Losing and I have a long history. My church league basketball team in high school won a total of five games—in three years. In high-school tennis, the one sport in which I found a measure of success, the highest place I ever earned in a tournament was runner-up. And that was in the losers’ bracket. In college, I finished on the second place intramural team—six times. And I happen to be a fan of Arsenal, a soccer team that figures out a more creative way to not win every year. By now, I consider myself somewhat of an expert in not-winning. Maybe this is why Donald Trump and I seem to be on different pages.
Donald Trump’s fixation with winning has reached comical levels, but deserves attention: “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning.” I’m not even sure what Trump means, to be bored with winning.
But more important, what does it mean for “winning” to be the guiding paradigm of a presidential candidate? What is being won and for whom? This theoretical “winning” is the entire platform of Trump’s campaign. In his realm, the world is there to be won or lost, and he is not going to be a loser. For Trump, politics is just another game. Another prize to brag about. Another sphere to exercise control and have his ego stroked. He’s not actually interested in the process of governing.Culture is a thing to be cultivated, not conquered.
But for others engaged in the political sphere, politics is much more serious than a game—it is the front line of a culture war. It is the high ground in the fight against everything wrong in the world. Trump’s fixation with winning, while more obsessive and abstract, is only the prevailing attitude toward politics taken to the extreme.
Seeing politics as a territory to be won or lost makes it a metaphor of competition, of battle. When asked about his vocal support for Trump’s candidacy, evangelical author and radio host Eric Metaxas explained it saying, “When you’re in a war mentality, you say ‘who is going to stand up where we need to stand up.’”
This “war mentality” of conservative Christian politics is nothing new to the 2016 election. James Dobson’s notorious 2008 “Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America” might be the pinnacle of such apocalyptic language. The fictional letter from a hypothetical U.S. Christian four years after Obama’s election ends with these lines:
The same question written in “The Star Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key in 1814 rings in the air: O say, does that star spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Now in October 2012, after seeing what has happened in the last four years, the answer to that question is “No.” Our freedoms have been systematically taken away. Many of “the brave” are in jail. We are no longer “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
This reads as a letter from behind enemy lines—much more than a presidential election had been lost in Dobson’s hypothetical 2012.
Here we are now, though, electing another president in 2016 after President Obama’s two terms, still playing the national anthem. Certainly we face serious challenges, but so goes a pluralistic society trying to govern itself. Yet this apocalyptic language still colors conservative Christian discourse. Tony Perkins of the influential Family Research Council framed his Trump support in this way: “I want him to be successful, because if he’s successful, America survives. That’s the bottom line.”
It is not only conservatives, though, who see politics as a territory to be won or lost.
The Left also operates under this model. For example, it is common these days for those on the Left to invoke the phrase “the right side of history,” positing that those in favor of their progressive policies are on it and those who aren’t, well . . . aren’t. This is its own kind of territory grab, declaring the winners and losers of history (if there even is such a thing to be determined).
With a chance to woo disenchanted conservative voters this election cycle, especially young evangelicals, the Clinton campaign has done little to open up their ranks to conservatives and moderates. Their bet is that they don’t need to entice center-right voters and are using this election to try to win battles that were previously not feasible, such as the repeal of the Hyde Amendment.
This way of imagining politics as a territory to be won or lost, as a war, has failed us as a nation and as Christians. As a nation, we have a deeply fractured political community with little space for compromise and the common good. Christians have contributed to this polarization and our communities reflect it. They are fractured in the same ways as our national community, among race, class, and political commitments. Christians’ politics tend to look the same as everyone else’s, even when we talk about different issues.
To begin to mend some of these fractures in our political community, a new guiding metaphor for politics is needed. More passionate rhetoric, different politicians, or more elaborate policy won’t effect change on a fundamental level. It is not only the function but also the form of our politics that needs reimagined.
Artist Makoto Fujimura has addressed similar fractures in culture more broadly by trying to change the guiding metaphor as well. He wants people to see culture “not as a territory to be won, but a garden to be tended.” Culture is a thing to be cultivated, not conquered. Too often, “winning” comes at the steep price of long-term health and generation.
Because our politics is deeply intertwined with our culture, Fujimura’s shift lends itself to politics as well. The image of tending a garden serves our political life much better than a metaphor of war. If we are tending our culture through our political leanings, our end goal shifts from an ambiguous task of “winning” to one of cultivation. Our political opponents become fellow gardeners to work with rather than enemies to be defeated. Our ends will no longer justify the means because we recognize the two cannot be untangled—we reap what we sow.
One does not have to look too closely to see the political wasteland we have created by thinking about politics primarily in terms of winning and losing. Christians especially should be haunted by Jesus’ question recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark—what is it to gain the world but to lose your soul? Furthermore, what good is it to dictate culture or policy exactly as we see fit if we have to abandon the fruits of the Spirit to do so? Can we truly be righteousness if we leave a trail of relational destruction behind us?
Not only have many Christians in politics “lost their soul” by compromising the Good News in various ways, but they also, in God’s mercy, have fallen woefully short of gaining the world. The long-term failure of the Religious Right, in particular, as a political movement should be a cautionary tale to future generations of Christians placing their hopes in politics and politicians.
The cultural and political moment we now find ourselves in wasn’t inevitable. What if instead of drawing battle lines and creating enemies, Christians had led the way over the past 40 years in building relationships across party lines and through coalitions around shared goals? What if instead of demonizing those who think differently, Christians had led in resisting the breakdown of civic discourse by speaking generously, or even just truthfully, of others? What if instead of looking out for their own interests, the conservative Christian political voice, dominated by white males, had repented of their complicity in injustice and led the charge to protect marginalized people such as racial, religious, and sexual minorities? What if these men had used their platform and power to amplify the diversity of Christian witness in our country to more accurately reflect the diversity of the Kingdom of God?
How might the political landscape today look different if these things had happened?
But there is no room in the metaphor of war for these practices of cultivation. To go to war means to do what has to be done in order to win; we’ll have to wait till later to count the costs.
The gardener, though, is wise enough to understand that there is no way to guarantee the harvest. In gardening, as in politics, there is no simple formula to ensure an efficient, controllable outcome. In fact, the gardener knows that to neglect the tedious, humble, daily work of cultivation is the surest way to ensure there won’t be a harvest at all.
When I spent time working in Washington, D.C. for a Christian advocacy organization, one of the issues we worked on was immigration policy. Not only were we concerned with large-scale, comprehensive immigration reform, but also the many smaller processes, protocols, and policies that affected U.S. communities and immigrants that rarely receive media attention. One of these areas that especially caught our attention was the way that undocumented immigrants are deported from our country.
In the deportation process, the well-being of immigrants is not always the primary concern. For example, it is not uncommon for immigrants to receive their money in the form of a U.S. check rather than the currency that was taken, to have their cell phones returned uncharged, to be deported to separate cities from those they were detained with, or to be deported to cities during hours when shelters are closed leaving them vulnerable to human traffickers. Such careless acts make life tremendously more difficult for an immigrant. There are many ways in which the deportation process could be made safer by simple changes in protocol for U.S. agencies responsible for deportations.
When we would meet with Republican congressional offices, the other members of my team would explain our perspective on immigration policy and why we were recommending certain policies. After this, I would then explain that even though that office might not agree with our overarching recommendations, in these small areas we could find common ground in promoting human dignity and justice in the midst of deep political disagreement.
We believed that these changes could be made if a few members of congress from each side of the aisle put pressure on the Justice Department to do so. These changes would not be ideologically motivated, politically controversial policy changes, but changes in processes that would make a significant positive difference in the lives of vulnerable people. Surely this could be championed by both Republicans and Democrats.
However, in office after office, we were told that these policy changes might be construed as support for the immigration policies of their political opposition and therefore could not be supported. Even when the offices agreed with what we were proposing, the risk of surrendering any ground in the political battle around immigration policy was too much to risk. Winning was more important than caring for the immigrants in our midst.
When we view politics as a territory to be won, a grand battle in which our fellow citizens are our enemies, this is what happens. This shift is not merely about a rhetorical difference, but affects actual policy. The common good, the protection of the vulnerable, a concern for justice, all take a back seat to political battles that reinforce fractures rather than mending them. If the guiding vision of politics is such that it manages to create division where there is common ground, how will it serve us in cases of actual disagreement?
Changing the guiding metaphor of politics is not something that can be done before Election Day. It isn’t even the project of the next four years. Because these problems have been decades in the making, so will the solutions.
Trying to make this shift will feel hopeless. People will call us naïve and think we lack conviction or courage. We will be swimming upstream in a river of cynicism, despair, and fear.
Gardening is difficult work. It requires patience, care, perseverance, and flexibility. The cultivation of a healthy and fruitful political community is no different. It is easier to fight an ideological war than it is to cultivate a flesh-and-blood community. But if we care about the long-term health of our political community, we have no other option.
Christians are uniquely suited to this political work, though. Demonstrating the fruits of the Spirit, living with hope rather than optimism or pessimism, an understanding of both the dignity of the individual and the responsibility to community—all of these things which are so desperately needed in our political culture should be the very things Christians are known for. The work ahead of us is daunting, but it’s also a massive opportunity to witness to the Good News of God’s redemptive work in the world.
This work reminds of one of Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer poems:
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Although we hope to see some of the harvest that might come with changing the way we currently think about politics, we must recognize that the harvest will be a byproduct of the planting and tending. Our metrics have to be more than short-term wins and losses. We have to understand that the destruction of our political opponent is inextricably tied to our own. Our flourishing is bound up with theirs in the tending of our common life.