Tuesday, October 06, 2015

What Does It Mean To Politicize an Issue? And Where Do Pastors Fit In?

The same day as the Umpqua Community College shootings, President Obama gave an impassioned speech regretting the violence and calling for more gun control. In his remarks he made an interesting statement, proactively responding to an inevitable criticism of more calls for gun control. He said that some complain that he and others would politicize this issue and remarked that of course he would politicize it - it in fact needed to be politicized.

What does it mean to politicize an issue? A simple dictionary search comes up with definitions like, "to cause an issue to become a political matter" or to "try and convince others of your political views." These are true as far as they go, but I believe there are at least two other ways of talking about this that are more comprehensive and helpful, and are intellectual and sociological consequences of politicization. To politicize an issue is to inherently change the way we talk about the meaning of the issue and the potential solutions of an issue.

So here are two ways politicization affects public discourse.

It (normally) removes discussion about the issue out of the realm of true or false.

Politicized speech is a devolution of argumentation. By in large it will take an issue that is normally quite complex with several thoughtful positions and reduce it to a handful of expressions that can be contained in sound bites, scribbled on protest signs, and printed on bumper stickers and presented in a dichotomous either-or way. Regardless of how President Obama and others talk about gun control, it just isn't that simple. It doesn't matter how quickly pundits explain the situation in Syria, or the Trans Pacific Partnership, or fracking - it is not that simple. But, in order to politicize the issue, it must be pulled out of the arena of nuance, research, and argument and turned into something simplistic. The goal of politicized speech is no longer truth-seeking or persuasion by argumentation, but poll numbers and votes. Sustained thought and back-and-forth reasoning is not possible (in the end) with politicized speech, but propaganda and peer pressure are.

It creates the illusion that the best (only?) solutions to our common problems are contained in the political and governmental arena.

To stick with my example, if you want to fix problems associated with gun ownership, the only place to go is the government. Pass another set of laws. Write another book of regulations and that ought to fix it. Expanding the examples from recent events - if you want to fix racism, pass a set of laws and ostracize certain people and expunge certain parts of history. To politicize these issues is to strongly imply that with a quick wave of the Presidential pen and enough funding, we can solve these problems.

Now, don't get ahead of me here. I believe that every public issue may have political consequences and rightfully so. Most people are all for federal background checks for the purchases of firearms. Amendments to the Constitution securing rights to vote and the end of slavery are obviously good things. But those are political solutions to certain public problems that do a large degree of good. Taken to its extreme, it becomes the belief that the best (only?) solutions we have to large common problems can be found in government. This is the act of politicizing an issue.

And government clearly does not have solutions to most of our common problems. Racism, for instance, is a hatred/heart issue with social consequences. Laws and regulations may stem the tide of those consequences, but they will never deal with the hatred/heart issue. And on and on the examples could go.

Here is where the pastor and the church come in. Without a long explication let me lay this on the table: Christian theology is the study of what is true in God's creation and in Christ. Pastors and churches teach and proclaim knowledge about the way things really are and not the way Christians want them to be in the secret corners of their hearts. God is Lord over all creation and the church is the repository of his truth. The church has solutions to our large, common problems and pastors are tasked with proclaiming those truths in wise and winsome ways.

Pastors - take your place in the public square.