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We Asked a Prof

‘What do you wish Canadians knew about life in the U.S. right now?’

The irony of the question is not lost on this American author, given how much Canadians know about the United States, and how little interest Americans can show in other parts of the world, including our dear northern neighbor. Nevertheless, I can share two causes for concern and two reasons for hope among your neighbors to the south.

First, things do feel quite unsettled, and the social science about polarization backs up this sense of disconnect. Every culture, every society, needs some sort of “glue” to hold it together. What sets our two countries apart from most of the world is that our foundation for that glue was not an exclusive religion, common blood, language or soil. At least in theory. The practice has been much messier, with chapters marked by both remarkable advances and terrible injustice. Nevertheless, it has been possible in theory and practice for someone to come from anywhere in the world and become a genuine American, or Canadian. That common sense of what it means to be an American was never sacrosanct; there is no golden age, but it feels more remote and naïve today as the political battle lines are drawn between left and right, blue and red. Lost is the sense that these are arguments to be had among people of good will who disagree. This is a cause for concern. 

At the same time, the American political system was designed for moments like these, and we have been through more bitter times in the past. As the musical Hamilton reminds us, it wasn’t too far into the American political experiment that a sitting vice president shot and killed the first Treasury Secretary. Partisan feelings still run deep, as we’ve seen most recently with the battle over Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s replacement on the Supreme Court. But Justice Ginsberg’s passing also points to a different sort of possibility. Her warm friendship with the stalwart conservative Justice Antonin Scalia is proof that we can still disagree agreeably on a personal level. Moreover, we know things change on the macro level. “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” James Madison wrote in Federalist #10, and the inverse follows as well. For all the accusations of Marxism these days, we don’t need to accept an historical determinism that a downward spiral of decline is the U.S.’s immediate and inevitable fate. 

In Christ alone

And yet, as a Christian, I know the United States is temporary, and while I think it appropriate to care for and about my political home, my first loyalty is to another kingdom. To be honest, I feel a sense of mourning and loss regarding how political divisions have divided the Bride of Christ. If one wants to look for signs of discord, they are legion. People leaving churches over wearing or not wearing masks, broken fellowship between believers over prudential political choices, and at times apocalyptic rhetoric from all sides about this upcoming November. This too is a cause for concern, and lament.

But thanks be to God that hope is a theological virtue, and the object of our hope is not a political party or a Supreme Court seat or the outcome of an election. When I am tempted to despair, I am reminded of all the good things still happening through God’s people and the church, local and universal. I am heartened by the example of Jesus’ own disciples, among whom were anti-Roman zealots and tax-collecting collaborators. Their politics couldn’t be more different, but whom they belonged to mattered more than their judgments about earthly politics. Those differences still mattered, and ours do as well, but our common identity in Christ matters more, and so I have hope for the Church both south and north of the border as God guides us through this unsettling and surreal season.

  • Micah is a Professor of Political Science at Calvin University and Executive Director of Calvin’s Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics.

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