Politics leads to disappointment (duh)

Politics leads to disappointment (duh)

November 09, 2022

By: Pastor Nathaniel Mason

November is traditionally a time when Americans intentionally practice gratitude, so every second Wednesday for the past 10 years I have been grateful that I have woken up a little extra refreshed. Before getting into ministry, I was a political organizer. I did everything from college campus organizing, base organizing, all the way up to Regional Field Director. I promise you that this is the most physically and emotionally draining work that you can do. I’m sure you are all sick of the ads, phone calls, emails, text messages, and even door knocks. But can you imagine how draining it is for the people doing all that outreach? There would be days that I would knock on 200 doors, get fifteen people to answer, just to have three of them not yell at me to go away. There was one particular canvasing shift in ’08 when I was door knocking in Belle Fourche, SD. I ran into more stray dogs than people, and talked to more people holding idling chainsaws than not[i]. In political polling/organizing, the goal is to access a “representative sample of the population” to figure out how the people in that area feel on the subject. I would argue that I indeed found a representative sample of Belle Fourche that day. If I were on the phone bank, I would make 8,000 calls a day, get 100 people on the line, and have 94 of them say “Take me off your list,” which by the way isn’t a thing[ii]. The last weekend before the election (called Get out the Vote, or GotV) is particularly arduous. I would be lucky to get four hours of sleep a night for those last five days of the election. The pay was not great, but since you never had time to spend what you made, you felt rich until the end of the year when you have to find another job.  

The big reason I left political organizing (there are a million small ones) was the deep sense of disappointment I got following an election. In the 8 years I worked in politics, half the campaigns I participated in won. But win or lose, I always felt disappointed.  In 2008, I was a Regional Field Director for the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families. I was in charge of voter outreach for the western half of South Dakota and all the First American Reservations. South Dakota put a referendum before the voters to ban abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, life/health of the mother. The campaign I worked for sought to stop that ban from taking place. Over a decade later, the strict messaging honed over thousands of hours of outreach, stops me from saying it was a pro-choice campaign, rather “we believe that the government shouldn’t interfere with a woman and her family’s medical decisions.” Initial polling had the ban passing by a 60-40 margin. After our campaign crushed expectations, the ban failed by a 42-58 margin. For those who don’t speak political numbers, that’s a HUGE turnaround. Flipping 8-10 points is considered a wildly successful campaign. We flipped 18. That’s something I should be proud of, and I am, but following the campaign I couldn’t shake the despair that came from knowing that after we spent millions of dollars and tens of thousands of work hours, we came out exactly where we were before with nothing to prevent it from happening again. With the Dobbs decision earlier this year, it seems like that despair was justified.  

Almost everyone who pays attention to the world of politics is disappointed this week. We just had a wildly indecisive midterm election. Historically, the party out of power picks up on average 28 house seats and 4 senate seats giving them a public mandate to pursue their vision. At this point, it’s looking like the Republican Party might get half of that bump: just enough to barely retake the House, and the Senate’s fate won’t be decided until a December run off in Georgia. The Republicans gained a little, but not enough for a mandate. That’s very disappointing.  The Democrats outperformed all expectations, but not by enough to maintain control of the legislature. That’s very disappointing. To the rest of the country, it looks like the same old gridlocked power struggle we always have where nothing gets done but name calling and finger pointing. That’s very disappointing. If social change and social justice happened by voting, this would be a very disappointing world to live in, but we’re Methodists, we know better.  

Politics is more than “just politics.”

During “political season” people get amped up and tribal in a way that feels more like a college football rivalry than systemic opportunity that will affect hundreds of millions of people. There is a large amount of dehumanizing “trash talk,” demonization of the opposition, and delusional praise of your team. When the dust settles its very tempting to try and go back to normal, and paint anybody still worked up about the results as irrational or angry. It’s “just politics. Calm down.”  

We have to realize that the vast majority of people reading this will not be significantly affected by an election. My life will only get 10% better or 10% worse depending on who’s in office. That’s worth griping about, but not worth obsessing over. The fact that I will be pretty much the same no matter what means I’m privileged. That doesn’t mean I have it easy!  We have 2.5 kids[iii], with daycare costs that almost exactly match my salary as a half time LLP, no family in the state to help with childcare, and so much student debt that I might have to fudge my answers if I ever seek to be fully ordained! Life is good, but life is hard. We have to realize that 1. Not everybody is in this position and 2. Everybody SHOULD be in this position!  

Public policy has real impacts. In 2021, pandemic relief funded some very important social programs and successfully brought over nine million children out of poverty.[iv]  That’s not “just politics” that is a modern-day miracle for literally MILLIONS OF KIDS. I highly doubt those millions of kids and their parents have time to read newsletter articles from the IAUMC, they are busy working their tails off to stay above the poverty line. To some people, their access to healthcare, education, food security, and livelihood depends on who wins and who loses elections. It’s easy to get disappointed and disengage, but the ability to disengage is a privilege, and one our church does not find acceptable.  

No Holiness but Social Holiness

One of the downsides of democracy is that citizens often feel that our civic responsibilities are fulfilled on the second Tuesday of November. After we vote, we wash our hands of all responsibility until it’s time to vote again. That misses the appeal of both representative democracy and Methodism!  

John Wesley believed in doing Good. I mean ALL the Good. When Wesley was organizing his three general rules, he put doing Good above going to church! Doing Good is important to a Methodist, but Wesley goes on to clarify that doing Good is not a personal devotion. It’s not Good enough for you to be a good person, you must act to make the world a better place. It is a social movement.

Solitary religion is not to be found there. “Holy Solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection. – John Wesley

With a Discipline like that, my leap from political organizing to Methodism seemed obvious![v] There’s a fine line that we have to manage when it comes to politics and church. Churches can (but they have almost without exception never have) get in trouble for being political. As a representative democracy, being political means instructing people how to vote. As a pastor, I will never say to a member of my congregation “You should vote for Candidate John Doe!” That’s political. It is not political to advocate for a cause or an issue, especially if it comes from the values reflected in the United Methodist Social Principles. “We believe in justice for our neighbors and for all immigrants to be treated with good faith and dignity.” That’s social holiness.

In a representative democracy, social holiness is best practiced starting the second Wednesday in November and running right through the next election cycle. We elect human beings into a system made by and for human beings. They are not untouchable paragons removed from the commoners. They live and work in our communities. It is their duty to seek out and listen to constituents.  

Make them do their job! Especially if you voted for them!

The Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:2-8) comes to mind.

He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’ And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Call your legislator. Write them. Email them. Stop by and visit them. If they don’t listen, start writing letters to newspaper editors, to local news stations, on social media. Like all human beings, elected officials don’t like doing the hard stuff, so we need to motivate them. In 2010, there was a house rep[vi] that I worked very hard to help get elected. When a piece of legislation that was important to me came under consideration, I reached out to the representative. They had their staffer tell me they were not going to support the bill. So I called again. I wrote again. Then I emailed a reporter at a newspaper in my hometown telling him how unhappy I was that the representative was not supporting this bill. After an article with the headline saying “Former Supporters turn on the Representative” got published, the representative stopped by to see me at the county fair to tell me they reconsidered their position and to get a photo op with me. I had no significant job or position.  Who I am did not matter at all in this equation, and that’s the beauty of social holiness. Social Holiness requires you to be passionate and persistent, and that’s it!

Social Holiness is not partisan.  

We need members of all parties to help keep elected officials accountable to our values and policy priorities. One of the biggest dangers our democracy faces right now is an unwillingness to criticize “our side.” In the highly competitive election environment we live in, we are pressured to support “our side” unquestioningly, because criticism just helps “the other side.” I had the ability to influence that representative because they saw me as a member of “their team.” My ability to influence people outside of my party affiliation is very limited. Trust me, I’ve tried. The power of the church to make a difference in this world is that we are a collection of all God’s people, of all political persuasions, working together to establish God’s kingdom here on Earth.  All Methodists recognize God’s commandments in Matthew 25, to heal the sick, free the prisoner, feed the hungry, and cloth the naked.  I have not met a single Methodist of any political party who has said “Nah, Jesus, we won’t be doing that.”  We may have different ideas of how to achieve those goals, but those are still our goals.  

Pursue Peace 

At church this Sunday, you will see somebody who didn’t vote the way you voted.  They are no less a beloved child of God, faithful Christian, passionate United Methodist than you are. Take the time to empathize with their disappointment. Again, we will all be disappointed this Sunday. What real issues are they facing that this horse race of a political process just threw into jeopardy? Do not make their disappointment an issue of “just politics.” The constant disregard for the worries of others has led to political violence in the very recent past. We need to start being genuinely empathetic to people who are different than us. Most of all, for the sweet love of the risen Christ, DO NOT bring up the election! Instead, show them they are loved.  

In this time there are generally two types of people. Some of us feel powerless. Our hopes were just crushed by the cogs of a giant political machine that we cannot change. Before we can relax and find peace, we need to find a way to do something. We have a voice that is louder than a vote. Now is the time for us to push forward in faith like the persistent widow. Others of us need a break right now.  It has been a long exhausting political season. For our own mental health, we need to unplug from the news and rewatch all eight seasons of Scrubs (season nine doesn’t exist. It’s an abomination). That’s ok. The Spirit of the Lord will transform this world, but the Spirit doesn’t have to use you to do everything. Take a break. It’s ok to rest but say a prayer for those who need to push on. Simply acknowledging their passion can do a lot to make them feel loved. At our Charge Conference, my clergy circuit gathered, and after the business portion we all split up into ministry fields we were passionate about. There was a creation care group that was excited to see that someone else was interested in their passion! I did nothing to sign up, sponsor, or participate in what they were doing, but just knowing they weren’t alone, they weren’t crazy, made them feel hope. Ironically, social holiness can feel quite lonely sometimes, so take the time to send a message of love and support to those who are pursuing it. Even if they are elected officials.

Politics in America has rarely been a thing that inspired hope. Mostly, it causes anger, anxiety, and more than a little fear. In the past 20 years, I have done a lot of politicking, and a lot of churching, and church has been a continual source of hope and unity. I have seen spaces made for marginalized people, invitations into love and grace made between bitter rivals, and purpose given to the hopeless. We have a political system that responds to passion and persistence, and a God that fills us with the Spirit needed to make change happen.

[i] 5 people with chainsaws 3 people without.  It was a nice day after a particularly bad storm so most of them were cutting up fallen branches.  The only one that seemed particularly threatening towards me with a chainsaw was my brother-in-law, and that wasn’t politically motivated. 
[ii] Automated calls can be stopped, a live person on the other end cannot, sorry!  https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/wireless-phones-and-national-do-not-call-list
[iii] Not to undermine the point I was making, but the other .5 children is due March 1st.  My wife is 22 weeks into a high-risk pregnancy.  The politics surrounding women’s reproductive health is very real and very scary for us right now.
[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/13/business/economy/income-poverty-census-bureau.html
[v] Even more obvious when you realize that I grew up Methodist, my dad went to St. Paul’s, and I’ve always attended Methodist churches.  
[vi] I’m intentionally being vague about the elected official out of respect for them.  When getting elected to public office, you lose the right to privacy and are faced with constant criticism.  This person tried very hard, but often took positions that I passionately disagreed with, so 12 years after the fact I don’t think they deserve to be called out in a mental health newsletter.