A wise saying asserts that one should never talk about politics, religion, and money in polite company. But in this election cycle (and perhaps during the past few years) it seems that restraint has been thrown out the window.
It used to be that polite people held their political opinions closely while Walter Cronkite spent a few minutes recounting the day’s news events. But today, an increasingly opinionated political press stretches five-minute stories into a 24/7 news cycle while our friends and acquaintances openly share their political opinions with wild abandon on social media.
This constant drumbeat of partisanship has deeply affected the nation. A study released last September by the University of Nebraska-Lincolnfound that of Americans surveyed, 40 percent find politics to be a major source of stress, and one in five individuals are losing sleep over it. The study also found that 31.8 percent reported that exposure to media outlets promoting views contrary to their political briefs “drive[s] them crazy”; 29.3 percent say they’ve lost their temper as a result of politics, and one in five say political differences have damaged friendships.1
These pressures are building during this election cycle, and Adventist congregations, with their many family and friend units, are not immune.
So how do we rise above the fracas and participate in decisions for our nation’s future that come from a place of spiritual wisdom and God-given intellect? Being “in the world but not of the world” is not easy when your political values are at stake; and while it may be impossible for many to disengage from politics, here are a few potentially helpful points that might help.
Our ability to influence others doesn’t matter as much as we think it does.
“Do not contend with a man for no reason, when he has done you no harm” (Prov. 3:30, ESV).2
Before some dismiss this point as political heresy, here’s some math. In 2016, 55 percent of the estimated 250,056,000 eligible voters in the United States voted. That’s about 137,530,800 votes. Assuming the average height of a U.S. dollar is 0.0043 inches, if you stacked a dollar for every person who voted, it would be 49,282 feet, or 9.3 miles, tall. So while our vote counts in the aggregate, if we lose a friendship because we’re trying to convince somebody to vote our way, it’s not worth it statistically, and certainly not worth it emotionally.
Those who disagree with us are not bad people.
“It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Prov. 20:3).
It is easy to divide the political world between those who are “right” and those who are “wrong.” When it comes to the church, this gets translated into the “sheep” versus “goats” discussion. Instead of thinking of others as fellow travelers on this journey through life, some categorize others as either political allies or opponents. After they are labeled, everything one’s opponents do is suspect, even if it’s good. And rather than hope for the best outcome for all involved, the main motivation becomes to watch the “other” lose (and maybe gloat a little).
In reality, each person has different reasons for holding certain opinions. Some individuals may be truly interested in saving the wetlands, while others may be concerned that they will lose a job as a result of regulations. Some may want to see increased national health care, while others may be worrying about the impact of higher taxes on their ability to pay the rent.
With news and social media within easy reach, it’s easy to get constantly caught up in political debates.
So, before arguing about it, let’s listen and genuinely attempt to find out what the person’s concerns and motives are and try to address the conflict from a perspective of understanding, instead of bulldozing one over with our view of “the truth.”
Shield kids from the partisanship of politics, but encourage them to think.
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:1, 2, ESV).
In 1984 my dad bought my brother a Walter Mondale pin, and I received a Ronald Reagan pin. At the time I didn’t understand the positions of the candidates, but I did start to understand that reasonable people can hold different opinions on political issues.
My wife and I joke that we often cancel each other out with our votes. She and I may not agree on candidates, but we respect each other and keep political debates outside the home.
Children may have a very hard time differentiating between candidates and the issues, so if you say that you disagree with a particular politician, they need to understand why you take that position. Small children who might hear you say “Politician A is an idiot” will view your statement in concrete terms. Instead, you might say, “Politician A is wrong about ABC for XYZ reasons,” and help them understand why you feel that way.
An understanding of history in the context of culture and law is good. It’s important not to require children to blindly adopt our positions without context, as they may not understand all that is involved. Teach them to respect the office of those in authority, but if certain issues arise that demand attention, don’t be afraid to address those issues with a reasoned, contextual explanation. Don’t make blanket judgments about politicians, but encourage kids to consider what would happen if factors were added to or subtracted from a given situation. We can steer them through the analysis by asking open-ended questions that focus on the “why” of a position, and whether it’s workable or not.
It takes time, but teaching children to analyze the issues while cultivating a sense of kindness and a “we’re in this together” ethic will serve them well.
Learn how to productively discuss politics on social media.
“Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil” (2 Tim. 2:23, 24, ESV).
If you’re discussing a political issue with someone in person, it’s likely that if you disagree, one of you will nervously smile and try to change the subject. But the online world doesn’t allow face-to-face communication. Instead, we hide behind screens, and while making a point we can also be digging around the web for rhetorical ammo to use.
If we’re going to debate politics, let our words be our own. Let’s not rely on memes or bumper sticker slogans. The other person may never agree with us no matter how convincing we are.
Most online arguments about politics start with someone making a statement of political “fact.” Then another person responds with a “fact.” And the first person responds with more “facts,” and the flamethrowers of “truth” get lit up. Finally, one person will give up and say, “I bid you farewell; discussing this with you is truly remedial.” And the other repeats another point, and it keeps going until the flag of truce is waved: “Let’s agree to disagree.”
Nobody likes to seal a disagreement in stone by “agreeing to disagree.” Once you’ve made your point, silently disengage and leave the conversation without making a huge show. There’s nothing to be gained from “capping off” the discussion with the “last word.” Being the last to post doesn’t mean you won the argument; it simply means you exhausted your opponent and all the other tired people who stopped reading the thread hours before.
Take a weekly Sabbath rest from politics.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world
you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
With news and social media within easy reach on phones or iPads, it’s easy to get constantly caught up in political debates. And it can also be very tempting to find ways to connect political news with religion as a conversation topic with friends at church. But what may seem to be of such intense importance to us may not seem so relevant to others within our faith community.
Set aside your phone or television news between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. You may be surprised at how little you missed during those hours. You’ll realize that most hyped-up “breaking news” can wait.
If you really want to discuss the latest political events with your friends from church, invite them to Sunday morning brunch, and if all are game, discuss it to your hearts’ content. But regardless of how the conversation goes, or whatever box is checked in the voting booth, it’s wise to remember during this election cycle (and those to come) that God sometimes uses what seems like the insanity of the age to serve His purpose.
Nothing can change that.
1 K. B. Smith, M. V. Hibbing, J. R. Hibbing, “Friends, Relatives, Sanity, and Health: The Costs of Politics,” PLoS ONE 14, no. 9 (2019): e0221870, doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0221870.
2 Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Michael D. Peabody is an attorney in Los Angeles and president of Founders’ First Freedom, a religious liberty advocacy organization. He blogs at www.religiousliberty.tv.