The diversity of political opinion as well as healthy debate are hallmarks of a democratic society. My mom talks about growing up in her native Puerto Rico and hearing her adult relatives chatting about politics. The opinion of the group spanned the ideological spectrum, from conservatives to socialist. I do wonder at times, if the talk got heated, but I think that at the end of the day, people still cared for each other because they were family.
But like everything in the world, politics can have a dark side. One of its more darker passions is the ability to demonize opponents. That's something that has become increasingly common in American life these days. Both left and right have jumped into the fray, and so have Christians. Conservative Christians have long been tempted to demonize their opponents, and now it looks like Liberal Christians are joining in.
A week or so ago, fellow Disciples of Christ pastor Christian Piatt penned a blog post entitled "GOP Nostalgia is a Symptom of Privilege." While I think that some of what he describes is a problem among conservatives, much of what Piatt wrote was hyperbolic stereotyping that just added more fuel to the partisan fire, not less. Piatt creates a strawman that filled with every stereotype of Republicans to knock down which paints every Republican in the same brush.
Here's a sample of what Piatt has to say:
There’s an awful lot of talk in the political forum lately about restoring America to some nostalgic state of yesteryear, when supposedly everything was better. If we could only get back there, everything would be all right again.
I guess that depends on who you ask, doesn’t it?
Author Melissa Harris-Perry recently appeared on “The Colbert Report” to speak about her new book, “Sister Citizen,” which examines a number of stereotypes of African-American women. As he often does, Colbert teed up a common conservative talking point about “going back to he good old days.” Perry’s response kept ringing in my head for days afterward.After rightly or wrongly trashing some of the GOP presidential candidates, he then says what's behind the desire for traditional values:
She said that there is no time in American History you would want to go back to as a black girl.
The point is simple but compelling. Those in the position of privilege to write history are the ones whose story is most prominently told. So when we talk about going back to some better time, it’s with the lens of that same privilege that we’re looking back.
The fact is that, unless you’re a white, Christian, straight male, there’s little to look back to and say “yeah, I was better off back then.”
Piatt makes some good points, some that I have made. I think at times social conservatives look back at the past selectively, avoiding the more ugly bits. But the fact is, we all have selective memories of the past. For example, many on the left want to go back to an economy that we had in the 1950s, even though things weren't that great back then either.
What underlies this sort of nostalgic talk is privilege. The longing is to go back to a time or place when their particular way of viewing the world was considered “normal,’ and all others were not. There is some selective memory at work even in these cases, however, since most who call for the return to ways of the past would readily call for exceptions in the case of blatant racism and (for some at least) sexism.
To call for a return to the good old days is, in some ways, a marginalization of those for whom history has meant progress. For the majority of Americans today, turning back the clock means losing ground, acceding power or opportunity and returning to a time of greater imbalance and division.
What bothers me, is that Piatt seems to be saying that any Republican candidate or rank and file member is someone that doesn't like anyone who isn't white and male. It's an old trope made by folks who frankly learn about Republicans only by what they see on the news. They never have actually met a Republican who is a lot more complex than the strawman he creates.
As a Republican who is gay and is also African American, I can say that while there are problems that need to be addressed, I've met Republicans who are gay, women, black, female and Latino. They aren't all "bubbas" who drive around with Confederate Flags bumper stickers. (and even the "bubbas" aren't such a stereotype.)
But this kind of trash talk is troublesome not simply because it disses Republicans. I have a bigger problem in that Piatt's post is a sign something that is happening more and more in society: Christians engaging in the same kind of smashmouth politics so popular in the wider culture. Christians on the left and the right mimic what is going on in the society; the only difference is that we flavor our ideological snarkiness with God-talk.
Frederick Schmidt thinks that it's time we stop yelling and start listening:
Are we listening to ourselves, friends?
Can we hear that our language is indistinguishable from the political hue and cry going on around us?
Do we notice that a third voice—a God-given perspective—is completely missing from a conversation where voices left and right have all the representation that they need?
Are we so hungry for relevance that we are willing to allow ourselves to be used as an instrument of party politics?
Have we forgotten that our communities include people who subscribe to both political parties?
Do we really believe that there are no Republicans who care about people?
Do we really believe that there are no Democrats who are not closet communists?
Do we really want to risk our relationships with people who belong to one party or the other, in the name of venting our emotions in public?
Can we be sure that we haven't already alienated some of those people?
Do we really believe that by labeling and libeling people that we illuminate the truth?
This is not prophetic speech. It is not speaking truth to power. It is not persuasive. And it does not make the church more relevant to the political process. In fact, it makes it possible to dismiss Christians as a subset of political opinion left and right -- people with quaint motives for being involved—but little to add to the debate.
As I've said before, we Disciples do something every Sunday in our worship- we have communion. In our heritage, there was a strong belief that there be no fences around the communion table. I've worked to make sure that my fellow gay sisters and brothers have a place at the Table. But the table also needs to be a place where our ideologies are set aside. The Table needs to be a place where we can disagree, and yet be church to each other and provide an example to a world full of divisions.
Can the church be that place where we can show a new way of being community that transcends the left-right axis?
Sometimes I wonder.