Apocalyptic language is being used to describe the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Democratic candidate Biden declares himself “an ally to the Light” to end the “Season of Darkness,” while Republican President Trump says Biden will demolish America’s cherished and sacred destiny if elected. The issues facing the U.S. are tremendous. There is COVID, racial tensions, election integrity and the role of policing to discuss. And of course, as always, taxes. Yet it seems that tensions are at an all-time high. How might we understand this historical moment?
As a pastor and a dual citizen – I’m an American who has lived in Canada for 20 years – I am asked these questions continually: How would you vote? What do you see going on? Is it as bad as they say? Do you despair?
The national religion
Canadians should remember that Americans have always been idealistic. The U.S. began by throwing off an oppressive monarchy in order to be a free and just nation. Their revolutionary spirit has always been a mixture of religious impulse and the political means to achieve it. This rhetoric is rife in American politics and emerges most clearly with each election cycle. It is certainly not new. How different from the reserved demeanor of my fellow Canadians, able to shrug off scandals out of Ottawa. How different from the muted religious voice. I remember a paparazzi-like photo in a national newspaper of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper entering a church. The subtext was How dare he?! In the U.S., the President cannot get elected if he does not mention God and God’s role in making America distinct and destined. As far apart as Biden’s and Trump’s political visions are, they agree on this: America has a sacred mission to be a light to the nations. “America is the torch that enlightens the world,” says one. “To be a light to the world once again,” says the other. Can you tell me which phrase belongs to whom?
“This is the worst moment in the history of America!” a young Canadian recently said. To which I replied, “What of the Civil War? What about the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr.; the social unrest over Civil Rights and Vietnam; Watergate, and more?”
But I must agree that something is different this time around. While this revolutionary spirit is not new, and while this historical moment does have multiple crises, I do see something novel – the coronavirus. Though COVID is not the problem. Rather, the pandemic has exposed all the problems that lived underneath all along, just as it has done for many personally. It has revealed a spiritual unrest and an ideological turn in society.
The pandemic did not only expose this spiritual fragility; the pandemic itself is a metaphor for the reduced confines of the spiritual imagination. People have felt closed in upon – not so much in their homes as in life in general. Charles Taylor, the internationally respected Canadian philosopher, calls this living in “the immanent frame.” It is this sense that while one has eternity set in the heart, the world is closed off to the possibility of God existing, speaking or intervening. In short, we feel haunted existentially. Bible-sized aspirations with an increasing sense that there is nothing beyond the here-and-now. That is at the heart of many Americans.
Then the pandemic hit. This has only heightened political and news discourse to apocalyptic fervor, and I believe this leaves people vulnerable to extreme ideologies, from the Left and the Right. Many of my fellow Americans do not turn outward, toward God or his word, besides in name; they turn within to their own resilience in their “belief in the country.” As a result, people hope in a political party to bring about those biblical promises of freedom, justice and truth. Can a political party really end racism or rescue religion?
Seeing past the political saviors
This coming election won’t actually achieve restoration on earth, not even if your preferred political candidate wins. And if he loses, there won’t be an apocalypse, either, or an end to all democracy and freedom.
This fervor has flowed over into our news feeds, and the pandemic has had its impact on Canadians as well. We too feel a deeper sense of tension, just as we have felt that same closed-in-ness. What shall we say of this, particularly as Christians in Canadian and American society, in our own homes, to our own families and our friends?
My encouragement is not to put our hope in princes who cannot save. Their plans do not outlast the Maker of heaven and earth. So, instead, as we seek the welfare of society around us, let us pray for God’s kingdom come, for his will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Otherwise where have we placed our hope? Or our fears?
I have also encouraged people to take the long view of history. We see that this revolutionary unrest emerges time and again in the U.S., and that from an even longer lens, nations rise and fall and rise. It is only the kingdom that is established not by human hands that will last forever and ever. It is the one established by the slain Lamb.
In saying this, I do not believe we should abdicate our political responsibilities. That to me is burying one’s head in the sand, or worse, losing one’s self in the holy huddle. That can encourage a sanctified indifference. Rather, God has called us to be a light to the nations in the flow of history. Perhaps, as an American, I share in their zeal for biblical promises. What differentiates me is that I’ve taken on some of that good ole Canadian sensibility, to keep calm and carry the cross on.