As Americans prepare to cast their votes and elect the next President of the United States, the whole world — as the saying goes — “is watching.” I am writing this from Rome mere hours before I leave to return to America in time to vote, and during this trip the first question most Romans ask — from the concierge to the cabbie — is “who will win, in America? Trump or Clinton?”
My standard answer is, “Whoever wins, we all lose!” The response gets a laugh, and makes it easy to change the subject.
The world seems fascinated, and also leery. Having spoken, while here, to people from several European nations, and a few Near Eastern ones as well, I can say that no one is expressing confidence in our candidates, or in our process. “It needs to be a wipeout,” said one young man, who meant a landslide win, “or no one will believe there has not been tricking — you know, devilry.”
Well, yes, I get his meaning. The devil is quite a trickster. He loves chaos, and the world is watching America and sensing that we are in the sort of chaotic miasma that arises when truth becomes difficult to locate.
I came across a piece I wrote about a week after the 2012 election had played out. It struck me as oddly still relevant, four years later, in five distinct ways that will matter to this election, and how we respond to its outcome:
1) The young adults:
As the president might say, “make no mistake”: We do not come back from this election, and by “we” I mean America as we have known it; not with the present culture.
It’s not coming back because half the country didn’t want it, or didn’t even recognize what it had and therefore won’t miss it, and because for young adults and the generations coming up the backbone of conservative theory — rugged individualism, privacy, minimal government — is a complete non-sequitur; it does not compute. Their parents hovered, and arranged play-dates and videotaped their every move; they went through public schools working on group projects rather than writing individual reports; they are less acquainted with an omniscient God than previous generations, and comfortable instead with the omnipresent camera and interfaces — the strange god of All Media, Interactive.
Quite unlike their parents, in other words, this is a generation less interested in their personal consciences; one tailor-made for living under authority, and with built-in limits to their liberties.
2) Materialism and triumphalism
Is it a tragic thing that what we had is gone and won’t be coming back? Well, yes, because while it lasted it was the most remarkable engine for human freedom, ingenuity, and opportunity the modern world had ever known. But along with all of the goods we manufactured and skyscrapers we erected, we cultivated immense pride — a pride that overfocused us on the material rather than the spiritual aspects of prosperity (to do for others) and freedom (to live for others) and military might (to defend ourselves and others). When we overtipped the scales and became weighed down with McMansions we neither needed (with our 2.5 children) nor could really afford, when we began to manipulate the stock market, when we began to make war with drones and shrug off human life as “collateral damage” we justified it by saying we were the greatest nation the world had ever seen; exceptional and indispensable.
3) Pride goeth before a fall — for candidates and countries
Like Moses, we let pride overcome our mission and — obsessing on greatness — refused to acknowledge any weakness. But there is always weakness; not admitting mistakes is the greatest of them. By refusing to cede error or suggest moderation, the right allowed the left to grab on to moral arguments so few were making — about greed, and selfishness, and triumphalism — and to pervert them through the filter of secular statism, until limited taxation, individual accomplishment, and strategic military defense became caricatured as great moral evils, and most other matters became relative.
And that is how the GOP lost and the Democrats won; through pride and error. Our job at this point is not to save the nation. The nation is tumbling precisely the way the philosophers said it would when it became over-reliant on government. Our job, now, is to save each other; to help spiritually strengthen each other for all that is yet to come.
4) Our interior lives need recalibrating
Earlier in the week, I had an exchange with an overwrought woman who declared herself “done with God” because she had prayed for a GOP victory and felt abandoned. It became clear that the “shining city on the hill” meant everything to her; “America is not supposed to end,” she said. When I suggested that such pride might have played a part in this defeat — that Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land because of pride, and the GOP is no Moses — she railed again. When I asked her what she could worship in the nation’s stead, she replied, “nothing.”
That sort of immature faith will not sustain us through the difficult times ahead.
5) Attitude is everything
Believers who feel defeated by this election have actually been given a great gift; they’ve been given the opportunity to divest themselves of the sin of idolatry and pride. The battle is not between parties; it is between things seen and unseen. It is between light and dark. The stuff before our eyes — all these earthly concerns, earthly governance — it plays out ultimately for the profit of our souls, not our retirement accounts. If we are professing Christians then we understand the narrative is moving forward to a certain conclusion; the pageant of salvation leads, always, to a complete divesting of everything that has come before. The only way to victory, now is to put the Gipper to rest, and play strictly for God. And God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts not our thoughts, his “shining city on a hill” like nothing in our imagining.
Playing strictly for God is all about working on our interior lives, reaching out to others, and understanding that prayer is a most subversive freedom. Whatever happens this week, I am going to spend my hours of layovers and time over the Atlantic — where prayer and fasting is never easier — preparing for it by re-reading the Acts of the Apostles.