A Partisan Arms Race
We find ourselves in the middle of an epic partisan arms race. Five weeks later, most of America has forgotten about the Red Hen incident, where Sarah Huckabee Sanders was refused service and castigated by the owner of a Lexington, VA restaurant for her role in the Trump administration. After the fact, the owner justified her actions, saying, “This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.” Uncomfortable actions indeed. Many others have followed suit. The videos are all over Facebook to prove it. The aftermath of this event was predictable outrage; conservatives pointed out the lack of decency, liberals cried hypocrisy citing Obama era examples. We spent a week and a half talking about civility and everything blew over.
The whole event left me feeling uneasy. Do we really want to live in a world where the places you can eat and do business are determined by someone else’s perception of your political stances? No, we don’t.
Now the immediate response to this line of reasoning is what about the Colorado cake bakers? Didn’t they do the same thing? Yes and no. The fine point of difference between the two reveals a lot about how to move forward. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the bakery because in this specific case the owners were being asked to use their artistic talents to participate in and celebrate something they were morally opposed to, a same-sex marriage. This was a free speech issue in the final decision. The bakers demonstrated that they would have made cakes for the couple and offered all of their other services to them except making a custom design for their wedding. The verdict has been spun every which way. There’s one thing everyone on both sides of the court case agreed on; you can’t simply refuse to make a cake for someone because they’re gay.
Friday, Orrin Hatch, U.S. Senator from Utah and the president pro tempore, wrote a fascinating op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Geneva Conventions for the Culture Wars.” In light of the level of polarization and hatred we’re experiencing in America, Senator Hatch proposes some ground rules be put in place. He lists four: first, we should keep communal spaces like schools, hospitals, and churches apolitical. Second, we need to band together and resist the urge to politicize every square inch of our public discourse. Third, we must stand against the harassment of our civil servants. Fourth, liberals and conservatives should commit themselves to political disarmament. This is a pretty good list, and if everyone could agree on these rules, the country would be a much better place. I’m doubtful.
Why won’t this work?
While I love Hatch’s ideas, he’s missing a critical piece of human nature. He frames the issue as political disarmament; if everyone would lay down their weapons, we could all be happy. Unfortunately, that’s only a piece of the problem. Calls for decency work on an individual level, but they probably won’t work on an organizational level.
There’s too much money involved. The entire media and political landscape is dominated by point scoring. Since both media and politics have degenerated into a mad dash for public opinion; only the mob matters. This is the prisoner’s dilemma. If one side disarms, it gives the other side an instant opportunity to win public opinion. The media wouldn’t be covering the humility and integrity of the group that decided to stop politicizing everything. That doesn’t sell! They would take the opportunity to trumpet their own victory. Somehow they would end up being the ones who brought everyone together - to their point of view, conveniently enough. Our situation is less like an arms race and more like a game of make-it-take-it. If you walk off the court the game doesn’t end, you just lose a lot faster.
So I’m pessimistic about Hatch’s proposal. All of this is impossible unless you’re a Christian. It’s going to require a set of people who not motivated by power, money, or popularity to make this work. Staying in the game and refusing to posture, keep score, twist information, or fight for your honor may be the most counter-cultural thing you can do in our partisan climate. We often forget that the way of Jesus requires us to stop keeping score with everybody else. This is one of the basic points in the sermon on the mount. Blessed are the meek. Those are the ones who have power and refuse to use it for personal gain. Blessed are you when you’re reviled for my sake; because you understand that God’s opinion is more valuable than the opinion of the world. In an honor-shame culture like 1st Century Israel, losing honor was a fate worse than death. Jesus called his disciples to stop trying to fight for honor. Our culture isn’t so different.
Maybe the best apologetic we have is to lead the charge in de-escalating our culture. Maybe prayer is more important than punditry. We’re called to stand up for what’s right, not what’s partisan. Maybe we show more deference and more hospitality to those we don’t align with. I believe we can grow in the wisdom required to know when to break away from our preferred norm of hospitality for a godly rebuke. Going back to the cake bakers, maybe we serve others and go above and beyond to show honor in every case that doesn’t require celebration or participation. We offer ourselves freely to all, but we speak against coercion.
I applaud Senator Hatch’s proposal, but it can only come through people who have a different set of allegiances. People who profit from outrage will never be able to lay down their arms. People of peace can, and they can lead the way for others to do the same.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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