We have lived as Canadian expats in the U.S. for nearly four years now. Shortly after arriving, we realized that bringing up politics in conversation was insensitive to the pain many of our American friends were experiencing. We needed the advice of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady: stick to subjects like the weather and health. Indeed, it has been a disruptive and heart-wrenching time for our American friends and neighbo(u)rs. We have observed the highly polarized nature of U.S. politics and how it strains relationships. Many people are entrenched in their partisan sides, supporting their party while ignoring its shortcomings, vilifying the other party, and denying any legitimate points raised by the other side. The gulf between Americans has been amplified by partisan news media which present viewers with completely different narratives and alternate views of reality. When this polarization is mixed with faith and nationalism, the results lead to divisions, not only among Americans, but also within families.
Faith in the public sphere
I had much to learn as a new immigrant to America. My understanding of American culture needed to be developed far deeper than the stereotypes illustrated in movies like Canadian Bacon and in Rick Mercer’s feature on “Talking to Americans.”
Indeed, there are many things we found refreshing in America. The entrepreneurial impulse here seems to be more vibrant than in Canada. We have been astounded by the customer service in American banks and stores. Christian colleges and universities have much more respect and legitimacy in the U.S. than I observed in Canada. We observed how faith is openly expressed and even welcomed in the public square. I have attended public meetings, even in professional areas like engineering, that were opened in prayer. Business leaders and media personalities are not afraid to weave their faith into their public discourse.
But faith has mixed with politics in less helpful ways. My Calvin colleague Kristin Du Mez’s recent book Jesus and John Wayne was an eye-opening account of the influence of American evangelicalism on U.S. politics. Reading this book alongside other books, like Hillybilly Elegy and Neil Postman’s classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death, helps to paint a complex picture of historical, economic, religious and cultural forces that have contributed to the moment where Americans find themselves today.
Ideologies & idols
However, another helpful book to understand this moment is Political Visions and Illusions by my friend (and fellow CC columnist) David Koyzis. In this book, Koyzis shows how different political ideologies stem from religious worldviews. Each political party carries its own ideological assumptions about the nature of reality and visions of the common good. Political ideologies such as liberalism, conservatism, nationalism or socialism can become idols which flow out of the heart to transform societies into the image of the god they serve. In the end, our political and social woes ultimately stem from some form of idolatry.
We Canadians should not become smug at the political challenges faced by our American neighbours. It’s far easier to see a splinter in the eye of another than one in our own eyes. We must resist having the attitude of the Pharisee in Luke 18, gazing over the border thankful that we are not like other nations. We all serve a god of some sort, Canadians included, and we are just as susceptible to our own ideologies and idols.
The role of politics is just one sphere of human activity, one that ought not spill into every other sphere. Governments ought to focus on the promotion of justice, what Paul Marshall defines as giving everything “its right, its created place in God’s world.” This justice should create space for other spheres, like families, schools and businesses to develop in a way faithful to their God-given callings. May we in Canada and the United States both pray for peace, justice and good government.