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Lenten Lessons for American Politics
Ash Wednesday marks the start of the forty days of Lent for many of the world’s Christian communities, a time dedicated to penance and self-reflection in preparation for the Easter celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Most non-Christians think of Lent as the time when Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays and Filet-O-Fish sales soar at McDonald’s. True of course! But there are other important aspects of this seemingly austere period of introspection that are useful for believers and non-believers alike.
The famous three pillars of Lent are prayer, almsgiving, and fasting—meaning daily reflection on one’s life and connection to God, good works for the poor and others, and self-control and denial of earthly pleasures as a means for spiritual rebirth. The basic goal during Lent is to cleanse one’s self and to focus deeply on one’s internal beliefs, daily actions, and commitment to a faithful life.
American politics is not and should not be structured around this type of ritual and reflection. It is called a faith tradition for a reason. But the three pillars of Lent could help us to build a better politics if we use a little imagination. And these lessons are not just by or for Christians—anyone might find value in these approaches from their own religious or secular humanist tradition.
Practice more self-discipline in our daily political lives. Politics is the absolute worst field for measured, contemplative, and empathetic discourse and actions. It’s all combat, all the time with the goal of trying to make others bend the knee to a particular ideology or policy agenda or rank prejudice.
Let’s all take a Lenten lesson to heart and pull back from this behavior—not just in the next forty days but as a new method for engaging with one another going forward. Don’t fire off that angry Tweet or Facebook post. Don’t call someone who thinks differently than you a fascist or a communist or a Nazi. Read people who think differently and try to understand their arguments on that person’s own terms, not your own.
Above all, give other people a chance and don’t just dismiss them for having the wrong party or ideological label or cultural politics.
Put the poor at the center of politics again. People have been fighting against poverty for millennia. Poverty doesn’t magically go away and efforts to reduce or eliminate poverty require steady action over time.
Unfortunately, much of American politics today centers on the economic needs of the richest people and the cultural predilections of professionals.
Let’s reverse this equation and make politics about the needs of the most vulnerable in America—those across racial and ethnic lines living in poverty—and develop a political approach that focuses attention on those who are struggling to survive rather than on those who spend their days trying to game the tax code or extract some goodie from government.
Make politics about the common good rather than individual greed and fulfillment. Governments exist to protect and promote the rights and opportunities of individuals, as they should by law and in practice. The founders of the country understood human nature well and the potential for self-interested behavior that could undermine collective action, and therefore designed a political system to ameliorate the effects of these selfish conflicts rather than change human nature. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.
But politics itself does not need to be so self-centered and selfish if we as citizens choose to make it otherwise. In protecting people’s rights, we can also strive to build an understanding of the common good that promotes the wellbeing of all people, not just that of our own particular group or faction.
A commitment to the common good would require American politics to focus less on self-interested outcomes and more on conditions that would benefit everyone, including: the development of our national economy; the lifting of people out of economic hardship and into the middle class; fair and equal legal treatment for all; cleaner energy production and better stewardship of our natural environment; and global policies that reduce conflicts and increase human welfare.
These three Lenten lessons for American politics are just a start.
Forty days of penance and abstinence are probably not enough to fix the vast problems in America today, or increase overall social cohesion and trust in government. But with some internal reflection on what each of us might do as citizens to improve the overall health of American democracy, perhaps we can begin creating something different in public discourse and get over the political stagnation and divisions of recent decades.