When it comes to politics, I often hear people say that they are conflicted. This was magnified during the 2016 presidential election when for the first time both major party candidates had larger disapproval poll numbers than approval numbers. There were common laments such as, “I voted for the lesser of two evils,” or “I just held my nose and voted for …,” or “I voted for a third-party candidate,” or like Senator Mitt Romney who said he voted for his wife!
But we also may feel conflicted about policing issues, how safe or risky to be with pandemic health concerns, the size and role of government, and a host of other dilemmas. These challenges remind me of the story of President Harry Truman meeting with his economic advisors who kept giving him their opinions with the qualification “but on the other hand.” Exasperated, Truman blurted out, “What I want is a one-handed economist!”
Truman’s desire for a simple one-handed solution to complex issues resonates with any of us who at times just want a simple answer. But simple answers rarely lead to lasting solutions. At best they appease the moment and usually postpone any real answers. They reflect a lack of curiosity and necessary commitment to really understand and work through the complexities of an issue.
Simplicity – Complexity – Simplicity
But is embracing complexity the answer either? Oliver Wendall Holmes famously said, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
It is important that although Holmes obviously puts down simplistic (and let me add sloganized) solutions, he also wants to get beyond being stuck in an exhausting complexity typical of political issues. For instance, when it comes to the economy, probably most people would love to cut the size of federal spending unless it means cutting their own particular benefits. Even Ayn Rand—the well-known author of Atlas Shrugged and a staunch individualist who railed against government handouts for others—wound up receiving Social Security!
But who has the wisdom and the political will to navigate through these political complexities to reach a simple solution—and who would vote for someone who tries to do so? Do we just live with either being simplistic or conflicted or is there a better way out?
Being Conflicted as a Path to Wisdom
Let me suggest that being conflicted may be a necessary avenue to wisdom if wrestling with that conflict leads to greater understanding and subsequent action. The Apostle Paul experienced this truth in his spiritual life. He wanted to do good, but “evil is right there with me” (see Romans 7:21-23). He was conflicted about the law of sin in him to do wrong that was fighting with his delight in God’s law to do right.
A simplistic solution for him would have been to deny this tension and pretend that he didn’t battle with sin. That’s an attitude that leads to a super-spiritual and superficial faith. Or he could have just accepted and fulfilled his sinful compulsions. Instead, Paul goes on to say that it is through Jesus that he finds real freedom from the bondage of sin and death and he is then able to live life according to the Spirit. (see Romans 8:1-2).
Does God Take Political Sides?
But does this kind of spiritual discernment apply to the tortuously complex political realm as well? Reinhold Niebuhr observed that politics is the hard work of negotiating “proximate solutions to insoluble problems.” In such a complex reality can we ever get to a place of confidence that we are making the right choice of what to believe or who to vote for?
Very practically, does the Holy Spirit lead us to vote Republican or to vote Democratic or do we even believe that the Holy Spirit cares which way we vote? Are we just left to our own fallible human preferences or does God have preferences that we need to discern? In Lincoln’s second inaugural address he says of the North and the South, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other…the prayers of both could not be answered…that of neither has been answered fully.”
Lincoln’s insight helps us humbly accept that God does not take sides according to our human political desires. Rather, I believe that he selectively answers our prayers and prompts our actions according to his divine wisdom and purposes. In other words, it is crucial that we discern God’s ways for developing our convictions rather than just asking him to bless our political opinions.
As we head into this campaign season, I feel passionate about how our Christian faith must affect our country’s current political climate and choices. I don’t want to shy away from feeling conflicted. But neither do I want to remain in an immobilized state. I want to speak and act on what I discern and believe to be right. This blog is my effort to encourage others to be salt and light in a decomposing and dark political culture. Please join me in this endeavor. And if you feel conflicted along the way – you are probably on the right path!