Greg Garrett: Faithful Citizenship: Lessons from the Long Election

Taken with permission from

The election is over. Thousands of hours of campaign events, billions of dollars in commercials, zillions of e-mails and phone calls later, we have reelected President Obama, elected new senators, governors, members of congress, state and local officials.

But the residue of the election lingers in our hearts and heads like those election signs still loitering in yards and medians. This election told us that we are more divided as a nation than ever -- divided politically, religiously, by race, gender and class. Twitter, Facebook and the traditional media are still jammed with hateful attacks on the opposition (see this piece by my colleague Tim Suttle, or your own Facebook feed).

So while in their fine post-election speeches Governor Romney said that "We look to Democrats and Republicans in government at all levels to put the people before parties," and President Obama dusted off his "there is no Red America, there is no Blue America, there is only America" trope, they were preaching a message that stood in direct contradiction to the 300 days of divisiveness and personal attacks that preceded the election.

They were suggesting a last-minute course correction to the Titanic, trying to reinject some civility into a political climate that reminds me of a man I saw preaching on the corner of Austin's Sixth Street and Congress last week, waving his Bible and yelling at cars as they drove past. Our passion and volume fills the air -- and we pass each other without listening, perhaps even more turned off by the volume.

Two years ago I took on the challenge of writing a weekly column on faith and politics for the world's largest independent spirituality site, Patheos. I had been thinking about a theology of community in my past few books as I wrote about the rock band U2the power of friendship in Harry Potter and about a thoughtful and faithful 21st-century Christianity.

In the course of the last two years, I read current events, theology and the Bible voraciously, trying to come to some conclusions about how faith might be a positive force in our national discourse, not another divisive partisan marker. Far too many of us who call ourselves people of faith, I found, make decisions that stand in some ways opposed to our faith, and that included me. It's still readily apparent in the aftermath of the election: look at those who call themselves Christian who are nonetheless still attacking the opposition or gloating about the downfall of the candidates they grew to loathe.

In the course of writing my column and, finally, the book "Faithful Citizenship," I came to agree with former Republican senator John Danforth that Christians should come to the political process not with "Christian issues" but with the spirit of reconciliation.

I came to agree with Augustine that love and friendship were the transcendent values that should permeate all our social interaction.

I came to the conclusion -- painful for this lifelong partisan Democrat -- that being right (or perceiving myself as right) was less important than reaching out in love to those with whom I disagreed.

In the past year, in addition to the work of writing my column and book, I have spoken about politics and faith on media in the U.S., England and Scotland, and in churches and universities, and in the questions I've taken, one stands out: Yes, love, community, that's all good. But what do I do if the (Republicans/Democrats/Catholics/Baptists/Insert your foe here) won't be in conversation with me?

What if I extend a hand in love and friendship and I'm snubbed?

What if I love and they don't love me back?

It's a good question, because this counsel I bring about loving your political, religious or cultural opponent is counter-cultural -- like any authentic spiritual message.

It's a good question because our love toward others doesn't guarantee a positive outcome.

But love for others, even when it's difficult, nonetheless is what we're called to do by Jesus, by Paul, by the writer of the Johannine epistles, by Augustine, by Aquinas, by Martin Luther, By John Calvin, by Stanley Hauerwas and by Anne Lamott (who like all of us sometimes finds it hard to forgive).

Love for God and for our neighbor is at the heart of Christian belief and practice, and our friendship is to extend to every member of the human family, even to our enemies, as Augustine wrote in his Letter 130.

That love could transform our political lives -- and the way we see others. It could help to heal our divisions, because as Christians we believe that love has the power to transform not only us but those we love. The message and life of Jesus are proof that God chooses to move in the world not through coercion, but through a call to transformation.

At the same time, I've been writing and teaching that this love should cause us to approach our political life -- in fact, all aspects of our life -- with some humility. We hold our beliefs for reasons that seem right and appropriate to us, but have to realize that those who differ from us hold their beliefs for those same reasons, not to belittle us, not because they are bad or stupid or less human than we are.

Those who differ from us are making decisions based on the best information they have available, and they too are trying to come to some solutions to the big problems they see facing their families, their country and the world.

Maybe they need better information. This last election suggested that it's a bad thing to live in an echo chamber where you hear the facts you want to hear repeated back to you.

But perhaps we need more and better information too.

Ultimately, as Augustine often argued, we need to listen to each other to know the full picture. We need, as our Founders understood from their own experience, the interplay of ideas, the give and take of democracy to come up with new solutions to the problems that will always emerge in our common life.

As Rachel Maddow said the other night in a progressive read on the election results:

In this country we have a two party system, in government. And the idea is supposed to be that the two sides both come up with ways to confront and fix the real problems facing our country. They both propose possible solutions to our real problems. And we debate between those possible solutions. And by the process of debate, we pick the best idea. That competition between good ideas, from both sides, about real problems in the real country should result in our country having better choices, better options, than if only one side is really working on the hard stuff.

I don't think Rachel Maddow is a Christian.


But I do think she's really wise.

And if someone routinely considered a lefty can call for the right to be a part of the solution, then can't we all come to see that we need each other?

Those are my big lessons as I come to the end of this two year experiment. Faithful politics should be less about issues than about approaching the process as agents of reconciliation.

It should be about approaching our opponents with love, and seeking common ground because they may hold some wisdom we lack.

It should be about binding up the wounds of the nation, as Abraham Lincoln said at another of the most divided moments in our history.

I don't presume to know how Jesus would vote.

But I do think I know what Jesus taught about how we should live together.

Now it's time to see if we can live into it, together.