Campaigning over the weekend, President Obama said, “The American people are with us on all the big issues.” He continued, “You know it. I know it. The polls show it.”
Yet the midterm election yesterday did not affirm President Obama’s statement. In fact, yesterday’s election is what political scientists classify as a “wave election.” The “wave” became evident early on Tuesday evening and it continued throughout election night as Republicans won key seats in the Senate. Even as some elections are still yet to be called, it is clear that the Republican Party has gained control of the United States Senate and now holds control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in eight years.
Furthermore, the pickup in the Senate was even beyond what most Republican analysts had estimated. With Senatorial elections in the states of Louisiana and Alaska still pending, the Republican Party has already picked up seven seats. This is a massive change for America’s political system. Coming in the sixth year of President Obama’s administration, this midterm election is a massive check upon his presidential power and will inevitably be seen as a political judgment upon the President’s leadership. This is due to the fact that the President of the United States is also seen as the symbolic head of his political party – in this case the Democratic Party.
Key Senate elections were won by Republicans in the states of West Virginia, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, and also in the state of North Carolina. The change of party control in the Senate will mean that the Republicans now hold key decision-making positions, especially in terms of the key committee chairmanships. Furthermore, the Senate’s very important constitutional role in the confirmation of presidential appointees will also be a major factor in the last two years of the Obama administration. In short, the next two years are going to be very politically interesting.
Claiming victory last night in his own Senatorial contest in Kentucky, Senator Mitch McConnell, who is also now the majority leader, pledged to work with President Obama in a bipartisan consensus where that is possible. Today President Obama is expected to address the nation with his response to the midterm elections. Americans are going to be watching in order to see if indeed the President of the United States and a Republican-controlled Congress can govern together on issues in which there might actually be common concern.
Yet yesterday’s election results also point to the continuing and deepening partisan divide in America. Christians watching this must understand that this partisan divide is not merely a political issue—it is a worldview issue. What divides these two parties is not primarily personalities or regionalism. Instead, what divides these two parties are their visions of political stability, morality, and even what it means to aim for human flourishing. Both parties represent competing worldviews and the most loyal members of each party recognize this reality. What separates these parties from one another are the answers they provide to such basic questions as the meaning of human life, our understanding of morality and even our understanding of marriage.
In last night’s wave election, several very strategic governorships were also on the line. Republicans won key contests in states including Florida, Iowa, Kansas, and even the state of Massachusetts—one of most deeply democratic states in the entire nation. Yet there were other very important issues faced by voters in respective states. In the state of Oregon, for example, voters supported a measure legalizing marijuana. This comes even after the Governor of Colorado warned other states that they should avoid the kind of reckless experimentation that he suggested his own state had engaged in by legalizing recreational marijuana two years ago. In Washington, D.C. voters approved an initiative legalizing recreational marijuana. Yet this vote will not affect the vast areas within the district that are controlled by the federal government. Further, since the D.C. government is ultimately under the control of Congress, Congress may also intervene in this situation. Voters in Alaska also passed a similar proposition known as Measure 2. Meanwhile, an effort to legalize so-called medical marijuana narrowly failed in the state of Florida. It gained more than 50% of the vote but that was short of the 60% that was necessary in order to affect the change.
On the issue of abortion, the states of Colorado and North Dakota turned back personhood amendments—amendments that would have criminalized any assault upon an unborn fetus. In the case of both states, this was a significant setback for the pro-life cause. But the pro-life cause won a huge victory in the state of Tennessee where voters approved Amendment 1—an amendment to that state’s constitution that would allow significant restrictions upon the availability of abortion. This is especially important since Tennessee had become a so-called ‘destination state’ for abortions in the American Mid-South.
The vote in Tennessee, however, was also was deeply revealing. The vote on Amendment 1 demonstrated a very significant moral divide, political divide, and thus a worldview divide between rural and urban voters in that state. Urban voters overwhelmingly voted against Amendment 1 and thus in favor of unrestricted abortion rights. On the other hand, voters in rural Tennessee overwhelmingly voted for Amendment 1. This simply affirms something that political scientists have known for a very long time—rural voters generally vote in a far more conservative pattern than urban or Metropolitan voters. This is in some respects due to the fact that cities tend to draw together persons with more liberal worldviews. At the same time, it also reflects the fact that cities have a liberalizing effect. Sociologists regularly indicate that persons who move from a rural to a more Metropolitan environment also shift their political opinions. This tells us that worldview is also at least partly dependent upon context.
In response to the election, Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban published a rather amazing article in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. They began that article stating, “As America completes another costly, polarized and exhausting election cycle, it’s commonplace to characterize our society as being divided into warring tribes of liberals and conservatives. But this view oversimplifies the causes of our political differences.”
Their argument continues, “Most people aren’t ideologically pure, and most don’t derive their opinions from abstract ideologies and principles. People are more strongly influenced by the effects of policies on themselves, their families and their wider social networks. Their views, in short, are often based on self-interest.”
What should Christians think about their argument? Should we accept the fact that self-interest actually guides political decisions? From a biblical perspective, Christians ought to recognize that this is indeed the case. We should expect that in a fallen world it would be nearly impossible for any of us to escape the type of moral calculus that includes our own self-interest. And as these researchers make very clear, self-interest is not limited to an individual perspective, but to our family, to our group, or to our community. Weeden and Kurzban continue:
“This point may seem obvious, but it is overlooked by many political scientists who focus on other explanations: parents and peers, schools and universities, political parties and leaders, and that abstract and nebulous catchall, ‘values.’ But the most straightforward explanation, demographics, is also the most persuasive.”
These observations should deeply interest Christians as we consider how political opinions and political decisions are formed. The authors further state, “Self-interest is not limited to economics. People who want to have sex but don’t at the moment want babies are especially likely to support policies that ensure access to birth control and abortion. Immigrants favor generous immigration policies. Lesbians and gay men are far more likely to oppose discrimination based on sexual orientation. . . . Those who do best under meritocracy — people who have a lot of education and excel on tests — are far more likely to want to reduce group-based preferences, like affirmative action.”
“A focus on self-interest helps explain why three-quarters of people who went to church as children don’t attend church in their 20s. The young people most likely to abandon the church are those engaging in the kinds of lifestyles — involving alcohol, recreational drugs, premarital sex and nonmarital cohabitation — that religious conservatives condemn.”
Weeden and Kurzban are pointing to something that every Christian leader, parent, or pastor must understand. On the one hand, we recognize that worldview determines behavior—what we believe is inevitably played out in our lives. But we must also recognize, as Weeden and Kurzban point out, that not only does our worldview determine behavior but the contrary is also true – our behavior often affects our worldview.
The illustration used by Weeden and Kurzban is very instructive. Young people who are involved in premarital sex, non-marital cohabitation, and recreational drugs develop a worldview to justify their activities. Of course, this is what all sinners do. Sinners want to justify their sin and in order to accomplish this they try to realign their worldview in order to create moral justification for their behavior. Christians need to understand that Weeden and Kurzban are onto something real here; not only does worldview determine behavior but behavior can determine worldview.
These two researchers are primarily interested in how this plays out in the political sphere. But Christians looking at the same article need to understand that something deeply biblical is being affirmed here. As the researchers very specifically point out, when young people get involved in what the Bible identifies as sinful activities, their worldview often shifts in an attempt to justify their actions—thus leaving the worldview commitments they may have inherited from their church and from their parents and adopting a new set of worldview presuppositions that are at peace with their behavior. As Weeden and Kurzban write, “Despite their early socialization, as adults start making their own decisions, their religion and politics usually align with their interests.”
The results of this midterm election will give intelligent Christians a great deal to think about. But when it comes to the larger issues at stake, the midterm election is simply one episode in a very long story, a story of political engagement that should lead Christians to continue to think ever more seriously about the issues that are really at stake.
This essay is a an edited transcript from the Wednesday, November 5 episode of the The Briefing.
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Publication date: November 6, 2014