How to Be Pastoral in a Rancorous Political Season
I asked my father if he could recall an election as rancorous as the 2016 race. He has been eligible to vote in all elections since 1968 and remembers others before that one. History shows us that there have been tumultuous seasons of political struggle in that time, but my father’s vote for the ugliest, most uninspiring, malicious election contest is the current race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I wanted my father’s perspective because I wanted to see if a man with more years might view the current situation differently. He did not. I have worked as a full-time minister for the last six elections. Issues of politics and religion are always in the air by right before Election Day. This time is different. The anxiety and vitriol has been growing over the last 18 months and seems to have reached critical mass. Social media has been a part of previous elections, but now it has become a supercharger for disembodied discourse that often devolves into venting and ad hominem diatribes. In the last six elections, I have never felt the need to endorse a candidate or speak to the election. However, in the current election season I have felt a pressing need to address the people of God and urge them to speak and act in a way that represents Jesus. I would suppose that many shepherds, ministers, and leaders have also experienced this. How then should church leaders guide the flock through a most rancorous political season?
Realize that most people are sick of the election. They will express their frustration in different ways, but we should understand that many are weary of the scandals, the lying, and the pointless arguing. They will express disappointment, worry for the future of democracy, or a need to tune out the noise. Pay attention to your congregation and you will notice that this disgust with the current situation is shared by people of every political conviction. Oddly enough, that may be a point of unity for some of them. Also, people are not just sick of the candidates and the media, but they are fed up with the spiteful posts that show up on their social media feeds. Spiritual leaders cannot look away when relationships inside the church are strained by politics. Part of the strain may be the result of how long this election season has been the focus of national attention. One of the principles of Critical Incident Stress Management is to recognize that “everyone feels something.” This election season may just qualify as a critical incident.
Start talking about a hopeful future. Even after November 8, there will be some of our church family who will be concerned or angry regardless of who is declared the winner. The nastiness of this race has staged “the peaceful transfer of power” to be challenged at some level. Yet, as disciples of Jesus we know that the future is not determined on November 8. As a preacher or church leader you have the opportunity to affirm what the church believes about the future. We know that God has exalted Christ to the highest place and given him the name that is above every name (Phil 2:9). We can start affirming these certainties now so that there is closure for this political season in November.
Urge people to be humble about calling one another out on their political choices. The reasons why Christian people prefer one candidate over another are complex. This year some people may refuse to cast a vote for president and those reasons are complex. Discussing those complex reasons in a constructive and spirited dialogue can be beneficial and is a foundation to a democracy. However, absolute statements declaring that a true Christian must or must not vote for a particular candidate or issue is arrogant and unkind. Rather than spiritual conviction, this attitude usually reflects anger and anxiety. Rather than conviction about a political choice, it leads to discord and broken relationships. More arrogant is the assertion that God has chosen a particular candidate. If God does in fact choose one candidate over the other then my vote and your vote will not matter. My concern is that the shepherds and leaders of the church instruct others to be generous and respectful in their political conversation or give people permission to keep their political views private and avoid quarreling over disputable matters (Rom 14:1).
Advise disciples that social media is public. No one agrees on a standard etiquette on social media. Because it is a form of conversation with vague boundaries for privacy, some will be less restrained about engaging others or venting their political opinions and feelings. Others will behave on social media in ways they would never consider in “the real world.” Good leaders will remind people that the ethics of Jesus are quite consistent. It is also good counsel to remind Christians that more people than they will ever know are observing their online behavior and discussions. There’s nothing wrong with a passionate scrimmage between individuals who welcome a spar and maintain respect even in disagreement. The church does not need to hide the fact that its members debate. Even healthy families fight; but unhealthy families fight out in the street and wake the neighbors.