Political Rhetoric During a Heated Season

Last week a Donald Trump rally was cancelled due to concerns about violence. Protesters against Trump clashed with supporters; people were hurt and people were arrested. This set off a partisan windstorm of opinions regarding the candidate’s responsibility for the violence. He made things a bit spicier by offering to pay the legal fees of a combatant during an earlier rally. The man says some outrageous things. Should he be censored?

Outrageous talk has a long history in our nation, starting even before our independence as some writers and artists urged violent resistance to English rule. The years surrounding our Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement, Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement were also years of heated rhetoric and, sometimes, violence in the streets. And at every turn, some favored silencing the most outrageous spokesmen. I offer no excuses for adults behaving like hooligans, but this is not the darkest day of American political dialogue. Blaming one columnist, cartoonist or candidate for the bad behavior of others is a dubious and partisan enterprise.

The bad behavior will continue, for better or for worse, but we should not be caught up in it. The candidates this time around have provoked a higher level of prophetic condemnation than is normal. Of course, Donald Trump is the center of this difference during the 2016 campaign. His nomination has sparked at least one public exchange wherein a pastor calls those who do not support Trump “fools” and was in turn called a fool by another brother. Is this Donald Trump’s fault? Speaking of loose talk, can we agree that comparing any current candidate with Hitler and Mussolini is at least as overdone as believing any candidate will “make America great again”? Comparisons with Hitler, unless you’re talking about Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or one of the Kims, are absurd. America is not 1930s Germany and will not elect a dictator even if an aspiring tyrant runs for president.

No elected official has the power to save or destroy our country. Our country’s trajectory has not been caused by or reversed by the best and worst of our presidents. The course set by 300 million citizens is far more durable than anything a leader can do. Neither am I nostalgic for the heyday of the Religious Right. That movement served a purpose, but this is a different time.

Advocating for or believing that a candidate is the best man for the job is not the same as believing that candidate will do the work exclusively assigned to the King of Kings. But let’s look at the converse of the overly optimistic belief that a president can turn things around. Can one man be responsible for our nation’s ruin? Is stopping his presidency more important than encouraging the election of another candidate? Does overblown rhetoric against such a man consist of a different moral quality than unbiblical trust in a merely human president?

If rhetoric against a candidate is morally superior to rhetoric in his support, that difference is too faint for the children of God. It’s an inappropriate fear of an individual just as surely as the support of boosters expresses an inappropriate faith.

Issues are still our meat, however. A candidate’s positions on the moral issues of the day are very important to biblical Christians (I’m officially retiring “evangelical” as a useful term). What a candidate vows to do or seems likely to do regarding the value of human life, the holiness of marriage, justice for the powerless and liberty of conscience is more important to me than anything he says about economic or foreign policy. It’s the difference between “thus saith the Lord” and “this sounds pretty smart.” We need to have that conversation without personal animus toward the candidate or his supporters. For that to happen in this election, we’ll need to slow our rhetorical roll just a bit.

And I am going to the polls next November, regardless of whether my guys are on the ballot. I’m going to vote my values to the degree they are represented or threatened by those on the ballot. In the meantime, I promise respect and generosity to those who are also struggling to sort out truth and value from the 24-hour noise news cycle. I fear and love the God who places the rulers of nations in office far more than I fear or admire the work of any political leader. This same God is, by the way, the one to whom we will all answer for what we say about one another.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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