Showalter: Political groupthink

Jan 16, 2017 by

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Christians around the globe followed the U.S. election with as much interest as did citizens of the United States. Election Day found me in an international meeting in Germany. I went to bed long before the results came in, but a Kenyan friend stayed up all night to watch the returns.

Richard Showalter

Showalter

In the weeks before and after the election, I spent more time outside the U.S. than in. When I was home, only my closest friends and family asked me much about the campaign. It seemed too divisive to risk asking opinions, I guess.

Outside the U.S., though, it was different. Everyone wanted to know what I and others thought. I had a stock answer, “Evangelical Christians don’t like the choices we have. Urban Christians lean toward Clinton, rural Christians toward Trump. But there are many exceptions. The country and the church are more deeply divided than I’ve ever seen before.”

I was fascinated by the preferences I heard from them. Many European Christians favored Clinton almost religiously. The day after the election, one of them began our routine greetings with funerary condolences. But Asian and African Christians often said hopefully, “Perhaps Trump’s win means U.S. Christianity is more influential than we thought.” Many of them feared an increasingly secular and post-Christian U.S. society would create less tolerance for them.

Consequently, this election led me to re-examine both my personal stance and that of the global church.

I saw that the political spectrum — left, center and right — is not particularly useful for identifying the most faithful Christian positions. Committed Christians were present all along the spectrum, but they were not defined by their places there. Rather, Jesus defined them. He was finally crucified by the cooperation of all the political systems that surrounded him — Romans, the Jewish Sanhedrin, even his closest friends. Today is no different.

I saw how we U.S. Christians overidentified with our political preferences. I was amazed by the genuine anguish many of us felt as we contemplated the potential victory of the “other side.” Sadly, we were too often more deeply committed to being “red” or “blue” than to Jesus, who cannot be defined by either.

I remembered how seldom the Roman Empire appears in the New Testament. Yes, Rome was there, but only on the periphery. In contrast, Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God. It is just as possible to be a faithful Christian in China, Turkey or Zimbabwe as in the West. Remembering this would keep us modest about our politics.

I saw that groupthink (achieving “harmony” by suppressing dissenting viewpoints through scorn, isolation or disdain without honest critical evaluation) is everywhere, in the halls of Harvard as well as the jungles of Kalimantan. Political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. recently described the persecution he experienced for daring to publish certain statistics which, though indisputable, did not support mainstream scientific opinion. He ended by asking, “If academics and the media won’t support open debate, who will?” (“My Unhappy Life as a Climate Heretic,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 2). When groupthink wins, we all lose — just like both sides in a tortured election where both “winners” and “losers” lose the respect and trust of the other.

Jesus brought sobering and wonderful news, “Godthink.” Not our groupthink about God, but what God thinks about us.

Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.


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