Culture Friday: Grace amid political polarization

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday, the 19th of July, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

AUDIO: [Sound of “Send her back” chants]

This is Wednesday night in Greenville, North Carolina. The crowd at a rally for President Trump, punctuating his speech, chanting “send her back.” The reference, obviously, to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks with Democrats feuding among themselves: the young hard-core leftists in Congress battling the establishment, old-guard Democrats. President Trump jumping in, defending the old guard, and later suggesting that the young progressives ought to just leave the country. Which then united the Democrats around a resolution condemning the president, but stopping short of impeachment—which is another point of conflict among Democrats.

REICHARD: But then the Republican tribe is in a very awkward spot, too. Ben Shapiro, the hottest conservative commentator out there, responded to the “send her back” chant, thusly. I’m quoting now:

“Vile. Omar is awful. She is a radical anti-Semite with terrible views. She is also an American citizen and chanting for her deportation based on her exercise of the First Amendment is disgusting.”

For his part, the president at the White House chose not to double down.

TRUMP: It really was a loud—I disagreed with it, by the way. But it was quite a chant. And, ah, I felt a little bit badly about it. But I will say this: I did—and I started speaking very quickly. But it started up rather fast.

EICHER: Trevin Wax joins me today for Culture Friday. Trevin’s a pastor, a blogger, and author. His books include This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel

Trevin, glad to have you today. Welcome back, good morning.

TREVIN WAX, GUEST: Good to be with you, Nick.

EICHER: I should say, Trevin and I talked about this yesterday, about how tribal politics amounts to a rush to the extreme, and a deportation demand based on offensive speech is a pretty fine example of that. But we decided, let’s step away from the political and cultural equivalent of today’s weather report, and let’s talk about the climate in our political culture. 

Trevin, one of the things we talk about in our journalism here is we don’t want to stay too high on the ladder of abstraction. Obviously, you have to move up and down, because there are abstract principles to talk about, but come down the ladder and talk about concrete things. So talk about where we are today, and why we’re hearing what we’re hearing in the political culture.

WAX: Well, you know, I think there are a lot of reasons for why we have wound up in this position that we are currently in where it seems like the polarization continues to get worse and worse. I think one of the challenging things about our political discourse is we seem to have lost the ability or willingness to call out and to police members of our own side—no matter what tribe we’re on. I mean, it’s disturbing, really, to see how difficult it is for people on the left to call out some of the absolutely repulsive and violent things that have taken place in recent days with Antifa, for example. Or to call out anti-Semitic statements and things like that that we’ve seen.

At the same time, it’s disappointing and discouraging to see people on the right, people who claim to have conservative principles, even sometimes Christian conservative principles take statements that are very problematic, troubling with racist overtones and whatnot and just not say anything. 

And so I think we’re at a moment, though, where we find it hard to police our own sides because politics has become something of a zero sum game. And so when you lose that ability to reason with one another, what happens is the moment you say, “Well, you know, I think we need to enforce the laws that we have on the books when it comes to immigration.” Well, suddenly, “Oh, so you’re for separating families and putting men in cages.” Or on the other side of things, as soon as you say, “I think President Trump’s statement was out of line there.” “Oh, well, then you must be for the new socialist wing of the Democratic party that’s rising up.” So, it just—we seem to have lost this ability and willingness to actually speak truth in more than one direction. We tend to focus only on the direction where we feel the greatest amount of anger or we have the greatest amount of fear and because of that, our discourse is radically and very rapidly moving to the extremes. 

I think what’s discouraging about that is that for many people in American society today, it’s less about what a party stands for and more about the disdain for people on the opposing party. And being united by disdain is a very troubling place to be when the entire nature of the American project is that we would be the United States of America. But once you begin to see the other side as completely other, at that point, we really lose the opportunity to dialogue. We lose the opportunity to find some common ground. Any attempt to find common ground immediately makes you out to look like you’re compromising. Or that you are somehow giving credence to political, ideological heresy in some way because you reached a hand across the aisle. 

And so as Christians, I think we’re going to have to do some spiritual formation to figure out the best ways forward for us to be formed into the kind of disciples who will stand out in a polarized society and actually be salt and light and resist some of these temptations and some of these things that are taking place in our society that would draw us toward the extremes and toward the fringes of our society.

EICHER: Alright, well along those lines, let’s talk about this piece of news: Dr. Leana Wen is out as president of Planned Parenthood, after just eight months. Out over philosophical differences with the Planned Parenthood board. Clearly the board wanted a more strident voice leading the organization. 

And the hot takes this week were scorching. They almost wrote themselves. You know what I’m talking about. But one really stood above all the others. Abby Johnson, the former Planned Parenthood director, who converted to Christianity and became a pro-life activist. Of Dr. Wen, Johnson said this:

“Prolifers, our job is to reach out to Dr. Leana Wen in love. Snarky memes & words will not bring about conversion. Let us also remember that she is a woman grieving the loss of a miscarried child. Let us treat her with care, not callousness. Let’s be the people we say we are.”

Let me mention one other thing: This one was outside her lane, in a sense, but Abby Johnson sort of waded into the border crisis and volunteered with Catholic Charities. She got involved with the Bottles2TheBorder campaign, an opportunity, she said, actually to be pro-life. Migrants need “need support, they need rest, they need a shower, they need clean diapers, they need food.”

I call attention to this as a low-on-the-ladder-of- abstraction example, Trevin, of breaking the cycle of tribal politics. Whatcha think?

WAX: Well, I was encouraged to see that response, Nick. It’s refreshing—very refreshing—to see someone who is in the trenches, in the battle when it comes to the human dignity of the unborn saying, “You know, if you believe in the human dignity of the unborn, you ought to believe in the human dignity of your opponent when it comes to matters of abortion rights.” And to this ongoing debate that we have in our society. And, you know, she’s not the only one that’s actually done a lot of work at the border. There’s not a whole lot of press about it, but I’ve been encouraged out of my own denomination—the Southern Baptists—have been heavily involved down in doing relief at the border in ways similar that we do disaster relief all over the country.

The beautiful thing about the United States of America is that cable news does not define what life actually looks like in many of our neighborhoods, in many of our churches and communities. All across the country, there are Christians who are resisting the sort of hyper politicized, polarized moment that we’re in by finding ways to bring light, by finding ways to demonstrate God’s love, by finding ways to love even your ideological enemies. And I was encouraged to see Abby’s response. Having read her book, knowing her story, I wasn’t totally surprised. It was refreshing.

I do hope that we will see more of that kind of thing. I think it’s good for our society. It’s good for the church when we can speak to issues having first-hand knowledge of what may be happening in a particular place or emotionally what someone may be going through as they’re walking—just that human sense of empathy seems to be more and more rare in our society and is going to stand out more and more.

And so, in some ways, Nick—I guess this is the silver lining after all of this conversation about the moment we’re in politically—doing something that is just a demonstration of common decency and courtesy will really make you stand out in the world. And so in some ways it’s never been easier to look like a Christian. And so I’m encouraged when I see signs of grace in the moment that we’re in. And I’m glad that you mentioned that. That was a nice thing to see after a very tumultuous couple of weeks.

EICHER: Trevin Wax is Director for Bibles and Reference at LifeWay Christian Resources and a visiting professor at Wheaton College. He is the general editor of The Gospel Project, and serves as a teaching pastor in Middle Tennessee.

It’s Culture Friday. Trevin, thanks so much for being with us today.

WAX: Thanks a lot, Nick.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., respond to remarks by President Donald Trump.

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