Let’s Make Presidential Elections Civil Again


This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

The other day I was talking to a pastor who sighed and asked, “Are we really going to do this again?” After all the tumult and division of churches and families from the last two presidential elections, it’s exhausting to think another one is coming.

He asked, “Can you give me advice on how to get my people through 2024?”

And I said, “No.”

I was, of course, partly joking. But not entirely. Here’s why.

Many people assume that the election year of 2024 will be a reboot of 2020, especially since it seems we will have the same two candidates running as last time. It may feel like these sitcom reboots of late—Saved by the Bell or Roseanne or, now, Frasier. A show comes back 20 years later with the same characters, except all aged up, trying to throw out classic catchphrases the nostalgic old audience wants while trying to introduce new characters in an attempt to gain some new people. It’s a reasonable assumption to think of the 2024 elections this way—but it’s wrong.

Imagine if you had asked me this time of year in 2019 how to get through the 2020 election. I would have had no way to help you. I wouldn’t have known that a microscopic virus would kill countless people and shut down the entire world. I wouldn’t have known that the murder of George Floyd would transform the conversations and debates about racial justice. The list could go on and on.

In fact, we would not have known just one month ago that the Middle East would be plunged into war. We would have known that our political system here in the United States is messed up, but we would not have known how prescient Andy Warhol was when he said, “In the future, everyone will be speaker-designate of the US House of Representatives for 15 minutes” (or something like that).

None of us can prepare for 2024—if by “prepare” we mean to check off all the steps that can keep us from the mistakes and traumas of years past. That’s because no one knows what is out there ahead of us, waiting for us, in 2024.

Here’s what you can do, though. You can prepare yourself to step into the mystery of whatever will be 2024. What I mean is that you can start to prepare yourself to be the kind of person who can handle it, whatever it is.

Part of that has to do with reframing our own anxieties about what we can’t control. People without a Christian background who read the Gospels for the first time are almost always startled by the figure of Jesus. He just doesn’t sound like someone marketing a religion. Instead, he does things like telling his first disciples that they would be persecuted.

We would expect the founder of a market-savvy new religious movement to talk about all the benefits ahead while minimizing talk about bad things. I have little doubt that if I had been among the band of 12, I would have nudged someone at the fireside and grumbled, “Why does he have to keep bringing this stuff up? All I did was point out how cool the columns were, and he starts in on the end of the world again.”

But Jesus also said why he was talking about these dark future happenings. “I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them” (John 16:4). Jesus was targeting the sort of panic that would have come if the disciples had faced the darkness ahead without knowing anything, thinking to themselves, “Lions? Who ever said anything about lions?”

The fact that Jesus saw all of it ahead of time—and wasn’t the least bit thrown by it—is one of the means the Holy Spirit used to bolster the faith and courage of those followers.

Jesus told them just enough about their futures to keep them from trying to find false solutions to the crises to come. The gist of it was: When all these things go down, there will be somebody out there claiming to be me. It won’t be. When I get back, you’ll know it (Matt. 24:3–31). Jesus said, “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time” (Mark 13:22–23).

You don’t know what’s waiting for you in 2024—with the presidential election or a billion other things. But you can know what kind of person you will hope to be, by God’s grace, when you get there.

David and Nancy French, Curtis Chang, and I are working on a project called The After Party, a curriculum to help people work through issues of partisan polarization toward a better Christian witness. It’s not about the what of politics but about the how. As we were filming, something David said struck me, and I’ve thought about it ever since. He said, “If we could just do two things, and two things only, it would change everything.”

Those two things were: “I will not lie and I will not empower liars. I will not be cruel and I will not empower cruelty.”

Will that equip you exhaustively to “get through” a presidential election year that might be the wildest one yet? Of course not. But it can help you set a mindset ahead of time.

Well over a decade ago, when I first became president of an entity tasked with public policy questions, I said to my wife, “If you ever hear me say the words, ‘This is the most important presidential election of our lifetimes,’ here are the names of people you should call to come take the keys away.”

When we were dealing with an elderly friend who was moving into a smaller living situation—but wanted to keep all of her stuff—I said to my son, “Samuel, that will be me with my books. I want you to say, ‘Dad, here’s a message from 2021 Russell Moore: Stop being crazy and listen to Samuel.’”

Will that keep me from being an idiot when the time comes? Not necessarily. My older self might say, “Yeah, well, 2021 Russell Moore was the crazy one, not me!” And Samuel might say, “Dad, you both are crazy, because you are standing here literally arguing with yourself.”

You can know yourself well enough to predict what will be the most likely temptation for you in an election year like this one, whether it’s cruelty or apathy, panic or quarrelsomeness, and so on. And you can attend right now to the same old means of grace we’ve always had—prayer and worship and Bible reading and singing together and coming to the Table and so on.

You can’t predict a presidential election year. That means you can’t have a step-by-step game plan to “get through it.” But you can know, right now, what to ask for and what to walk toward when it comes to your own conscience, your own witness, your own love of neighbor and of enemy. And, at least for now, that’s enough.

Russell Moore is Christianity Today’s editor in chief and the director of the Public Theology Project.





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