The general sentiment on this college campus after Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election has been one of relief and celebration. Soon after major news networks called the election, dance parties and fireworks lit up parts of the city, and yet, on the steps of the Tennessee State Capitol, over a hundred Trump supporters carried flags and signs, chanting, “Stop the steal!”
Sadly, these vastly different reactions reveal a polarization that characterizes one of the most divisive election seasons in recent memory.
A Pew Research report found that public interest in politics has risen since the previous presidential election, and that an increasing number of people say that it “really matters who wins” the election—83% in 2020, compared to only 50% in 2000. On the positive side, this engagement has led to the highest voter turnout in over a century. At the same time, it’s created a general sense of exhaustion surrounding politics and civic engagement.
Any election whose outcome represents either moral victory or moral failure will understandably lead voters to either relief or distress. On one hand, then, there’s the temptation toward complacency post-election—the belief that all our societal woes will be cured with the morally superior policies. On the other hand, there’s the temptation toward fear and despair—the belief that our futures have been left in the hands of those who are simply blind to the truth. For both, it’s far too easy to demonize our opponents as those whose very existence threaten our security.
The Freedom to Engage
The Christian response to suffering is often described as naive and insensitively (and perhaps even cruelly) optimistic—If you just trust God, everything will be okay. Yet, the Biblical response to injustice has never been one of detachment and disregard, but of true lament and compassion. That’s why when it comes to political and civic engagement, Christians should be the first to care, for our worldview gives us the context and perspective for recognizing how the world should be and how it is not yet there.
With a spiritual fervor and urgency, then, we are compelled to act. However, this action should never be driven by fear or desperation, but by a confident assurance in our promised future. The Christian gospel teaches that salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ ensures not only individual redemption, but the establishment of God’s perfect and eternal Kingdom, a Kingdom of true justice, righteousness, and flourishing for all peoples.
As citizens of this Kingdom, Christians can operate in our current political and cultural space with hope and certainty. An identity secured in a spiritual reality frees us from searching for it in this earthly one, and a future secured in an eternal promise frees us from battling for it in our public square.
Thus, the Christian response to any election should be neither celebration nor despair. We are sobered with the knowledge that no elected official will bring true restoration while simultaneously empowered with the faith that Jesus is the only one who can and will.
With this understanding, we can continue to fight for justice in all spheres of life, for this is the very nature and promise of God. This understanding frees us from both disengagement and panic, for we recognize that our calling is not to rescue our nation, but to simply point to the salvation that has already come and the redemption that is coming still.
A New Kind of Engagement
What difference does this hope and certainty about the future make to the nature of our engagement in the present? For one, it offers a better way forward from the division that has torn our nation apart.
Many propose tolerance as the solution to our nation’s polarization—we must simply put up with or avoid those with whom we disagree. But our tolerance often extends only as far as our own understanding of justice and morality. An exclusive focus on one perspective of a singular issue can too easily distract us from a communal pursuit of truth and instead drive us to fight desperately for the power to further that particular moral agenda.
Political discourse can be exhausting because this kind of conditional tolerance has developed a sort of cancel culture that shames any dissenting opinions out of existence—and not only dissenting opinions, but dissenting people. Politics understood in the framework of personal moral agendas leaves little room for constructive critique of the ideas, issues, and policy proposals themselves; rather, each of these become reflections of the personal, moral character of the individuals behind them. This might explain why, in our public square, personal attacks instead of honest debate seem to be the norm. Because if you voice your support for abc, you must be a person of xyz character, and there’s no tolerance for people like that.
This isn’t to say that our beliefs and our character are not closely related, or that character does not matter. Rather, it helps explain why it’s easy to make judgements of others based on what we perceive to be their “category of person.”
To a large extent, these categories are also self-imposed. Our politics serve as markers of our allegiance to particular groups, and our belonging in those groups in turn dictate our political engagement. With our politics so inherently tied to our conception of self, it’s easy to see how the typical characterization of different groups as fundamentally at odds can lead to conflict and division—everything becomes personal.
The hope and freedom of the Christian gospel is that the belonging we all pursue is offered freely to us in the Kingdom of God. With an assurance in the identity Christ provides, we can engage with others in love and compassion, even those with whom we vehemently disagree. In humility, we can see others for who they could be, rather than who we have determined they already are.
What’s more, our civic engagement should no longer be about bolstering our own reputation or aligning with a particular party or platform. In Christ, the threat of betraying one’s “side” is eliminated, because our side is not one of partisan platforms and elected representatives, but of our risen King.
Recognizing What’s Ultimate
For the Biden supporter—you cannot ignore the reality that over 73 million people voted for President Trump. For the Trump supporter—you cannot ignore the reality that over 76 million people voted for former Vice President Biden. For the Christian—you must remember that all people, both Biden and Trump supporters alike, are made in the image of God. Regardless of political affiliation, we must treat others with the dignity and respect that all those made in the image of God deserve.
This is not to diminish the significance of positions or policies. On the contrary, recognizing the image of God in all people necessitates our compassionate rebuke of their immoral and unjust beliefs and actions; desiring the good of others involves wanting others to know what is good.
In this post-election season, what we need is not more “I told you so’s” or “How could you’s,” but a greater value of truth over acceptance, humility over bravado, and faith over fear.
This might sound idealistic or insufficient, but only if you think that politics and presidents are ultimate. Of course it matters who wins the election, but our politics only matter because they serve to point to something—and someone—greater. Whether Biden or Trump, Republican or Democrat—the Kingdom of God is one that cannot be shaken, and that’s good news.