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Thinking about the 2016 Election


By Dr. Jonathan Den Hartog on Monday, October 24, 2016

United States flag

In the past few months, I've received many inquiries about how Christians might think about the upcoming election. I'm grateful for the chance to share some thoughts with you.

The most disconcerting part of the election is undoubtedly in the race for President. Christians are most distressed because their options appear to be a) bad or b) bad.

I actually take the soul-searching as a positive sign--Christians have realized that politics matter. They have come to understand that they don't switch off their religious identities when they go into the voting booth. Participation as citizens is one form of service to the larger community.

So then, what to do with this election? I have concluded that the presidential race is a disaster, or as Senator Ben Sasse described it, "a dumpster fire." The presidential options don't provide any clearly positive resolution. I would recommend voters examine all possibilities--including several third party candidates. Then, they should "vote their conscience" as best they can.

However, I'm glad there is much more to say!

First, don't forget about the rest of the ballot. The rest of the ballot is a place where differences matter. Whoever is elected president should be balanced by good people in the Senate and House of Representatives. Take some time to research your state and local races. Who could you support for the House? Or for your governor or state senator? What about in your locale? Is there a good candidate for mayor? This is a great year to get involved in the political process apart from presidential politics. Devote time and energy to help good people at other levels of government.

the Statue of Liberty

Second, aim for the common good over the long haul. Even in the midst of this confounding election, it's my hope that Christians would gain a renewed appreciation for politics as a way to serve the common good. Love of neighbor leads to wanting to find solutions to shared problems. But, to really do this, we need to understand that this type of engagement has to be for the long-term. It can't flare up over a contested election or a one-time single issue. Instead, it has to be persevering, despite encountering problems and set-backs. Problems won't be rectified in a few months or years. Instead, those who want to effect change have to be willing to work for gradual improvement. And in most cases, the place to operate is in local matters, those near at hand and those that fall within our compass.

This is a vision that I see Jeremiah urging to the exiles from Judah:

"Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. ...Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." (Jeremiah 29:5, 7).

Roommates Cole and Nick, talk about their different political views

Third, reach across the aisle. Commentators are increasingly warning that political polarization is spilling out into other areas of life. We need to find common ground with those who differ, to rebuild fractures that have developed after this election. On this point, we can emulate Cole and Nick. Cole and Nick are both students at the University of Northwestern--and I'm proud to say I get to teach both of them. Cole heads up the College Democrats, while Nick leads the College Republicans. However, they're also best friends and roommates! They have realized that their commonalities go beyond their political differences. They are both committed to the common good and flourishing of the country. Even more, they recognize their identity is primarily as Christians--and that transcends everything else.

Fourth, study the principles that have made America. The turmoil of this election has also sent people "back to the basics," to learn what principles have undergirded the American republic and how political processes should function. As a local church pastor reminded me, the time to do this is not in the heat of a campaign season but in the political lulls. Once November passes, we will all have an opportunity to deepen our understanding.

On this front, I'm pleased to recommend Northwestern's offerings. In our History and Political Science classes, we lay out in clear ways for our students the ideas and people who have helped shape the country. Every Northwestern student as part of their Core Curriculum will learn in "Western Civilization" how the United States fits within a longer span of western cultures. I delight in teaching United States history courses where we read the Constitution and other founding documents and then trace how Americans have built the country and worked for its improvements. At the same time, our political science students are walking through the institutions and processes by which governing occurs.

And, for those who can't get to campus or are interested in early college and PSEO opportunities, we offer great history and political science classes, which students have benefitted from across the country and even around the world.

Fifth, reassert our focus. At times like the current election, there's always the temptation to lose perspective. Even while we're concerned about it, it should not blind us to the fact that politics is neither the ultimate good, nor is it the solution to all of society's ills. The Psalmist reminds us, "Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save." Politics in this world will disappoint, even their best moments undermined, ironically, by human frailties. Instead, the same Psalm points to true blessing: "Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God." (Psalm 146:3,5).

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