Stepping off the Sidelines at the Presidential Debates
by Nikki Toyama-Szeto
After the kids are tucked into bed, I will fix a salty snack and settle into my favorite chair in front of the TV. On the agenda—watching the presidential debates.
Through the summer, I watched the conventions out of curiosity and for the fun of it. To be honest, I watched the political conventions in the same way I watched the Olympics, as a disinterested but patriotic bystander—mostly for entertainment value. But my posture for the debates is different. This presidential election has been unusual and confusing. And as I listen to the debates, I’ll be listening but also intentionally trying to take a step back, to wrestle. It’s been slippery trying to figure out how my faith is supposed to inform my politics.
Politics and what’s important
In a confusing election cycle, I have struggled to articulate what is important to me. In this society, the separation between church and state is fundamental to our American ideal. But I think this has meant that spiritual leaders haven’t commented on politics.
I have found myself without a lot of guidance to consider and inform my decision. In all other areas of my life, I’ve tried to let my faith and Jesus’ values inform me. And only recently did I realize that separation of church and state has trumped my desire to let my life be fully informed by my faith.
One of the things that will be at the forefront of my mind is my kids. While they are sleeping nearby, I will be listening closely to both what the candidates say and watching what they do. My kids are young enough that their lives have no nuance. Everything to them is a binary—characters are “good” or “bad.” There are no such things as flawed heroes. Who do I want to have as a role model for my kids?
How you talk about people matters
In specific, I am going to watch how the candidates talk about other people. Every time someone mentions a group of folks, in my head I’m going to insert the phrase, “who is made in God’s image.” So if a candidate says, “My policies will make sure that refugees…,” I’ll insert “refugees, who are made in the image of God.” I know I have a tendency to demonize the other—and this little exercise helps to remind me that each person is valuable in God’s eyes.
To be honest, I’m also keeping an eye out for my kids as I look for a leader because I know that our next president will set an example that will quickly find its way to the playground of our local school. It’s been surprising to me to see how quickly the tone, the words, and the generalizations about groups of people made during a campaign stop have made it to the conversations at recess, on the asphalt of our local school. My kids don’t look like all the other kids, so I’m also paying attention to the role model I’m choosing for the other kids in our neighborhood.
My assumption is that the candidates are on their best behavior now, while we are watching them, and while they are eager for our vote. My guess is that the flaws I see now will only be exaggerated (not fixed) once they occupy a powerful position in the Oval Office.
Should Christian leaders hold back?
I’m used to stepping back and taking the messages of the world into quiet consideration before God. As Christians, we’re used to stepping back and bringing before God the different things we hear others saying are true. One candidate says all is well. Another says America is broken. Both of these are helpful, but really, I am most interested in God’s perspective on all that. I’m used to seeing the world differently from others, especially when I’m looking through my lens of faith. But in this election, I find that I can’t be quite so casual—because the answers don’t seem quite so clear.
As communities of faith, let’s help each other this election season. I hope more leaders will be emboldened to share how their faith is interacting with their politics. I don’t want pastors to tell people how to vote. But for leaders to refrain from sharing is to abandon their people to the narratives of the world. And it creates a gap that political operatives are more than happy to fill about what the role of faith should be in this election cycle. Our faith should inform our choices in all areas of our life—including our politics.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto is the director of the IJM Institute for Biblical Justice. She writes, speaks, and consults with various organizations as they try to grow in areas like justice, gender/race issues, and innovative approaches. She’s the editor and author of More Than Serving Tea, a collection of essays investigating the intersection of race, gender, and spiritual for Asian American women. She also co-wrote Partnering with the Global Church, with Femi Adeleye. She edited the Urbana Onward series, a collection of resources to help people take their Urbana Missions Conference experience home with them. Her latest book is God of Justice, a 12-week study for individuals and churches eager to take a deeper dive into scriptures to learn about God’s heart for justice. This post originally appeared at Missio Alliance and is reprinted here by kind permission of the author.