Politics by Candlelight: Contemplating Political Catharsis and Illumination

by Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis

candlelight

“Democracy is coming to the USA.” (Leonard Cohen)

Americans don’t like talking openly about politics across party lines; they prefer to talk in their own silos and not to each other. American Christians – at least, this is my experience among Orthodox Christians in America – would almost identify political argumentation as somehow betraying the Christian Gospel; I’m not so sure, however, that this is based so much on Gospel principle as on some misconception of the right to privacy.

Critics, then, may be politically or religiously ostracized – sometimes both. So at risk of stepping into the unknown territory of political purgatory, as a dual citizen of America and Australia, as a layman as well as a theologian, let me briefly consider the topics of money in politics, immigration as inclusion, and climate change in light of the recent presidential election.

Pay-to-play?

On the day that Donald Trump announced he would run for our highest political position, a senior prelate of the Orthodox church in this country confessed to me this proved that money could justify anything in America, even the presidency. If you acquired enough funds or were perceived to have enough wealth – whether you ran enough commercials or were given a free ride by the press – you could run for office, any office.

I have always been surprised that so few people in America seem concerned about the influence of the affluent. Of course, voters on both sides castigated the role of money in politics, whether castigating the abuse of financial donations to the Clinton Initiative or challenging the immorality of contractual transactions in the Trump initiatives.

The truth is that both of the leading candidates could never consider political nomination if not backed by billions of dollars either in fundraising or investment. That’s billions with a “b.” Has anyone stopped long enough to conceive this travesty and tragedy? Is plutocracy democracy at all?

Whether the Trump movement results in any social change or economic justice remains to be seen. The struggles for power and profit have consistently and unapologetically proved decisive in American politics. I don’t think we have even begun to witness the level of protests by the American public. And I don’t think we have even begun to ponder ways of bridging the gap between rich and poor.

Ultimately, whether this was going to be a Trump or a Clinton presidency, it would unfortunately be and undoubtedly remain pay-to-play politics. Part of the reason for this is that American society thrives on such politics. It is why no one so much as blinks an eye – or, worse, people sweepingly condemn alternative programs elsewhere as “socialist” – when I ask how there can be a price for health or education or even religion. Is there anything ultimately not for sale?

Exclusion or inclusion?

On the day that Donald Trump became president-elect, I reaffirmed my resolve never to question the ideal of democracy. But I could question the reduction of democracy to demagoguery.

No one is any longer surprised that political campaigns offer promises or proffer empty words as policies. Politics has become synonymous with rhetorical, even fictional pledges that merely serve as campaign slogans to garner support of voters, who in turn are dissatisfied with broken commitments or proven lies of previous leaders. President Bush promised to stop “nation-building missions” in 2000; and President Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay in 2008; and President-elect Trump ran on a “lock her up” platform for Secretary Clinton’s emails.

So what did it ultimately matter whether Secretary Clinton promised transparency in her financial transactions or Donald Trump refused transparency in his taxation returns? In the end, beyond their pockets, people voted with their preconceptions; and beyond their minds and hearts, they voted with their guts. At some point, people were bound to realize that they’ve been duped for decades on a bipartisan level, that government never really cared about white-collar wages or blue-collar jobs being shipped overseas.

If politicians can take advantage of constituents, and if citizens can grow in resentment toward minorities, those who still believe in the ideal of democracy can never permit or tolerate contempt or exclusion – much less so, discrimination and animosity toward any social segment in this kaleidoscope we call the United States of America.

If equality and dignity comprise the sinews of our democracy, the quintessence of our constitution, then we must aspire to the values that “make America great.” There can be no bigotry or classism, no misogyny or chauvinism, whether racial or religious. Indeed, if pollsters are to be believed (itself today questionable), then most supporters of Donald Trump are also Christians, which means that not only should they – with all of America – resist any mass deportation (why, I wonder, haven’t they already done this under President Obama?), but they should welcome more immigrants and refugees than those pledged by the Obama administration. That surely is our moral duty both as Americans and as Christians.

Bullying the planet?

If both major parties were not exempt from pay-to-play politics, and if both major players were not averse to demagoguery, then some argued that Clinton trumped Trump’s political qualifications and insider experience, while others countered that this is precisely what won or lost the election. Of course, Donald Trump is not something new to the American public. But he is something new to American politics. In the absence of meritocracy, people resort to insisting on “greatness.” Donald Trump knows better than the generals, imagines bigger than the economists, and understands more than the scientists.

I am not just talking here about immigration, taxation, and healthcare. The president-elect, who has decided climate change a hoax, has already declared America’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, reassessed tenders for the Keystone pipeline, and promised to bring back coal. How depressing and disastrous it would be for the entire planet to be at the mercy of political or corporate bullies seeking to violate its limited resources or, worse, justifying their rapacity on biblical premises. In this kind of world, scientific information and theological articulation only cement ignorance.

Isn’t it the fundamental role of religion – especially Christianity – to maintain the spiritual connection between heaven and earth, to emphasize the beauty of God’s creation? Isn’t it the moral obligation of religious people – especially Christians – to underline the civil and corporate mandate “to serve and preserve” (Gen. 2.15) the planet and its resources? Why is it that adherents of the only religion that affirms the sacredness of flesh and matter enjoy the worst record when it comes to abusing the natural environment?

We have one earth, which we are called and obliged to sustain and share. And quite frankly, creation doesn’t seem to care who is in the White House or whether a specific party denies climate change. What we should digest is the integral connection between human rights, religious freedom, and creation care. If we have witnessed a “movement” against political complacency, then this must be more (not less) humane, more (not less) inclusive, and more (not less) compassionate. Otherwise, there has really been no change. Otherwise, there may only be a turn for the worse. Otherwise, it won’t be that great!

Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis serves the Office of Inter-Orthodox and Ecumenical Affairs of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.