As I write these words, Ann Romney stands at the podium admonishing the nature of love in a Republican-Mormon family. This week the Republican National Convention is taking place in Tampa, FL. Next week, in my hometown of Charlotte, NC the Democratic National Convention will meet. There will be political maneuvering behind the scenes, back-slapping and high-fives on both sides of the political aisle. 2016 is already in the sights of many ambitious politicians.
Name dropping is the vernacular. You don’t actually talk to other people at the convention, you simply look at them and say a name. They in turn say another name, you both nod and then walk away.
Seriously though, these types of events represent the pinnacle of American political idealism. The real question is, “Who can be the most optimistic about America’s future?” Which political party can paint the most vivid picture of a dream that we all want to be a part of? Promises like “not failing and not being let down” get thrown around so lightly that they are almost believable. Please don’t interpret my cynicism as opposition to a particular ideology. Rather, read my cynicism as a set-up for a deeper truth…
The staff at Renovatus has recently read Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk. In it, he writes, “It is common sense that some situations call for pessimism, but as a culture Americans have strangely decided to endow optimism with unqualified favor. Politicians today compete to be the most optimistic, and accuse their opponents of pessimism, as it if were a defect.“
If optimism is seen as an asset to a political agenda then pessimism is a liability. If joy and happiness are the obvious outcomes to voting one way, then depression and melancholy must be the outcomes of voting another. What provokes my thoughts about these political conventions are questions like, ‘How much of a liability is it to be authentic’ or ‘What would happen to my political career if I was to doubt something?’ It seems to me that building a platform around having all the right answers is flawed from the beginning.
I don’t think the speechwriters will work in the phrase ‘I’m not sure what we should do about the budget deficit.’ If a candidate approached the podium and began their speech with, “This is a crazy world, I don’t have the answers and frankly I’m a little doubtful”, that candidate would lose their platform instantly. While I’m not saying anyone should start a speech that way it will always be easier to start a political diatribe with the ‘answers’ rather than authentic questions or doubt. As valuable as optimism is to the American ideal, so is quick access to solutions for all that ails us emotionally, physically, spiritually or mentally.
Over the past few decades, a stigma in politics against emotional health treatment has extended to any display of unscripted emotion…Somehow, anything short of constant cheer has come to be perceived as a violation of the American religion. Even as we practically drown in the information about politicians’ predilections – from snack foods to underwear – a kind of supposition of infallibility keeps us from a real discussion of character, because the real things human beings actually experience are considered taboo. We all know that our presidents, as Bob Dylan sang, “sometimes must have to stand naked.” Yet anyone who dared to be nakedly emotional would face death by a thousand cuts.
I think there’s an alternative model to having all the answers often seen in politics. Let’s take a quick look at man called John the Baptist. John wasn’t running for political office. If he was running for office he wouldn’t have publicly called out the local king, Herod, for taking his brother’s wife as his own. It landed him in jail and it ultimately cost him his life.
While in prison, John heard of the miracles that Christ was doing and he sent two disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah or should we be looking for someone else?” This wouldn’t be so awkward if John himself hadn’t been the one to baptize Christ, subsequently watching the heavens open up and hearing a voice from heaven declare, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” There’s not exactly a lot of ambiguity here. It sounds like this might be the Son of God you baptized, John.
I don’t know why John doubted Christ while in prison. Maybe it was prison that did it. Regardless, when John’s disciples found Christ and asked Him that question, He didn’t get angry. He didn’t rear back and declare, “Why, that no-good, ungrateful low down, dirty…” He told the disciples to run back and tell John of all the miracles that were taking place. He then turned to the gathered crowd and he declared, “Among those born of women, there has not been one greater than John the Baptist.”
Christ didn’t chastise John or his disciples…instead, He praised John. Jesus didn’t get offended by John’s authentic doubt, he praised John as more than a prophet! It sounds like Christ is comfortable enough in Himself to encourage an authentic answer over a religious answer. It sounds like God honors authentic doubt when that doubt is fostered in an authentic search.
“It’s hard to imagine what religious tradition would be,” says scholar Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History, “if there weren’t people looking up and saying that they disagreed with what had come before.” Maybe this is why John the Baptist felt so comfortable challenging the traditions of the Pharisees and religious teachers.
While American politics and civil religion may not lend themselves to doubt or authenticity, I find it encouraging to know that Christ values my authenticity and vulnerability far above my struggle to be eternally optimistic. I would rather be in prison with John than in the throne room with Herod. Christ praised the former over the latter and eventually elected to identify with death as well. Like John, He knew what was worth dying for. Perhaps a better understanding of reality would help us to know that truth as well.
I hope I’ve encouraged your doubting and your authenticity a little. Thank you for reading this and as always, God bless you and God bless…wait, there’s a better ending to this speech. How about, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”