I’ve always loved history and politics. My earliest reading was filled with adventures on the American frontier. I was probably the only kid in Bernice, Louisiana excited that we were off of school on January 20, 1985, so I could watch the presidential inauguration. My mom says it’s because my feeding time as an infant was always while the Watergate hearings were playing on television. I added religion to my areas of interest a few years later, completing my journey to becoming the perfect dinner guest. After all, the positivity gurus recommend discussing religion and politics in social settings. What could go wrong? With the right attitudes and respect for all conversation partners, those conversations in even the most diverse collection of friends used to be enjoyable and sometimes even productive. I have fond memories from college of late-night dorm discussions of theological differences or political questions. Those questions are not as easy as they used to be.
Our family moved to Iowa eleven years ago. My wife and I were excited about the opportunity to see the famous Iowa Caucuses firsthand. We’d taken our kids to political rallies in Louisiana a few times. We were never picky about who we went to see, freely taking them to both Democratic and Republican gatherings. We’ve got pictures with candidates I respect and admire as well as some with candidates we were seeing mainly to witness history unfolding. We enjoyed being part of the process and introducing our kids to our imperfect, but brilliant, American system. It was fun to go to rallies, hear differing points of view, and witness the energy of the crowds.
The winds of political change
Then came 2016 and Donald Trump. The dysfunctions that plague us now were well underway by the time Donald Trump arrived on the scene in 2016. I remember feeling a shift in the winds during the second Bush and Obama presidencies. Differences were more strident and the rhetoric, always prone to ugliness, was getting uglier. Many historians and political scientists point to the conflict between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” caucus in the mid-nineties as a watershed moment altering our political climate. Other experts point further back, and each new academic take on our current political malaise seems to push the operative causes further and further back in time.
My wife expressed a few months ago what we had both been thinking for a while. She no longer feels comfortable freely going to political events across the spectrum like we once did. I was glad that she vocalized it because I had been thinking about the 2024 election season and realizing that I was not comfortable going to the rallies myself, much less taking her into those environments. The loss of Iowa’s Democratic caucus as the “first in the nation” event means that Democratic candidates are unlikely to canvas the state much and even less so this year with an incumbent Democratic ticket. The Republicans will still hold caucus events in Iowa, so what we can expect to see this year is a flurry of Republican candidates seeking to steer the Republican party from the thrall of Donald Trump with no repentance for their fealty to him in the past nor any willingness to criticize him in public despite a record number of indictments and a demonstrated history of unfitness for the office. We can also expect to see the language and sacred images of our faith repeatedly invoked to support ideas that we would never have supported as remotely Christian at any point in our faith journeys, even when we were in our most absolute conservative phases.
I have legitimate concerns about what could happen if we attended a rally where a candidate was offering a racist or homophobic slur that diminished the humanity of someone Christians are called to love, and we simply didn’t applaud. Such abstinence would be expected and tolerated easily in the past because the whole point was to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas. You would expect and hope that people who disagreed would show up. However, political rallies are no longer public forums. They have morphed into quasi-religious echo chambers where the purity tests are so absolute even the candidates themselves couldn’t pass them. I could easily imagine a scenario today where someone could face physical risk from unhinged crowds. My wife also said she never minded taking pictures with candidates across the spectrum because there was a commonly understood sphere of decency where you might disagree with a candidate’s position, but he wasn’t an entirely disreputable person. You expected that even with their flaws they were generally well-intentioned people. They were also engaged in the common pursuit of creating a society for healthy human flourishing even if they envisioned a different way of doing it. To put it simply, so many candidates now have so ethically and intellectually compromised themselves that you are leery of being photographed with them at all.
Faith, or branding?
As Christians, we also don’t want to be associated with attempts to cheapen or misrepresent Christianity for political purposes. Christian faith loses its universal reach when it’s reduced to cheap branding to further an earthly political agenda. Too many Christians have forgotten the “Commander of the Lord’s Army” reply to Joshua in Joshua 5:13-15 when Joshua asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies.” The man made it clear that he had not come to take sides, but to represent the interests of God first and foremost.
So, we will not be attending many if any of those rallies in the coming year as Republican candidates barnstorm the state and their current frontrunner faces indictment after indictment. It pains me to say that. I enjoy being engaged in the public square and, more importantly, I feel a calling and a duty to do what I can to promote the healthy flourishing of humans, all humans, made in the image of God. We will continue to be engaged in a variety of ways, and thankfully, we have several outlets for public service that let us still make a difference in whatever small ways we can.
Our cumulative losses
However, the greatest loss of those rally environments becoming more contentious lies in the loss of intimate contact with people who see the world in different ways. I wouldn’t like me either if the worst false rumors about me and my views were true. We live in an age where conspiracy theories and false witnesses run rampant in our society. People meeting together, being open and real with each other, is the only true way to overcome the negative stereotypes we have of one another. The forces working to compromise systems of public connection like political rallies, online spaces, media, educational institutions, and other outlets know that people seeing one another as they are rather than as they are told to see “the other” threatens their goal to tribalize us until we are putty in their hands. Reclaiming these spaces will be slow and grueling work. But it must happen if we want to preserve our democratic institutions and possibly our religious ones as well.