Post-Election Lessons for Liberal Evangelicals

I walk down my front stairs, do some quick stretches, and then start my warm-up walk. Over the last few months this has been my opportunity to scroll through my podcast options and pick a few that I’ll listen to while I run – an admittedly generous interpretation of what I do as I climb the Royal Mount that gives Montreal its name. But today I’m a bit disappointed. Mathews’ Hardball, Olbermann’s Countdown, KCRW’s Left, Right, and Center, and even my favorite, NPR’s It’s All Politics: none of them have quite the same appeal. The election is over, and while I don’t have buyer’s remorse, I do feel something of a letdown. So what now? What did we learn?

Well, one thing we learned is that the “Religious Left” is a growing force in electoral politics. The Pew Forum is doing a good job of documenting that. We saw again that the enthusiasm of supporters is as important as their mere numbers. We also learned that we are a nation eager to pat ourselves on the back. As a young Canadian I spoke with this week sardonically put it, “It’s good to know that there are no more racists in America.” I won’t add to the chorus of self-congratulatory voices, but I do think we can learn some things as Christian moderates from this election that might help us think about the ways in which we interact in congregations.

#1 The sociological phenomenon of “flocking” [n. : consistently gathering with those who are most like you, thus creating relatively homogeneous groups and churches] is powerful, but it is not all powerful.

Yes, Obama won the African-American vote by record numbers, but the surprising story of the election has to do with the number of non-African-Americans who voted for him. I don’t want to take us too far down the rabbit hole, but perhaps the surprise should have been our surprise at being surprised by all of this. The exit polling tells an interesting story if you play a little game with it. Try going category by category and with each one ask two questions: Does Obama fit here? Did he win this group? For instance, Obama is male, and he won among males. Obama is not female, and he won among females. If you go far enough down the list the game becomes a bit surreal. For instance, Obama probably decided long ago that he was not going to vote for John McCain, so he doesn’t fall into the category “decided who to vote for today,” yet he won this group by a margin of 2 to 1.

I’m certainly no statistician, but I don’t see any obvious patterns emerge except the general pattern of African-Americans supporting Obama and voters over 65 supporting McCain. So the lesson I take from this is that most of the electorate is fairly comfortable voting for a leader who is demographically different from them in many meaningful respects. Admittedly, we have always focused our attention on some differences and allowed others to drift into the background. Race has guided our actions as a nation more than age or income. But I take heart in the fact (and I do not see this as a trait that is the sole possession of America despite the self-congratulatory rhetoric that has abounded this past week) that significant numbers of white Americans did not see Obama’s race as an obstacle or if they did, they overcame that obstacle.

Let us note one thing before moving on to derive lessons for the church. We are impressed with ourselves for having elected a non-White President, yet this is the first election in which African-Americans were able to vote for an African-American from a major party. So why are we more amazed by whites voting for Obama than we were by the fact that so many non-Whites voted for Kerry? It seems to me that one of the important differences here is that for the first time, there was a non-White option at the top of the ballot and many Americans opted for it! This is not to say that a vote for McCain was a racist vote, far from it. But the White vote for Obama represents a choice on the part of many Americans to upset the electoral status quo in the demographic area that has been most important and problematic in our national history. It’s the equivalent of English voters supporting an Ireland Catholic PM when there is an English Anglican option on the ballot, or English speaking Canadians voting for a French speaking PM instead of a fellow Anglophone.

I take heart in the election of Obama to be our next President, but I am even more excited about the inspiration that it provides moderate Christians. It is possible to set and achieve the goal of avoiding flocking in our churches. The present status quo in which Whites worship with Whites, African-Americans worship with other African-Americans, Liberals sing hymns with Liberals, while Conservatives pray next to other Conservatives…this situation is not one that we simply have to grin and bear. It can be overcome if we are conscious about overcoming it.

#2 At the end of the day empathy is a more powerful force than mere sympathy.

The distinction between the emotions and the intellect is not always a helpful one, but let us accept it provisionally in order to draw a meaningful distinction between sympathy and empathy. We sometimes confuse these terms, and even my computer seems to think that they are synonyms. [“Shift” + “F7” yields the Microsoft thesaurus entry for empathy: understanding, sympathy, compassion] They are not.

To sympathize means literally to feel with someone, to share in their pains and joys. It is an emotional act. From my limited years on this earth I have come to conclude that humans have a relatively limited capacity for sympathy. We can’t literally feel with others, and this is probably a good thing or we would never be able to read a history book without being so overcome by a rush of emotions as we encounter life in all its nastiness, shortness, and brutishness. We can however empathize broadly, though perhaps most of us have been socialized not to do so. To empathize is an intellectual act. It requires imaginative skill and even some training. It also has its limits, but they can be stretched through exercise. Through intentional training the saints of many religious traditions become masters of empathy. When I read of slave families being dismantled on the auction block, or of Jews fleeing their homes as the crusading forces neared, I can empathize with their plight.

One of the truly tragic things about our human condition is that our capacity to empathize is something that can either be cultivated or mutilated. Slave owners throughout human history have learned to deactivate empathy for their slaves, colonists learned to turn off their empathetic instincts when it come to indigenous people, and the rich and powerful throughout history have tended to turn up their noses and turn off their empathetic centers so as to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the poor. The most basic building block of empathy is the recognition of similarity, the acknowledgment that the other thing is another person. This is one of the central lessons of the Bhagavad-Gita, it is the thesis of of Buber’s I and Thou, and it forms the core of the golden rule of both Jesus of Nazareth and Confucius of Ru.

From this sprout of empathetic recognition grows all of the more complex human social virtues. But as a sprout it is easy to squash. Try as they might, the bigots and small-hearted people who persist in seeing women, Muslims, Liberals, African-Americans, and any other group as less than fully human: these people failed to squash the sprout of empathy that the loving forces in America have been cultivating. I do not doubt that Christian and Evangelical congregations have played roles on both sides, some working to cultivate empathy, others working to stunt it. But the cultivators have made enough headway that a meaningful segment of our population was able to empathize with Senator Obama i.e. to see him as being like them in a meaningful way.

To me this small victory for empathy in our country portends something deeper and broader that should give us hope in our churches as we work to hold together congregations in a world that thrives on factions and divisions: we do not need literally to have the same experiences as one another in order to begin the process of understanding one another. I do not know the origins of the phrase, “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand,” but I hope that it is not the final word on our capacity for empathy and understanding. Of course I will never have the experiences of a black person or a woman because I’ll never be black or a female, but if our inability to be someone else and have their experiences means that we cannot start to understand if we stretch ourselves and cultivate empathy, then we might as well put an end to the goal of moderate and tolerant churches and settle for a house divided against itself. But I see signs that the opposite is the case.

He’s a Muslim. He pals around with terrorists. He’s an elitist. He went to Harvard. He’s a socialist. He’s a communist. He wasn’t really born here. He isn’t a real American. And then, after having spent months telling us who Obama was, the Right asked: Who is the real Barack Obama?

After the fact, the strategy is easy to see: Try to make the case to the American voter that Obama is X and you are Y. In short, erode the capacity of the electorate to empathize with Obama.

For a large number of Americans (perhaps even including some who voted for McCain) this strategy of eradication did not work. Our churches, mentors, families, schools, and coaches had done too good of a job instilling in us the virtue of empathy. We saw that he was different, but we also saw that he was the same.

#3 Deep wells of faith and trust flow beneath our common humanity and when we take the risk of drawing on these we open up vast and new possibilities.

That sounds a bit like the self-help drivel that comes on some cable channels after most sensible people have gone to bed, but it’s true none the less. We have the capacity to put our fear of difference aside and trust another person. This human capacity is but a vestige of the divine power of the grace bestowed by God, but it is still powerful.

“I like Palin ’cause she’s just like me.” The pundits on the Left had no small amount of fun poking fun at people who made these kinds of remarks about Governor Palin. They assured us that they did not want a President who was “like them” but rather someone who was extraordinary. Now, I agree that I’d like a President smarter than and more capable than me, but surely we aren’t to believe that any of us really want a leader who is substantially different from us. We all want our leaders, at the very least, to share something of our values. What the Leftist pundits should have said in response to the swell of support Governor Palin garnered by playing the “down home” card, was to note the fact that she was in fact playing. She played the part well, but her values were not in fact the values of working class people, especially on economic matters. And please, how can we forget the clothes – the $150,000.00 worth of clothes!?! She was literally playing dress up. It was the cynical demagogic equivalent of a white politician appearing in black face before a crowd of African-Americans hoping to garner their votes.

All of the nastiness in the final weeks of the campaign played to our basest impulses and fears, but these tactics have worked in the past precisely because all of us – moderates included – want leaders who are in meaningful ways like us. The important thing that happened on November 4, 2008 was that millions of Americans decided that in the most meaningful ways Obama was like them, and that the ways in which he was different (middle name, foreign upbringing, ivy league education, and skin color) were not terribly important.

On the front page of we’re promoting a book called Lost in the Middle? and we’ll be promoting it and providing study guides in the months ahead. This book is targeted, as the name suggests, at moderates who feel somehow stuck in the middle between Conservatives Evangelicals on the Right and Liberal Secularists on the Left. We’re working to articulate a moderate identity that is both Liberal and inclusive, as well as energetically Christ-centered. The challenge for us is that we stand between two great cultural forces, and while we are not able wholly to give ourselves over to either side, we deeply respect values on both sides that some on the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum claim as their sole possession. In short, we see our differences, but we also see the many ways in which we are the same as our Conservative Evangelical friends and our Secular Liberal colleagues.

I see in Obama’s election hope for the Liberal Evangelical cause, not because I think that he will as President directly impact us or our churches, but rather because I see in the election itself a sign of our human capacity to identify and rally around our commonalities and to push aside our superficial differences. I don’t think that Obama’s race didn’t matter in the voting booths of non-African-Americans, I just think that other things mattered more. I don’t think that the cultural issues that create wedges in our churches don’t matter to us as soon as we close our eyes to pray, I just think that other things are beginning to matter more.

Congregational life requires tremendous trust. We need to trust that our funds will be spent prudently. We need to trust that our ministers will guide us wisely. We need to trust that our children will be safe in their Sunday Schools and that our emotional and spiritual needs will be attended to with care when tragedy strikes. It is extraordinarily difficult to open ourselves up and trust people who are different from us. But we can do it if we are prayerfully intentional about our decision to trust despite our differences. If we are going to build moderate Liberal Evangelical churches then we are going to have to learn to cultivate that kind of trust. No matter what you think of our new President elect, we should all be able to see in his election a testimony to the capacity of people to trust despite difference.

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