Elections are drawing near and I’m feeling pretty bombarded by political ads. They barge into my driving time through radio spots, interrupt the few rare moments I enjoy watching the Tigers, Longhorns, or the Rangers on television, arrive unexpectedly from both parties at my email addresses, distract me through yard signs and billboards as I run, intrude into my home by phone, and fill my mailbox with cards, leaflets, and news sheets. While I’m pretty confident about my own political views, I have to confess that I’m disappointed and embarrassed by the viciousness and distortion by most the ads from both major parties. The tactics seem cheap, harmful, and empty of any attempt at honest, thorough and serious engagement with the pressing issues we face as a society. Many ads feature grainy, black-and-white photos of the opponent taken from an unflattering angle or awkward moment to contrast with the polished, wholesome, brushed color pictures of the candidate being supported. Extreme and negative hyperbole distorts the motives of opponents while offering little information to substantiate the monstrous claims. It seems the default formula for successful political ads is the negative attack against the opponent rather than the recounting of positive intentions of the candidate paying for the commercial.
Most people reading the previous paragraph probably agree with most of what I’ve written. Criticizing political ads is easy, convenient, and popular. It’s not hard to blame the politicians, the strategists, and the media. And I do think they should own a fair amount of responsibility.
But why have the ads become so vicious, negative, and distorted? Because these kinds of ads evidently work. Those of us who receive these ads are willing to avoid the hard work of learning about the tough and complex issues of our time. We are happy to nod or shake our head based on a 30-second contrived presentation rather than delve deeper, to think beyond our own self-interest to the good of the nation and world. We’re willing to be seduced and deceived by oversimplification, to be animated and motivated by animosity and accusation.
Friends, we can do better.
Paul writes, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things,” (Philippians 4:8). He was not inviting us to ignore or deny hard realities; rather, he was asking us to deal with hard realities with integrity, faithfulness, and graciousness. There’s nothing distinctly Christian about being gracious; but if we are distinctly Christian, a focus on graciousness, truth, and fairness will characterize our interests, involvements, and behaviors.
In another place, Paul highlights those values, behaviors, and attitudes that keep us captive slaves to sin and death, and those that give us life. In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, Paul writes:
“It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.
“But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”
The phrase that jumps out of me is “the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival.” May we find the spiritual strength to avoid depersonalizing everyone into a rival when we disagree with them. May we hold each other accountable to this high standard of faithfulness in our following of Christ.
It’s election season. Pray. Read. Listen. Learn. Think. Vote. Pray.
Yours in Christ,