How do you keep a healthy spiritual life during an intensely political time? The political season, after all, is about to begin in earnest: in only one week the Democrats will open their national convention in Denver, and shortly after that the Republicans will convene in Minneapolis – St. Paul. In short order, running mates will be selected, delegates will be counted, platforms will be articulated, and the citizens of the United States will be subjected to the full onslaught of unrestrained campaigning.
Every four years, I can’t help thinking of H. L. Mencken’s description of this season:
There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging. It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming. One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell, and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.
Some of my best friends are political junkies who have already been paying close attention to this presidential race for two years. They were monitoring the ground reports about the preliminaries to the run-ups to the primaries in the early states. They don’t just follow the news; they read the transcripts of the talk radio shows about the news analysis of the counter-spin of the report of the Sunday talking-heads shows responding to the latest talking points from the campaigns. I’ve been through seasons of my life like that. When Tim Russert died this year, I was surprised at the flood of memories his death provoked for me: I felt like Cokie Roberts, George Will and I should get together with John McLaughlin for a lunch to talk about old times with old Tim.
For these people, the convention season is the beginning of the end of a very long process. It’s the sign that it’s time to get their second wind for the last leg of a political marathon. Election day is finally in sight.
On the other hand, the average voter is not living that kind of news-junkie lifestyle. For the average voter, convention season is the signal to start paying attention. For the average voter, the Republican primary was barely noticeable, and even the relatively close Hilary vs. Obama race didn’t make the democratic primary worth paying attention to. Most of us voted in our sleep in the primaries, promising to wake up and pay closer attention when it was closer to national election time.
Well, now it’s convention season, and responsible voters need to wake up and smell the candidates. Here is some advice about how to conduct a healthy spiritual life in a political season.
1. Vote. Resist the temptation to hover above the fray. “If God had meant for us to vote, he would have given us candidates.” “My views are so nuanced, or so otherworldly, or so nonpartisan, or so individual, that no party or candidate matches them enough to get my vote.” Hogwash. Apolitical posturing is immature and unserious. God calls us to responsibility, and it is a sin to refuse the call.
2. Vote actively and gratefully. People tend to get involved in politics incrementally, doing just as much as they feel they must. If you’ve been wronged or systemically oppressed, you take recourse to any legal option available to you. Voting is the easiest and most ordinary means of taking action for most of us. Thank God for the opportunity.
3. Vote submissively. In Romans 13, Paul tells us to be subject to the governing authorities. For those of us who live in nations where the governing authority is constituted partly by the consent of the governed, submitting includes voting. It’s a funny kind of active submission, but there it is.
4. Vote philosophically. Most of us don’t reflect on our political philosophies often. The election cycle is a good excuse to do so. Take some time to think through your basic presuppositions about the commonwealth, about power, about life in the communities you belong to, about the distribution of goods and the protection of rights. If your political philosophy got a little more coherent every time there was an election, you’d really know what you believe by midlife. Go ahead, invest a little more of your thought life in thinking things through.
5. Vote intelligently. Become informed enough to cast an intelligent vote. How much information does it take to cast an informed ballot? Find out, make a decision, and do the relevant research. Just because everybody gets a vote doesn’t mean you automatically deserve yours. Try to deserve your vote. Do the basic research necessary to know what you’re voting about: check the sample ballot, the position papers, and the various arguments.
6. But don’t go crazy with it. Unless consuming news analysis happens to be your hobby, don’t let it take up too much of your life and mental space this season. A finite number of thoughts course through your conscious mind each day; make sure you leave room for prayer and for thinking creatively about helping people around you.
7. Register to vote by mail, and send in your ballot nice and early. Then ignore all political coverage until election night. Journalism is in such a sorry state these days that nearly all election coverage is a little bit stupid. But in the ten days before election day, the news cycle spins out of control, the reporters go stark raving mad, and the whole world becomes an echo chamber. You can feel yourself getting dumber the longer you watch the news. For most people, no thought can occur during that time. The noise generated during this brief time period is exactly the kind of noise that drives out prayer.
8. Keep your perspective. There’s more to government than the president. Sure, he’s important, but he’s just the head of one of the branches of one of our many overlapping government systems. A president is a blunt instrument, and your vote can’t be a precise instrument. The presidential election cycle produces a strange kind of foreshortening that makes us think this vote will address all issues. Remember that local politics are slightly less stupid than national, and gradual progress toward goals is better than trying to fix everything with your One Big Presidential Vote. Is there anything you could be doing between now and the next big election that might make more of a difference?
9. Christians, don’t let your head get turned by the parties and causes that want to recruit you. The Republican party wants to keep counting on evangelical votes with no questions asked; the Democrats have been frenzy-driven to conjure up a Religious Left voting block for about five years now. The particular configurations that seem so important now will blow over, and the church will still be the church, Christians will still be Christians. Remain calm, it’s just flirting.
10. Pray about your vote. Tell God what you’re doing.