A fundamentally unserious culture

The presidential and vice presidential debates might be good entertainment, but they don’t offer much depth on issues that truly matter.

By David Gushee

Months ago I agreed to a heavy travel schedule that would take me away from the television during the climax of our endless presidential campaign.

I caught glimpses of the VP debate at a diner in New York after a late speaking appearance at Trinity Grace Church in Chelsea. I read news accounts of the second presidential debate while in Oldenburg, Germany, lecturing at an academic conference there.

This week I will be in Colombia lecturing at a Baptist seminary in Cali. So I write from the road, with the election in the background rather than the foreground -- probably where it belongs.

In New York, while Joe Biden was grinning and malarkeying and Paul Ryan was gulping his water, I experienced two very different parts of the modern, urban Christian community in the United States. Both are struggling for faithfulness, relevance and clear witness.

I was happily astonished on that debate night to find a sizable, mainly 20-something Christian crowd willing to spend over two hours lingering with me over issues of Christian public witness. This was a theologically conservative group of New York professional people who gathered under the Trinity Grace banner.

There was a catacombs feel as we met in the basement of a darkened Chelsea church on a cold night. These Christians want to live for Christ -- but they understand that Christendom is dead, a fact hard to deny in Manhattan. This is minority Christianity in the post-Christian metropolis, missional rather than political (post) evangelicalism.

Friday night I was offered an alumni award 20 years after finishing my doctorate in Christian ethics at Union Seminary. They made a fuss over me and three others. It was a surprising, deeply meaningful honor.

The alums being honored were noted for their works of social justice, understood primarily as activism on behalf of inclusion and empowerment of marginalized groups. This is classic mainline Christianity, filled with passionate energy for the elevation of the oppressed and the critique of majoritarian American culture, values and practices.

After three days encountering two New York versions of Christianity -- both seeking faithful Christian witness and both on the margins – and the social and political power on display at the vice presidential debate, it was off to Oldenburg.

There mostly Dutch, German and Polish scholars worked on issues related to intergroup and international truth-telling, forgiveness and reconciliation after conflict. The primary context was clearly a Europe that has integrated institutionally, but where the intergroup strains between peoples with long historic grievance against each other remain a matter of academic, political and NGO concern.

The impressive traditions of European scholarship were on display, including learned discourses by a number of scholars working in their second or third language.

Meanwhile, I visited an undergraduate religion program at Oldenburg where 20-year-olds learn Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, church history, and religious pedagogy in preparation mainly for teaching religion in Germany’s public schools. This very impressive program puts most U.S. college and seminary efforts in sobering perspective.

Inevitably conversation turned to the presidential race. My new European friends clearly respect our power and wish all the best for us. No one over there understands how there can be any debate about the expansion of healthcare access in “Obamacare.” Some express disappointment in the president for such long-abandoned concerns as closing Guantanamo and still not giving the indefinitely detained some kind of trial.

They find our election process, including our debates, a fascinating but fantastical kind of national reality show. I sensed a wonder -- they were too polite to say it -- as to whether we are really a serious country.

They would have a point. The one piece of post-VP debate coverage that I did see the Wednesday night back in the Manhattan hotel room offered postgame analysis just like on ESPN. A huge screen broke down the time each candidate talked on each issue – in red and blue -- to clarify which team won the time-of-possession battle.

Amid a groaning economy, ecology, infrastructure, foreign policy and educational system, we treat politics like sports entertainment, talking about clock-time breakdowns, binders full of women and whether Biden looked unhinged with all that smiling.

We are a fundamentally unserious culture with fundamentally serious problems, powers and responsibilities. The gap between the two cannot last forever. Either we grow up, or we’re going down.


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