Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

From the Dean’s Desk

Author: 
Gregory E. Sterling

The first presidential election that I recall is 1960. I do not remember the Kennedy-Nixon debates that swung the election. Instead I remember the anti-Catholic statements made by individuals who opposed JFK. Fortunately, most Americans did not share that prejudice. It was, however, a real prejudice openly expressed.

From that moment to the present, I have not experienced another presidential campaign quite like this one. Two of the leading contenders in the primaries – one from the left and one from the right – shared a populist sentiment that voiced anger at the political establishment. One of them has been patently candid about his prejudices – a move that reminds me of statements that I heard as a young boy.

Their anti-establishment critiques could be heard echoing elsewhere this summer. I was at a conference in Oxford, England, the week of the Brexit vote. Though my Oxford colleagues predictably did not share in the populist surge, the majority of their compatriots did.

In both the US and the UK there is great frustration with the governments in charge – and fear of changes within society. Candidates or causes that have played to these sentiments have kindled a passion in their supporters that their political rivals have not.

How should we respond in such circumstances? Dwight Andrews, an alum and a good friend, recently wrote me and said that our country lacked moral leadership. He is right. We need Christians – ministers, educators, lay leaders – to provide a moral compass, a framework for thinking through the issues that confront us. It is embarrassing – it is beyond embarrassing – to see the blatant racism that exists within the US. We need – as Willie Jennings, Stanley Hauerwas, and others remind us in this Reflections issue – to imagine a different society, a society that does not privilege one race.

As Christians we need to do this for moral reasons. As Americans we need to do this for political and practical reasons. In 1960, 85 percent of the US population was white; in 2010 that percentage had dropped to 64 percent. Demographic trends suggest it will fall to 43 percent by 2060 (Paul Taylor, The Next America, Pew Research Center, April 10, 2014). We need to recognize what some corporations have: “the new us.”

It is not, however, race alone that we must address. As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out long ago, economic disparities underlay the privilege of one race over another. These disparities have grown across our society: In 1971, 25 percent of Americans lived in the lower-income bracket; in 2015, this had grown to 29 percent. The obverse is also true: in 1971, 7 percent of Americans lived in the upperincome group; in 2015, this had risen to 21 percent. The group that has diminished is obviously the middle-income group, which fell from 61 percent to 50 percent in the same time period (D’Vera Cohn and Andrea Caumont, “10 Demographic Trends that are Shaping the US and the World,” Pew Research Center, March 31, 2016). There will be no simple solutions, but there will be no solutions without a moral compass.

We must also offer a model of how to think through the issues that divide us. We will never make progress if we simply champion one candidate or one ideology over another. We must find a way to debate crucial issues candidly without polarization. Churches should be venues for such ethical debates that move us forward.

Unfortunately, we have too often politicized the debates ourselves. I attended the general conference of one major denomination this summer and saw such political polarization openly displayed. We must understand that we will have no voice in the larger world if we cannot model moral debate ourselves.

This issue of Reflections offers the perspectives of informed Christians who are trying to do just this. Some are intensely personal. Others frame the questions in broader terms. We hope that these essays and interviews will provoke readers to pick up the gauntlet and risk conversations – conversations about the complexities of issues, not debates about candidates. People can make up their own minds about candidates, but first need a moral compass to help them see through the smoke of political sloganeering in contemporary elections and their aftermath.

Issue Title: 
Spirit and Politics: Finding Our Way
Issue Year: 
2016