Voter motivation is one of the big questions coming out of the primary season just completed. How are people making the decisions they have made? Everything has been turned on its head.
One of the fundamental things that I see happening is that people no longer seek to conform to some external standard, rather they seek to bend the world to suit them. When I was a young man, one looked around the world and found something to identify with. You joined a group and then were shaped by it. You never gave up your individuality, of course, but the group helped shape you. No group was more important than your faith group, for it shaped your character at the deepest levels. Not everybody went to church, even if most did, but there were other faith groups of a sort – scouts, service organizations, and the like.
Somewhere in the ensuing decades things have changed. Nowadays if I decide my identity is X and X is not something that a group approves of, but I want to be a part of the group, most would choose to force the group to accept me. Whether through social pressure or force of law, these days we expect the group to conform to us as individuals rather than the other way around. Rather than having faith be the stake in the ground around which our lives rotated, our self-defined identity has become the stake.
For the last several election cycles we have talked about which candidate the voter would most like “to have a beer with. That sort of remains true, but with identity now being paramount it goes much deeper. We now want a candidate that we can identify with. Thus if we self-identify as someone either from an oppressed group, or wanting to help the oppressed, we are going to look to a candidate that appears oppressed in some fashion. If we self identify as angry, we are going to look for the angriest candidate.
It is no longer about issues and stances on issues; it is about personal attraction and connectedness. Thus for a candidate, image, as projected through media, now matters far more than policy stands or personnel decisions. Thus outrageous pronouncements are attractive because it sounds, “just like something I would say,” even if it has no basis in functional reality. Thus when issues are discussed they are issue of identity – race, gender, gender-bending, and the like.
This phenomenon places an extraordinary burden on the politician as it hugely divorces how they run from pretty much anything having to do with day-to-day governance. The temptation to be a figurehead in the mold of the British monarchy becomes very difficult to overcome. But just because people want to identify with a candidate, it does not mean they do not expect their government to function and in the American system how well does it function without the president? Are we content to let it rest with the relatively faceless appointee and bureaucrat? Have we not at that point removed the accountability the voting booth is intended to create?
This is a massive change in how people make decisions and it has enormous ramifications for the church. Religion is all about shaping people, but if people no longer want to be shaped what is a church to do? Theologically speaking, this phenomena of identity first means that we no longer seem to have the innate sense of our own fallibility, that it to say our sinfulness, on which evangelism has relied for oh so long. Of course, identity first is really an attempt to escape the shame of our sinfulness, but who will hear that idea when their identity is front-and-center?
The individual salvation message of Evangelicalism is not very appealing to a person that does not find themselves in need of salvation – a person that believes the world should bend to them, not the other way around. No longer is evangelism about appeal, it is now a test of wills. Love is no longer about affirming someone in their pain, but about reconnecting them with that pain.
This is not an easy thing to do and like the politician, it brings with it so many temptations that can defeat us. I pray for the wisdom to see a way through this and the humility not to blow it.