clinton has turned out to be a hotly contested campaign, with opposition coming from a most unlikely corner—self-described democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders.

In a normal year that unanticipated turn of events would easily be the recurring lead story on the op-ed pages of the big city dailies. But this is anything but a normal year. For on the other side of the aisle we have witnessed a snarling, growling, vicious dog fight for the Republican nomination unlike anything seen in living memory. There have been the usual dirty little tricks that are all too typical—the kind of stuff we’ve sadly grown to expect in our beleaguered democracy. There have been the misleading claims and quotes taken out of context. We have seen the personal attacks and the all too familiar negative ads. And then there were the debates…

I remember studying the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates back in school. Abraham Lincoln was challenging incumbent Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas for his seat in the U.S. Senate. In a series of seven debates conducted across the state over a period of two months, each candidate made lengthy presentations regarding his positions on a variety of important issues, with the question of slavery topping the list. Then they took turns carefully rebutting their opponent’s arguments. These arguments were often finely nuanced. The tone was respectful and gentlemanly. That was 1858.

Over a century and a half later, the presidential debates we have been watching this election year have had little in common with the lofty contest of ideas waged across the Illinois prairie long ago. This is the age of the soundbite—the snappy comeback, the clever putdown. The quality of ideas and general tone of presidential debates has been deteriorating for years. But we have hit some shocking new lows this time around, where some of the candidates’ rebuttals have stooped to the level of, “…and you’re ugly, too!” It has been presidential politics as reality TV. Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich seem like little more than the surviving cast members of Amazing Race or Survivors as the season finale draws near.

In a perverse sort of way it HAS been entertaining. But it is the kind of entertainment that Christians should be embarrassed by—like admitting you enjoy the humor of a particularly vulgar comedian. And vulgar seems to be a particularly apt descriptor for the 2016 presidential election season.

It is not my job as a pastor to advise you on whom you should support for elective office. The issues by and large do not offer clearly defined “Christian” positions. But when it comes to helping define Christian conduct and behavior, well, that IS a part of my job. So when the mud (and various other substances) is flung about the room, it is important that we, who are Christ followers, set an example of godliness, even when all about us are behaving in a distinctly ungodly way. We have to be the grownups in the room, even if those who would like our votes act like unruly children.

Thankfully, the state of the candidates’ souls is not my responsibility. I am not their pastor. My approval or disapproval of how they manage their respective campaigns in my personal business. Your opinions may differ. But crass, boorish behavior has a way of encouraging crass, boorish behavior in others. And as Christians we must answer to a higher standard. So put on your big boy pants and model maturity. Who knows? Maybe we can start a trend!