On Thursday, November 10, 2016, my classroom at John Brown University teemed with a palpable sense of both quiet fervor and also numb disbelief. Later I learned many students had watched the election results together, one group applauding and cheering as the outcome became more certain, another shrinking from disappointment to fear to anguish. On our campus—a distinctly Christian environment with low levels of political engagement—such a polarized response was unusual.
I’d come to class ready to discuss and analyze one of the most unusual elections in American history, but was instead met with an unnerving mix of trauma and elation.
There is little to suggest that the 2020 presidential election will yield less tension and conflict than 2016. If anything, the political atmosphere has become moretoxic over the last several years. This should concern Christians. Our country’s extreme political climate might tempt us to adopt its hostile rhetoric and dehumanizing tones, rendering us indistinguishable from the world. Or we might be tempted to abandon political engagement altogether, fatigued by the rancor and fed up by the partisan stalemate.
But neither option will suffice for those of us called to be in the world for the sake of the kingdom. We must forge a better path for a healthier, Christ-centered political engagement.
Polarization, Negative Partisanship, and Other Dangers
There are many potential obstacles to a Christ-centered political engagement. Polarization is a big one. Opinions have become more extreme in both directions of the political spectrum, and there are seemingly fewer moderate voices in the conversation. Political scientists believe the steady increase in polarization over the past several decades is a result of social sorting, media echo chambers, and more distinct political parties, to name a few.