The past year in American politics has put on full display the social, cultural, and political breakdown we are experiencing in the United States. Evangelicals, we need to find a way to make things right again, and we can’t count on talk show hosts or politicians to do this. It’s up to us—ordinary citizens of the United States—to help restore the health of our nation, and we should start by doing three things:
We must reject fake facts in order to restore “reality-based” politics.
When the term “fake news” appeared on the scene last year, it referred primarily to websites that adopted the look of mainstream media outlets in order spread patently false stories. Since then, the use of the term has expanded to include any media outlet, news article, or political commentary whose interpretation of the facts differs from one’s own.
In a recent YouGov poll, forty-three percent of Americans say they’ve personally used the term “fake news” to describe something. Most persons who voted for Trump believe mainstream media outlets often create fake news. Most persons who voted for Clinton think the Trump administration often creates fake news. In fact, there is good reason to believe that the term “fake news” doesn’t really mean anything anymore.
Regardless, one thing is clear: Americans need to get back to reality-based politics. That goes for media outlets, politicians, opinion writers, and everyday citizens. We must not only refuse to spread patently false stories, but resist the temptation to misrepresent our opponents in order to gain a “P.R.” advantage or score a short-term political victory. If a celebrity as influential as Glenn Beck can issue a sincere apology and change his tune, then the rest of us can, also.
We must reject cynicism in order to restore trust in one another.
The existence of patently false stories and fake news websites, compounded by the deluge of accusations about fake news in recent weeks, has a disorienting effect. What’s more, it fosters an atmosphere of cynicism and mistrust. Unless we find a way out of the morass of cynicism and mistrust, our nation may never recover.
How can we restore trust? We cannot control whether the radio talkers, cable news pundits, or politicians will make a positive contribution. What we can control is the way we—everyday citizens—carry ourselves in public. We can control what we say and how we say it, in coffee shop conversations, parent-teacher meetings, water-cooler breaks, and neighborhood get-togethers.
“Where cynicism and irony rule,” James K. A. Smith writes, “the web of trust is torn. But trust can be rebuilt by all sorts of small-scale but cumulative efforts—in churches, schools, neighborhoods, families, unions, for example. The encouraging thing is that the rebuilding of trust doesn’t need the state to get started. Reweaving webs of trust doesn’t require government permission or programs, even if those might later contribute.”
We must reject political correctness in order to restore public civility.
When we find ourselves disoriented by the sheer volume of lies and misinformation, and when we live in a society characterized by cynicism and mistrust, it is easy to become one of the “bad guys” ourselves. We are tempted to demonize, degrade, and misrepresent people on the other side of the political aisle.
Not so long ago, the term “politically correct” was used to discourage lies, inaccurate stereotypes, and degrading language. These days, however, “political correctness” more often signifies obeisance to progressive social norms that often conflict with our religious and political beliefs.
What we need is not political correctness but civility. Whereas today’s political correctness often demands social conformity at the expense of personal beliefs, civility encourages us to articulate our beliefs, but to do so in a way that respects the dignity and decency of other persons. Civil citizens are smart enough, strong enough, and patriotic enough to make their political points without having to take the low road.
Together, we can make politics right again.
Change doesn’t always come from the top down. Often it starts at the grassroots level, with ordinary citizens. And when it comes to restoring reality-based politics, social trust, and public civility, ordinary citizens must be the ones to do it.
We can restore “reality-based” politics by watching more than one cable news network, or reading more than one newspaper, so that we can better see both sides of a matter. We restore trust in our own neighborhoods and communities by listening to people we may disagree with politically, and then speaking our minds in ways that are firm but civil.
As evangelicals, we should have as much motivation as anybody else. After all, we are the ones who the Apostle Paul instructed to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Let’s resist the temptation to ignore either parts of that command: the truth-speaking or the genuine concern for the other person. If we speak the truth in love, and if that becomes a hallmark of evangelical political activism, we can play a more significant role in making politics right again.