The Politics of Spin and Culture War Fatigue

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In the eighteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, we see a clash between two governors: Pontius Pilate, the governor of Rome, and Jesus Christ, the governor of the universe (John 18:28-40).

Jesus has been brought to Pilate by an angry mob. The mob has charged Jesus with being an enemy of the state and a threat to Caesar’s preeminence. Pilate, wanting to hear the account directly from Jesus, has him arrested and asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.”

Not sensing Jesus to be a threat, Pilate says dismissively to the crowd, “I find no guilt in him.” But then he makes a concession according to Jewish custom to release one man for them at the Passover. The crowd pressures Pilate to release Barabbas, a known murderer and insurrectionist, and to crucify Jesus in Barabbas’ place. Wanting to please the crowds, Pilate accommodates. Jesus, the innocent man, gets the death penalty. Barabbas, the guilty man, goes free. Modern politics can also work this way.

The goal of politics is to get people to support a particular vision for the world and to conduct their lives according to that vision. In pursuit of this goal, we often use the same strategies that Jesus’ accusers and Pilate employed: misuse of power and manipulation of truth.

THE MISUSE OF POWER

The world’s politics rely heavily on power, including the power to dominate. Pilate finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place. He believes that Jesus is innocent. He also knows that Barabbas is guilty. Yet the calculating governor is desperate to please the crowds. As he considers the accusations against Jesus, he goes back and forth between his private chamber and then back out to the crowds. Though he knows who is innocent and who is not, he can’t decide who to crucify and who to set free.

What is happening here? We can assume that Pilate is taking the temperature of the crowd. He is assessing potential outcomes, discerning which course of action will be best for his own approval rating as well as the preservation of his own stature. His conscience makes him reluctant to crucify Jesus, yet he wants the favor of the crowd. But in worldly politics, when conscience and the crowd are at odds with one another, the crowd always wins. When the crowd always wins, bad people can go free and good people suffer.

I love the animated movie Shrek for many reasons. There is so much about the human experience that the film gets right. One such example is the pitiful little king of the land, Lord Farquaad.

Farquaad is a single man. The one thing he feels is missing from his kingdom is the lovely princess Fiona, who has long been locked up in a castle far away, guarded by a deadly, fire-breathing dragon. There have been many failed attempts to rescue Fiona; many would-be rescuers have lost their lives.

Farquaad gathers his bravest knights together for a competition. The knights are placed inside an arena to duel against each other until only one of them is left standing. The prevailing knight will have the “honor” of going out on Lord Farquaad’s behalf to rescue Fiona. Farquaad, himself a coward, offers the following “inspirational” speech to the knights before they turn against each other in the arena:

Brave knights, you are the best and brightest in all the land. Today one of you shall prove himself. That champion shall have the honor—no, no—the privilege to go forth and rescue the lovely Princess Fiona from the fiery keep of the dragon. If for any reason the winner is unsuccessful, the first runner-up will take his place and so on and so forth. Some of you will die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.

The world’s politics. Your hopes, desires, ambitions, good name—and, if necessary, your life—are worth sacrificing in order to protect and advance my agenda. And I will use my power, the authority of my office, to ensure that this happens. Some of you will die. But it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make. Collateral damage in which other humans experience suffering so my tribe does not, is an unfortunate but acceptable reality. In the meantime, good luck convincing me to openly admit that there is any collateral damage to my political views.

We’ll never say it. But far too many of us believe it:

The ends justify the means.

MANIPULATION OF THE TRUTH

The world’s politics are also laced with manipulation of the truth, also known as “spin.” We see this in the exchange between Pilate and the accusing crowds. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews, Pilate is not interested in spiritual matters. He wants the answer to one question: Is this man a threat to power? Is he an enemy of Caesar, and therefore also my enemy? What is the size of his following? What is his agenda? What kind of momentum is there behind his movement?

Pilate would not be asking any of these questions about Jesus had the crowds not spun Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God to mean that Jesus was an enemy of the state. In reality this is a silly and baseless accusation, because Christ’s teaching directs his followers to honor those in authority in every way possible. This being true, to the degree that Christians follow the teachings of Jesus, they will actually be experienced as the most refreshing and cooperative citizens of any earthly kingdom.

This was of no concern to Jesus’ accusers, because his growing influence threatened the status quo for them as well. In order to keep Jesus at bay, they created a false narrative about him and went public with it. Eventually it got him killed.

How about us? Are we also prone to exaggerate, spin, and tell half-truths to protect (or usurp) the status quo? How easy it can be to get pulled in to the politics of spin. Some of us have become so used to these tactics and so numb to them that we—yes, even we who claim to be people of truth—have become willing participants in the spin.

On this side of the aisle is our candidate, the answer to all of the world’s problems. She can do no wrong. On that side of the aisle is their candidate, the reason for all of the world’s problems. He can do no right.

Are such partisan caricatures and political absolutes a Christian practice, or are they decidedly un-Christian? What do you think?

Leaning toward a certain party is one thing (Matthew did it, Simon did it, and Jesus allowed it), but it is important to see that a partisan spirit can actually run against the Spirit of God. If there ever was a partisan crowd in the Bible, it was the crowd that pressured Pilate to crucify Jesus instead of Barabbas.

Barabbas, a true criminal, went free while Jesus, an innocent man, was executed after having his impeccable character assassinated. This is the essence of partisanship. Partisans inflate the best features of their party while inflating the worst features, real or contrived, of the other party. They ignore, deny, or excuse the weaknesses of their party while dismissing the other party’s strengths.

I have good friends on both sides of the aisle politically. I trust them. Many of them (on both sides) have a strong commitment to their faith. Because of this I grow perplexed when Christian men and women willingly participate in spin—ready, willing, and armed to follow the world in telling half-truths to promote their candidates, while telling more half-truths to demonize their opponents. Have we forgotten that a half-truth is the equivalent of a full lie? What’s more, political spin is polarizing even within the community of faith.

GENERAL, GENERATIONAL SHIFTING

As a pastor I have been struck by what appears to be a strong reaction amongst the Millennial generation toward the faith of their Baby Boomer parents. Some surveys suggest that Millennials are either leaving the church or adopting an altogether different expression of Christianity than the one in which they were raised.

In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, reporter Brian Hiatt asked Marcus Mumford whether he still considers himself a Christian. Mumford, a pastor’s son and a famous Millennial (Mumford is lead singer of the band Mumford & Sons) had this to say:

I don’t really like [the word Christian]. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. . . . I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.

When those who feel a need to distance themselves from Christianity are asked why, Mumford and other Millennials cite several reasons. At the top of the list is weariness over the association of right-wing politics with mainstream Christianity. The “culture of Christianity” that Mumford and others want no part of tends to trace directly back to this association. In the realm of politics, Millennials have culture-war fatigue.

With this has come a pendulum swing. Wearied by their parents’ conflation of right-leaning politics with their faith, many Millennials have shifted toward the political left with a similar conflation.

There are some positives that come from a generational shift. Alongside their parents’ emphasis on kingdom values like protecting the unborn, strengthening the nuclear family, and preserving the right to free speech, younger believers are bringing renewed emphasis to kingdom values such as serving the poor, advocating for people on the margins, ethnic and cultural diversity, and other forms of mercy and justice.

What one wonders, however, is how a generational shift to the political left that conflates faith with politics might play out in the long run. Do Millennials risk repeating their parents’ errors, the only difference being a co-opting of blue-state sensibilities into faith instead of red-state ones? Will their children sense an imbalance in them as well?

We can only assume that time will tell.


Struggling in today’s polarized climate? Scott’s latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them is now available for individuals, discussion groups, and churches.


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14 responses to “The Politics of Spin and Culture War Fatigue”

  1. […] Shrek, Marcus Mumford, Pilate, and the Politics of Spin September 10, 2015 […]

  2. Greg says:

    If i were a betting man, i would place my chips about the reason millennials are leaving the church is them desiring and choosing an immoral lifestyle which they camouflage under an excuse of political hypocrisy they might see in their parents or in brands of politics they experienced. For this I refuse to take any cues from the likes of opinions out from this group as remedies for ministering to them. Instead the gospel of God is our power unto salvation.

    Our great enemy satan is attempting to conceal the power of the gospel that is a gift that saves us from God’s wrath that makes much of Him primarily by obeying Him in holy living w a form of social gospel that really disguises our sin and our greatest need and which ultimately makes much of man.

    As i humbled myself before Jesus in repentance away from sin for forgiveness and restoration into abundant relationship w Him, my heart truly aches for those who are down and out or mistreated. And as i humbled myself and understood Christs restoration power in my life, understand that the weak, downtrodden AND proud and powerful alike have only one eternal hope where they equally must repent of sin in their lives and receive transformative grace from our Living God who created us and who is a loving God but jealous God who has no contenders for His glory.

    Yes, I see the spin in our world today. We can tie ourselves in knots trying to determine how to remedy the spin zone in our human rational. I believe the church needs to spin itself out of this all together to focus on promoting and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. One might say, “Ahh, thats boring. I need a new avenue to cruise down.” I would say in reply,”Well then, I would encourage serious thought about the incredulous historical implications about the very God who spoke the universe into existence, in His love choosing to humble Himself in the form of a servant as a Man in order to save us from His wrath that we all deserve.” God spoke matter into existence from nothing and controls the essence of everything made a pathway for reconciling us silly, frail sheep back to Himself. Let us not gloss over that last statement. Selah. Think on it. Let it sink deep. And if you are like me, you will see that this is front page news that we have the privilege to proclaim to all mankind that is the power to stop the spin!

  3. […] The Politics of Spin and Culture War Fatigue | Scott Sauls — Read on scottsauls.com/blog/2020/09/24/politics-of-spin/ […]

  4. Janet says:

    I was surprised to read your correlation at the end of your article regarding left politics and millennials engaging in Kingdom like works of serving the poor, advocating, etc.
    I find myself doing such works and believing in trying to grow God’s Kingdom on Earth. I believe in my responsibility to vote and choose a person and therefore their party to vote for. This is more often a more left of centre or closer to centre party. I hope others will do the same. Discussion with millennials find that the way the church has messed up and it’s members acting hypocritically cause more of their shift away from religion. How can Christians argue against that? I expect there are others with different reasoning. It will be interesting to watch future generations.

    • scottsauls says:

      Hello, Janet. Thank you for commenting. The correlation between millennials departing the church and their parents’ conflation with Christianity and partisanism is not a statement made from personal feeling, but from data. You can see for yourself by examining what Barna has said about surveys they’ve done re: Millennials who have left the faith of their parents.

  5. Gail says:

    Yes only Jesus, nothing more nothing less is the answer. Because politics is so incredibly polarizing, I Feel the role of the church is not to encourage us to be left or right, but to be like Jesus – to be his hands and feet – in this hungry and desperate world.

  6. Betsy Taylor says:

    I am not a millennial (I’m 58) but my thoughts are that my parents (still alive) are so entrenched in the idea that Republican = Christian that they veer wildly into the area of only believing the rhetoric of the Right and assuming everyone they disagree with is lying. It is illogical for an intelligent human being to believe that only one side is telling the truth and that makes me crazy. I do think that the values of social justice such as serving the poor and advocating for social justice are more demonstrative ways of showing Christ’s love than the vague idea of “strengthening the nuclear family” and protecting the rights of the unborn and I say that because in an upper middle class predominately white congregation such as CPC, a lot of those people value their money over everything and are hiding behind “Right to Life” and “anti gay marriage” agendas to cover that up. Meanwhile they are doing little or nothing to promote said values and likewise doing nothing on the social justice side as well.
    I have often thought that Satan has a heyday over the Anti-Gay movement and the Right to Life movement because Christians can sit at home and talk about how they support those things and just cast a ballot and then feel justified doing nothing to promote the Kingdom such as ministering to the poor or even working in a proactive way with the very groups they say they support. That is what I see and why I think younger people are turning from the culture of Christianity. It looks hypocritical to be promoting Christ while ignoring so many aspects of what He calls us to do. We like to focus on the fact that we are going to church and worshipping in fellowship with other believers and taking communion, but what are we actually DOING? Voting so that we don’t have to pay higher taxes and keep owning our beach house on 30A? I don’t have an answer that’s for sure, but because culture has shifted so radically in the last decades and our children grow up in this new culture, we have to find ways to engage and show Christ’s love in the culture we live in now. Not just saying that people want to continue their immoral ways… of course they do! We all do – that’s the problem isn’t it?

    • scottsauls says:

      Betsy, as Patrick has observed, it appears that you have a very inaccurate understanding of CPC. While we are by no means a perfect church (I am its pastor, after all!), we are politically diverse, have LOTS of young adults in our community who have NOT left the faith because of their parents, and we give over 40% of every dollar to outside causes, especially in areas of mercy and justice including (but not limited to) disaster relief, refugee and immigrant care, anti-sex trafficking and prostitution recovery efforts, prison care and reform, crisis pregnancy, addiction recovery, mental illness care and treatment, job training for those who lack opportunity, healthcare for those who lack it, people with disabilities and special needs, and the poor and suffering in our midst. It is always wise to do one’s homework before making blanket (and false) accusations which seem based more on your feelings and impressions than on fact. Hopefully, you will consider this when tempted to make such statements in the future. We are also about to plant a cross-cultural church in a global pandemic. This is all from memory alone…there is more, but I’ll just leave you with these examples to consider.

  7. Gayle Wilson says:

    I agree with Gail. We should be the light of Christ – His hands and His feet today more than ever. Not a program, but like Jesus, going about doing good for those who have spiritual, physical, and mental health needs.

  8. Patrick McClarty says:

    Funny when people like Betsy and others talk about Christian conservatives, say they are pro-life, anti-gay, care only about their money, don’t care about social issues. Yes on pro-life. No on anti-gay, not against one gay person, do believe the lifestyle is sin. No on only care only about their money, many have worked hard to have some money, nice home, etc., but are the most giving of all. No one gives more to needed causes than Christian conservatives. Where I live I can name off the top of my head 10 ministries I support, all ministries that serve the least, almost 100% funded by Christian conservatives. Betsy commented CPC folks care about money more than anything. I would ask her to take a look at the ministries CPC is involved in, venture to say very few churches do more for the least than CPC. Also, most folks at CPC and other churches not only give monies, but also their time to these ministries. What I have found through experience is that most young people who have left the church due to what they think older people got wrong, do little, but talk a lot. Their real reason for leaving, they don’t want to live as Christ called us.

  9. Gayle Wilson says:

    I am commenting again to say that we must remember that surveys, like polls, are not the end of the story. Today as I joined my Zoom Bible study group, there was a young (millennial) woman that was new to our group. Our group moderator introduced her and we all welcomed her to the group. I need to clarify that the other eight in our group are 60+. During our discussion of the lesson, this young woman had the greatest insights and observations that were not what I will say is “standard” thoughts in regard to the scriptures we were studying. It did not take long for me to zone in on how the group was reacting to her thoughtful comments. There were nods, looks of contemplation, and comments affirming her depth of insight. At the end of the study, I held my tongue to see if anyone would make any comment on her comments during the study. One of the ladies addressed the young woman and said that she had brought a “refreshing newness” to the scriptures. I immediately agreed as did several other ladies. Another lady thanked her for being willing to join the dialogue since she was new to our group. All whole heartedly agreed. I also need to disclose that this young woman’s hair was dyed purple and green, and she commented that she was an artist, because she could see my art studio behind me on the Zoom screen and commented that she hoped to set up a studio in her new space. I left this study feeling hopeful for our younger generation because of young women like her.

  10. Gail says:

    Gayle, Now that’s a Bible study I would enjoy participating in; right up my alley! I will say that Christ Presbyterian Church models a church that does it right. I tune in to their church Sunday services as part of my worship. Scott Sauls’ first book that I read, Jesus Outside the Lines (my best Christmas present ever given to me by my 19-year-old daughter), and most recently, A Gentle Answer, helped me to understand that being like Jesus and studying him in scripture provides the best insight of all for navigating in this polarized world.

  11. Betsy Taylor says:

    HI Scott,
    I’m sorry – I apologize, I did not mean that as a criticism of CPC – merely to make an observation about the actual fact that a large majority of the congregation are white, upper middle class people. That’s true of Covenant Pres, West End Community etc.. It is not by any means negative – I’m white upper middle class 🙂 I am 100% sure the Church is doing their part and I support that. Perhaps my point wasn’t articulate… my personal experience with many of my fellow Church members is that they claim their affiliation with the Republican party because of it’s family values and what they feel are core Christian beliefs, but in reality, it is to protect their money. That is all I meant. I was referring to people not the Church. We are all sinners apart from the Grace of God – period.
    My annoyance is when someone tells me they vote Republican because it’s the Christian party and upholds their Christian values about right to life or gay marriage, when I am pretty sure that said person could actually care less about those things but instead wants to protect their bank account. As you are the pastor of CPC and you wrote the blog, I mentioned the congregation being predominantly one way, but the rest of the criticism was in no way directed at your Church but just what I see as the values of many of the values of the “white upper middle class (and that includes me). I did not intend it as a personal attack. I have really struggled with these issues personally and I would have loved a more welcoming dialogue.

  12. Betsy Taylor says:

    Please notice that I used the word “we” to make my point. “We” includes ME!! I am among the very people I question. I am a believer… I think we should always hold ourselves to the most rigorous of standards and that includes questioning why we are truly voting for who we are voting for and questioning what we are doing personally and what we are doing as a Church. I in no way hold you or your Church to a standard any other than I hold myself – less so in fact, because what is in our hearts and minds is between us and God and that is what I am responsible for. Not what is in your heart and mind – that’s between you and God. I would have just emailed you instead of writing a reply (twice!) but I didn’t see your email address on your CPC website.
    When we don’t communicate in person so many things are misconstrued, so I reiterate that I am very sorry if you think I was criticising your specific Church. I was calling into question for myself and for all Christians – are we 100% honest when we pull that lever in November. I will refrain from replying again, but I really wanted to clear this up as I felt a bit misunderstood.

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