A US election, social media, and Christian internationalism

This is kind of a sermon on Romans 14, only without any direct reference to that text.

I shall never forget a night in New York City in which Enda [McDonagh; Irish Roman Catholic theologian] told a group of neo-conservatives he would rather live in Zimbabwe than America. He wonderfully defended his ‘preference’ in the face of their utter disbelief that any ‘rational’ person would actually make such a choice. How could you not want to live ‘in the lead society’ of the world? Enda pointed out he already lived in the ‘lead society’ of the world. It was called the Catholic Church. (Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Where Would I Be Without Friends?’ in Nation & Wells (eds) Faithfulness and Fortitude: In Conversation with the Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas, p. 331)

Reflecting on reflection on reflection on the outcome of yesterday’s US Presidential election might seem at least one step too far removed from reality, and also rather rapid, but it is the reality of the social media world we live in that people’s reactions to other people’s reactions to an event are freely available within minutes of the event happening.

The reactions, first: the data passing across my various feeds seems to suggest that, in every country in the world bar one, thoughtful Christian people seem to be remarkably united in publicly expressing pleasure and relief at the re-election of Barack Obama as President of the USA; the single exception is the USA itself, where the reaction is considerably more mixed, and the majority position probably leans towards sadness at the outcome, with a significant minority expressing something like horror.

Now, I am conscious that my news feeds are not a scientific poll, but others’ comments seem to suggest that they are seeing the same sort of pattern, and such comments are sufficiently widespread that I feel justified in claiming that amongst thoughtful, committed, Christians who are active on social media at least, this is the general shape of the reaction. (See also the BBC poll of 21 countries, in which only Pakistan favoured Romney, suggesting that non-American Christians are not unusual in favouring Obama.)

The reaction to the reaction has often been incomprehension, and sometimes anger: ‘how could a Christian support…’ ‘I cannot understand why you are so fixated on…’ ‘How can you call yourself a Christian and…’ ‘Can you not see that…’ (and other, less pleasant, ways of saying the same things). Thoughtful, informed, British (and European, African, Asian, Australasian, …) Christians publicly declare themselves – ourselves – to be unable to comprehend the political opinions of our American sisters and brothers, and vice-versa.

However, if we take seriously Enda McDonagh’s reported comments in my opening quotation, I think we have to say that – at least for the international Christian community – such mutual incomprehension is not an option, especially not now we are talking to each other directly via social media. In particular, we have to say that expressed responses directed at a sister or brother that say ‘what you have said is so far from anything I can imagine that I genuinely doubt your faith/sanity’ – and say it in angry and insulting ways – are clearly inappropriate.

The answer, however, is not to say ‘don’t say that’ – or, rather, that is an important part of the answer, particularly if you are saying it in an aggressive or insulting way – but it is not enough; if we feel angry towards a fellow Christian, we’ve got an problem that needs dealing with (Mt. 5:22), and just pretending it is not there is not adequate. If we choose to inhabit the world of social media, we are choosing to be in a space that will be often disorientating and sometimes challenging because it exposes us to people of different cultures. Our incomprehension and anger are natural, probably inevitable, responses to that disorientation; our task as Christian disciples is to discover how to comprehend and love, even if we still find we disagree.

An alternative would be to disengage from social media and so to avoid the disorientation; this might be the best answer for some, whose struggles in the area of Christian charity are particularly acute. For most Christians, however, I think we should receive the disorientation and challenge of our brothers and sisters on social media as a gift, a gift that challenges us to discover the extent to which our opinions are shaped by the gospel, rather than by the culture we inhabit – and that challenges us to understand the breadth of opinions that might be consonant with the gospel. Sometimes, the challenge will force us to change our mind; more often, perhaps, it will force us to understand the extent to which positions we assumed to be inevitable for a Christian are in fact the result of a fairly complex process of trying to inculturate the gospel in our own context. Always, the challenge will force us to greater humility, and to greater understanding of the implications of the gospel. Always, it will make us a little bit better fitted to be citizens of heaven, and a little bit worse as citizens of our various earthly cities.

In the case in point, the difference in opinion is not very hard to begin to explain. At least three factors seem plausible as proposed causes. First, we know that news narratives are different – not just because of editorial slants, but because of local interests. To take one example, the big stories in the UK about Mitt Romney came, inevitably, during his brief visit here in the summer, a visit which I suppose even he would concede was something of a disaster. In his public comments, he came across as ignorant, rude, arrogant, and rather unintelligent; I know that this is in no way an accurate picture, but it is what we saw of him the one time he was top of our news agenda, and it sticks in the mind; a number of such stories could go some way to explaining the difference in political opinion observed. (Similarly, I noticed a line in an opinion piece a few weeks back by an American political commentator I respect – it might have been Ross Douthat – commenting that 10-15% of the Obama campaign ads he had seen had majored on abortion; if the narrative British Christians had heard had been, crudely, ‘Vote Obama, the pro-abortion candidate,’ we might have been less enamoured of the ticket.)

Second, the rest of the world’s view of what policies are important in a domestic US election is inevitably skewed; we care disproportionately about foreign policy questions, and issues that are inescapably international (global warming; global economy; that sort of thing). Saying that the outside world’s primary concern was which candidate was less likely to start another war or three is crass and simplistic, but contains a significant element of truth. (This is also why the rest of the world has a right to a view: the POTUS will make decisions that affect our lives directly and significantly; we should care who holds the office.) Estimating the relative importance of policies differently will inevitably lead to different views of who should be elected.

Third, there are significant aspects of the standard American political narrative that most of the rest of the world just can’t understand: most notably, perhaps, the resistance to universal healthcare that is free at the point of delivery, which in Europe we simply assume will be a pressing aspiration of any society wealthy enough to afford it; again, there is the powerful narrative of American exceptionalism, which just sounds implausible to the many of the rest of us; thirdly, I do think that it is hard for non-US Christians to understand just how significant it is that certain crucial issues of personal morality have become defining points of party political platforms in the USA, just because it has not happened here. Equally, I understand that the European and British tradition of Christian Socialism sounds like nothing more than an oxymoron to many American Christians. Again, such cultural differences offer plausible reasons for the observed differences of opinion.

This last reason is the hard work, the point where we need to struggle to understand how someone else’s understanding of the implications of the gospel can be so different from ours. It is also the place where we need to exercise a certain amount of humility concerning the limitations of our own understanding. I think I am beginning to be able to imagine just how important the partisan nature of the debate over abortion and human sexuality is for (many) Christians in the USA; I confess that I still cannot really understand how a Christian can be opposed to universal healthcare – but I know that many thoughtful, intelligent sisters and brothers are, and so I know that the problem there is my failure to grasp their reasoning, not any lack of reasoning on their part. There is a discussion to be had, and very probably a lasting disagreement to acknowledge, and I suspect I will learn some things about my own views in the discussion as I have it, about just how significant for me a very deeply rooted, but probably not very gospel-shaped, British pride in the NHS is, for instance.

And learning things like that will shape me better for life in the coming Kingdom.

 

15 Comments

  1. Jennwith2ns
    Nov 7, 2012

    This is wonderful–thank you for your irenic, grace-filled observations. I wish I could guarantee that my Christian compatriots would read and resonate with your comments as I have–but maybe some of us will, guaranteed or not.

    • steve
      Nov 7, 2012

      Thanks for coming by, Jenn.

  2. Adam Nigh
    Nov 7, 2012

    Thanks for this, Steve. Its fantastic. There is a degree to which we Americans are unable to speak these observations to each other. Voices of Christian brothers and sisters coming to us from off our shores need to be welcomed and carefully considered. Thanks for the opportunity to do that.

    • steve
      Nov 7, 2012

      Thanks, Adam.

      I should perhaps underline that I saw the problems both ways around. I saw/heard British (& European, & Australasian) Christians expressing incredulity at the political decisions of our American sisters and brothers, particularly in the context of the Billy Graham Association’s decision to endorse Romney.

  3. Alastair Roberts
    Nov 7, 2012

    I suspect that one of the reasons that mutual transatlantic understanding can be so hard for many of us on issues such as healthcare is that both Americans and Europeans find it difficult to understand the relative scale of the others’ countries and governments and how this informs the political imagination. America has a population five times larger than that of the UK and over forty times the land area. It is a vast country of huge demographic, geographical, racial, ideological, and religious variations.

    The necessary size of a centralized welfare state providing universal healthcare in such a context is immense. More importantly, the power of such a government in people’s lives relative to the power per capita the people could enjoy relative to the government would be quite different from that which exists within universal healthcare providing countries in Europe. It is all very well for political liberals to present somewhere like Sweden as the ideal example of the welfare state, but it bears remembering that the population of Sweden is only about 3% of that of the US and that it has a more homogeneous population. A NHS scaled to the US population could have around 10 million employees.

    I believe that the scale of the state and the degree to which the direction of the wider society can be determined by populations that are largely oblivious or antagonistic to the way of life and values of other populations helps to explain why many who would stand to gain the most from a better welfare and healthcare system are frequently the most opposed to the federal government that offers it to them. It also may provide some measure of an explanation for the bitterly partisan character of American politics. When you feel that alien values are in the driving seat of the nation as a whole, it is not surprising that one should feel vulnerable in the face of an expanding central government, no matter how well-meaning that government might be.

    I am hardly an expert on US politics and their political system (my primary qualification being the fact that I have watched through the West Wing three times). However, I suspect that there would be considerably fewer cries of ‘socialism!’ were such provisions made at the state rather than the federal level. While we might be inclined to view many Americans as blinkered hyper-capitalists, perhaps there are really some instincts of subsidiarity at play here, but with a centralizing impulse in the political system that makes it difficult to have more empowered state or other intermediate government agencies relative to federal government. Politics is not just about ends, but also about agencies. The fact that many Americans won’t grant to their key political agencies certain of the powers that we grant to ours may say more about the differences in character between our political agencies and theirs than it does about differences of ends.

    On such issues as abortion and same sex marriage, I think that we miss the point if these are considered chiefly as matters of ‘personal morality’. If abortion and birth control were merely treated as a matter of personal responsibility, the realm of women’s bodies being outside of the government’s jurisdiction that would be one thing. However, giving sanction to the performance of abortion through forcing companies to buy abortion or birth control-covering insurance, for instance, is slightly different. Treating abortion as a woman’s right, to be provided for and defended by the state, is also different from saying that what women do to their own bodies is not something over which the government has jurisdiction (as one does not have the ‘right’ to do whatever one wants, even in the realm of one’s jurisdiction). One can still maintain women’s jurisdiction over their bodies and the pre-political character of the unborn child while placing severe restrictions on medical abortion procedures as harm-causing (as such procedures fall under the government’s purview), or merely tolerating but giving no approval or sanction to their performance.

    Likewise with same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage is only reducible to a matter of ‘personal morality’ if marriage is not a reservoir of public meaning or an institution ordered towards wider societal ends, the wellbeing of parties other than the couple, and receiving social sanction and support as something conducive to the achievement of certain common goods.

    • David Shane
      Nov 7, 2012

      Also, I love the description of Americans as “hyper-capitalist”. I wish!

  4. David Shane
    Nov 7, 2012

    Saw your tweet Alastair – just a couple thoughts from one American.

    1. I completely agree that many “socialist” provisions would be more acceptable at the state level, where populations are more homogenous and accountability is better. And of course, many states would avoid the provisions entirely, which is fine. In fact, it would be great to give people those kinds of choices, while still offering them the same protections all Americans enjoy. That was one of the intentions of the American federal system.

    2. Don’t underestimate the ideological divide in play when it comes to national politics. To paint with a broad brush, as I see it Americans are basically divided into two groups. The first believes the proper role of government is to see to the most basic provisions of law and order, and then stand back and let the voluntary actions of individuals provide for nearly all the needs and wants of society. If you read the founding documents of America – the US Constitution, the Federalist Papers – this was the government envisioned. The second group believes that the proper role of government is, in a nutshell, to provide good things for the people, and that there should be no limits on the power of government except those limits enacted by a majority of the people alive today. Both groups believe their ideas produce the most good for the most people.

    And to you and the original blogger,

    3. If abortion is murder, then of course it’s going to be a serious issue. I’m a little confused as to why you seem confused that we take the issue so seriously. And that we continue to have a president who has literally supported legislation that would allow an abortionist to kill an infant after birth – yeah, that bothers me. A lot. Especially because he’s going to be appointing some new Supreme Court justices. I’m not a single issue voter, but I care a lot about this issue.

    4. Finally – it would take forever to explain all the “whys”, but let’s just say that this Christian, like many American Christians, thinks that a free market system of healthcare provides the most good for the most people. And I think that countries in Europe that don’t have such a system, are still better off because America does (sort of) have such a system, because they can take advantage of innovations produced here by companies and individuals operating within the market system. But to offer a full explanation would take much more time than you want to give me.

  5. *daniel
    Nov 7, 2012

    @ Alastair Roberts – Your points about social welfare and socalised medicine are interesting, but predicated on a view of scale and homogeneity that I don’t think are accurate. For instance, Canada, a very large country with a very diverse population, does both of these things very well.

    Either way, you can explain all the American Christian conservative party platform points to a Canadian or European Christian all you want, the fact is most of us don’t think that way, and it’s really hard to imagine anyone thinking that way. I’m sure the sentiment holds the other way around.

    • Alastair Roberts
      Nov 7, 2012

      Daniel,

      The US is over nine times larger in population than Canada. There is considerably more representation for the population in Canada at the federal level than there is in the US. Canadian constituencies are about the size of UK ones, if memory serves, while seats in the House of Representatives represent populations several times or more larger.

      While geographic vastness and demographic diversity are important issues, and Canada may be more akin to the US in these respects, the size of the population and the degree of representation at the federal level are far more weighty issues in this context.

      I am writing as a UK Christian, someone who is situated on the moderate left wing of the political spectrum. I don’t find it that hard to understand the way of thinking that I describe at all. For instance, I am definitely in favour of universal healthcare in the UK context, but I would very strongly oppose a European Union healthcare system, even were EU countries far more united than they currently are. Issues of scale and subsidiarity are important concerns in such contexts, especially as one’s degree of representation is steadily diluted. Now, the healthcare proposals in the US are not the same as the NHS, but I still understand why the US context raises a very different set of concerns, even for those who completely support the end of universally accessible and affordable healthcare provision.

  6. Tara
    Nov 8, 2012

    I want to keep this short and simple. As a Christian, this is why I disagree with President Obamas agenda.

    - Abortion. I consider it murder and a form of child abuse.
    - Universal healthcare. You can’t deny Europes decline over the years. I suspect healthcare plays into this.
    - Lack of loyalty to Israel. I consider them an important alliance the US should keep.
    - Lack of tolerance for Christian beliefs. The President believes businesses should be forced to provide contraceptives to employees as part of insurance. Catholic s dislike this.
    - Legalizing homosexual unions. I see this hurting the family structure. Research shows children do not flourish in a household without a mother and father.

    I enjoyed your article very much and love hearing what believers around the world think.

    - Tara Wagner
    Texas

    • William David Troughton
      Nov 10, 2012

      It becomes a problem when you make a list of generalised statements, which are not nuanced, it becomes overly simplified and even misleading. I think there is a serious concern that communities as such can be abused, impacting on thousands and millions rather than ones and twos, and that in that abuse there is a failure to facilitate the cooperation which is implicit in the Christian understanding of peace or shalom. You speculate as to whether healthcare may be a factor contributing to the decline of Europe, but there is the need to balance that by considering the exorbitant and escalating costs of US healthcare ( which is one kind of failure) and the lack of basic care for millions ( which is another kind of outright failure).

  7. Charity Jill
    Nov 8, 2012

    What a fantastic response-to-a-response-to-a-response. :) As a Christian born in America, I wish more of my brothers and sisters worldwide would be vocal about their critique of American exceptionalism. It is such a scourge on the Body; it distracts us from the real work of the Gospel (loving and caring for others). Thank you for speaking up!

  8. david
    Nov 11, 2012

    I don’t think many outside observers understand the nuanced political issues of domestic politics in the USA. One example: the healthcare debate seems to me not about coverage, but efficiency in providing it; through market or state?

    The USA President is not elected to satisfy the desires of the global community, but rather the interests of the electorate. And the global community has a responsibility for elevating the USA to such a position of influence as the one we see (waning) in this present age.

    As Christians, many inside the USA are grieved at the sad selection of candidates offered up by the people who own the country and its media. Some would say that Obama/Romney was merely a clever ruse to distract from the looting of the nation. More than one commentator has observed that only a global addiction to US Dollars now props up the once-great nation.

    If only the creativity and morality of ‘the American mythology’ could ever save her. Was it always just a dream? If not, when was the last time the world saw it lived-out nationally?

    “Righteousness exalts a nation,
    but sin is a reproach to any people”

    I am challenged as a Christian to speak truth to power and model Christian living daily (and not just propositionally online). And I say this as a foreigner who lives here in the UK as part of the ‘we’ of the family of God; the ‘Christian Lead Society’ .

  9. Russell Almon
    Nov 16, 2012

    Dr. Holmes,

    Its been difficult for me to find the time to drop in and post a response, but I wanted to do so and thank you for your observations here which resonate with me as an evangelical from the States. I have spoken with other Christians from Canada and the UK who were here in Texas for some reason or another (usually having to do with one of the universities where I live) and most all express similar musings as you and are genuinely perplexed over the things that evangelicals are polarized about here. There is such polarization and I wish that my fellow evangelicals (and Baptists) stateside could demonstrate the graceful and irenic spirit even in disagreement over such things as healthcare, etc. I think Evangelicals in the U.S. could stand to learn from our brothers and sisters in the UK about the challenges we are facing here – if only we will just listen well. I really think we owe it to the health of the church to become better listeners. It grieves me that too often in our context the urging to listen is simply labeled ‘compromise’ from the start. I remain hopeful myself to make it over to the UK so I can get to know some of my British evangelical brothers and sisters and do some of this listening/learning firsthand.

    Now, an observation and a question for you if you have the time. My observation is that it seems to me much of the ills and polarizations of the American culture wars of which the church has been entangled generate from the (still) entrenched (but now more subtle) ‘Christian’ nation narrative – and that this alien narrative to the church (I would say that the ‘thin’ ecclesiology of American evangelicalism makes it vulnerable to such a narrative and that the church itself largely becomes subsumed and co-opted by ‘Christian’ nation narrative) has a very strong foothold despite the fact the U.S. has never had an official state church. Perhaps this is where the civil religion of Americanism/nationalism develops in part, the supposed ‘Christian’ nation isn’t really a good substitute for the church and what we end up with is a cultural, generic civil religion instead and ‘culture wars’ as the main form of engagement.

    Now, from my vantage point and from those I’ve spoken with from the UK, the church in the U.K. doesn’t seem to have the same sort of culture war mentality or polarization. In fact, almost every person from the UK I’ve talked to personally has expressed befuddlement over the idea of the US as a ‘Christian’ nation and the level of polarization here – and this despite the fact that the UK has an official state church. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the contrast here: that US Evangelicals have high polarization but there is no state church in the US whereas Evangelicals in the UK seem to show lower polarization but have a state church in their experience. Is anything to be made of this contrast? Is there something about the U.K. having an official state church that makes the UK Evangelical experience different and less contentious? Perhaps more naturally operating on the ‘margins’? Please feel free to correct any of my ignorance or naïvete. I’m just genuinely curious. I would like your thoughts, if you have the time of course.

    May the peace of our Lord be with you.

    • steve
      Nov 16, 2012

      Hi Russell, Thanks for stopping by.

      First, just to stress again, the polarisation I was observing in the post is between US and non-US evangelicals. There were points where the narrative over here was one of utter incomprehension (the moment when the Billy Graham Organisation amended their website to remove the claim that the Church of the LDS is a cult as a part of their backing for Romney was striking; this looked to us like someone changing their theology to make it fit their politics, which lots of us struggled to understand, and expressed our lack of comprehension in fairly forceful ways…)

      That said, I do recognise what you are talking about. There’s a post somewhere in the archives [here: http://steverholmes.org.uk/blog/?p=259 where I offered a theory about this, which was simply that British evangelicalism is a small enough movement that most of the leaders know most of the other leaders. The folk I might be tempted to denounce and demonise because we are on opposite sides of various debates are folk I’ve eaten with, worshiped with, and led missions with – I’ve examined their PhDs or baby-sat their children. Hard, then, to paint them as demons.

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