We are in for an ugly ride on our way to Nov. 3, 2020. All the talking heads agree: this election season may be the nastiest in American history.
Weighting its nastiness will be the God-factor. Both parties, speaking from different readings of the character of God, are determined to wrap themselves in robes of holy righteousness. As Oklahoma’s favorite philosopher Will Rogers said: “The more you read about politics, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other” but in 2020 each group intends, by God (in both senses of that expression), to paint the other as godlessly “worse.”
Consider, then, two sentences from the book God reputedly had a direct hand in authoring. Sometimes the Bible lets us eavesdrop on spiritual sickness in order to learn to detect it and run. This is one such time. In Psalm 119, a pious soul complains to God: “The arrogant smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts. Their hearts are fat and gross, but I delight in your law.”
Note the “us versus them” contrast. “They” are the “arrogant” who are woefully inferior to yours truly. “I” exemplify moral purity, while “they” lack any virtue. “They” engage in “smear” tactics laden with “lies” while “I keep your precepts with my whole heart.” Moreover, “their” hearts are “fat and gross” while my own “delights in your law.”
Once we penetrate the smarmy self-righteousness of this prayer, we are also tuned in to the demonic political rhetoric of 2020. It is a lethal game of vilify the other and glorify one’s self.
Unquestionably, democracy requires the clash of competitive views, and a degree of “us versus them” is essential to achieve its ends. Sides must be taken. But how those differences are presented and maintained is as important as the merits of the positions taken. And how we speak of “them” — our opponents — is most important of all.
If we cannot debate our differences respectfully, we trash the basis and the prospects of democracy itself. If our speech vilifies “them,” we are blind to our own arrogance, inviting retaliatory vilification and striking the match that burns the bridges that one day we will fervently wish were still in place.
“Words weaponized against the other, words expressing contempt for and unfair accusation against the other, reveal a sick soul, a sick society.”
For instance, I recently learned from a Facebook comment that I “hate America.” My certain hatred was established by my registration as a Democrat and, of course, “all Democrats hate America.” Really?! (I also sadly note many broad-brush accusations being leveled against all Republicans.)
Forty years ago, conservative word-guru William Safire wrote about the words used in our abortion debate. Initially, one was either “pro-abortion” or “anti-abortion,” said Safire, but this devolved to the “loaded phrases” of “’pro-life’ — which implicitly derogates all those who disagree as killers, and ‘pro-choice,’ which implicitly derogates all those who disagree as dictators.” Thus, he concluded, we have “a matched pair of pistols for a bitter duel.”
Words weaponized against the other, words expressing contempt for and unfair accusation against the other, reveal a sick soul, a sick society. Seeking to be swathed in the glowing garments of God, perhaps Americans needs more than a “come to Jesus meeting.” We need to go back even further and have a “come to Moses meeting,” trembling with him on Mount Sinai at the mandate: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Thus, when Nov. 4 finally arrives, we might still have some neighbors.
Dan Day is pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church, Raleigh, N.C., and former professor of preaching and worship at Campbell University Divinity School. He is the author of Finding the Gospel: A Pastor’s Disappointment and Discovery.