Columnists > Voices

Breaking the (election) cycle

Presidential elections, however important, reflect the culture much more than they change it

Issue: "Berger can't keep a secret," July 31, 2004

So now, we're told, the race for the presidency is about to begin in earnest. Everything so far has just been a warm-up, a rehearsal for the main event. The millions that have been spent for travel, for media, and for public events have been intended only to set the stage.

I've always loved presidential politics. I was fascinated as an 11-year-old with the Eisenhower-Taft struggle for the soul of the Republican Party at its 1952 convention. Those were the early years of television news - when TV was a less sophisticated tool in reporting on political conventions, but when it told a far more interesting story than the ones you'll get this month and next from Boston and New York.

So from the vantage point now of having watched 13 presidential election cycles, I want to observe here what I have stressed before: that the scenario to be played out over the next three months is profoundly important - and yet perhaps not quite as consequential as we tend to think.

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Over those 13 cycles (my "good guys" won eight times), I've noticed three typical responses among Christian voters: (1) When election results aren't what we want, we act as if civilization is going down the tubes. (2) When results are what we want, we soon discover that things are almost as bad as if they'd gone the other way. (3) Either way, and chafing at how little appreciated we just were, we always serve notice how much of a force we're going to be next time around.

I'm not pointing fingers when I offer this not-too-flattering profile; notice my use of "we" in the descriptions. But I'm also tired of the cycle. So here are three reminders that may have a familiar sound, because I've proposed something like them before:

First, it's our culture - not the political process - that has to change. Mastering the political process, instead of the culture that political process reflects, is about as effective as training a dog's tail. When you train the dog well, the tail tends to follow.

Because the political process is so visible and dramatic, we tend to get swept away with a sense that politics controls culture. But it's the other way around. Why else do politicians spend such huge sums to keep up with the polls?

If politics seems rotten, it's because the culture that supports the political system is rotten itself. It's the people who have lost all sense of supernatural standards, of transcendent values, and of lasting commitments. Politicians, eager to reflect the people, end up just as empty.

Second, Christians need to struggle in a fresh way with the sad manner in which the kingdom of God has become a culture coddler instead of a culture challenger. We have tended over the last few generations to show more zeal for discovering points of common interest with our culture than for highlighting crucial points of difference.

This is a hard issue. But maybe we've made it harder than it needs to be. We like to remember that the Apostle Paul in his famous Mars Hill speech in Acts 17 was culturally relevant. We like to forget that he went on immediately to spell out the differences between the assumptions of the dominant culture and the assumptions of the gospel he was there to proclaim. Our tendency has become to spend whole lifetimes making the kingdom of God culturally relevant, but never closing the sale.

Third, none of this will happen on a grand scale until it has begun to happen profoundly with us as individuals. God uses structures, to be sure. But the structures He's typically used have been those that are built on individual men and women who have done business with Him on a personal basis.

Doing business personally with God has little to do with political prowess. It has much to do with learning increasingly how to trust Him when human wisdom and human evidence point in another direction. That's why the Bible has few stories about precinct meetings, but many about people struggling to learn how to trust God personally. Adam and Eve didn't, at least at one crucial point. Noah did. Abraham did, most of the time. David did and he didn't - and the Psalms are full of the tension between those two responses.

I'm going to be politically involved over the next 100 days. There's a lot at stake, and the country our children and grandchildren will inherit from us will be profoundly shaped by what happens on Nov. 2. Shame on us if we sit on our freedoms instead of exercising them.

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