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Our Politics Is Cracking Under the Weight of a Thinning Civil Society

A little more than a week after the storming of the Capitol, five Americans have died, the House of Representatives has impeached the President for a second time, Twitter and other social platforms have permanently banned the sitting President of the United States, Amazon Web Services shut down alternative social media site Parler, and National Guard forces are being deployed, with 20,000 troops scheduled to surround the Capitol because, according to the FBI, armed groups are planning to protest the Inauguration, not only in Washington, D.C., but in all fifty states.

There are immediate causes, of course, for the chaos that unfolded last Wednesday. Over 70 million Americans are unhappy with and deeply worried about the implications of the presidential election and, no less important, the Georgia Senate runoffs. Among that number, a sizeable group believes the election was stolen, and just-as-deeply disbelieve all media personalities, investigators, elected officials of either party, or judges who say otherwise. Among that group, agitators, after making their violent intentions clear on social media, successfully incited Trump supporters to mob the Capitol.

Still, even the most-crafty agitator can only agitate a crowd that is agitate-able. One of the main headlines, not just of Wednesday but all of 2020, is just how dangerously on-edge Americans are. Only an analysis that looks beyond the rage of this day or that day, one that takes seriously the “pre-existing conditions” of our national tinderbox, will ultimately be helpful in pulling us back from the precipice.

For decades, sociologists have warned just how thin American civil society has become, replaced by a growing individualism that isolates Americans from the relationships and loyalties that once nurtured a thick social fabric. This is an unsustainable path. The collapse of the family, declining church attendance, institutions losing their integrity and our trust, and the various technological vortices keeping us from our neighbors are all catalytic factors in what’s been rightly called “deaths from despair” (increasing suicide rates, loneliness, addictions) and could be called “acts of desperation” (mass violence, rioting, and self-mutilation).

As civil society thins and as Americans become less connected to the pre-political aspects of life, the cultural weight lands on politics. To put it bluntly, our politics cannot handle the amount of weight we currently expect of it. As a result, we are experiencing two unsustainable consequences.

First, a culture that lacks the necessary resources to produce good citizens and cultivate self-control. Family, Church, community life, and volunteer groups play many roles in a society, but none of these roles more important than providing a vision of what it means to live together, advancing things like civility and the common good.

Now this point should be obvious, but the state cannot function for long without good citizens. After all, it has no resources of its own, other than power. And yet, just as the state needs a moral citizenry to keep it from abusing its power, citizens need a properly functioning state to secure rights and liberty. The state, in and of itself, is wholly inadequate to produce the citizens it needs in order to function well. That must be done elsewhere, and herein lies an essential ingredient of our current crisis.

Second, when too much weight of a culture is placed on politics, when people turn exclusively (or even primarily) to politics to define and solve their problems or secure their hope, the stakes become too high. A zero-sum, winner-take-all, win-or-die kind of politics that places too much weight on the next election, the next bill, the next scandal, the next “breaking story from Washington.” The anxiety level becomes too much for people to bear.

On the opposite extreme from those who want to remove Christians from politics are those Christians who think political levers should be used as power plays. But that’s merely Christianizing a secular methodology; it will never work. If we hope to be part of a solution and not add kindling to this explosive environment, we’ll need clear and compelling teaching on what politics is ultimately for, what it’s not for, and how it fits in the larger economy of pre-political realities and institutions.

Without a doubt, difficult days lie ahead for anyone committed to the sanctity of human life, sexual restraint, or religious freedom. In our political and pre-political efforts, then, what the world needs most, as Chuck Colson said, is for the Church to be the Church. The thinning of civil society is our nation’s greatest challenge. It is also among the Church’s greatest opportunities. 

We’ve been appointed to this time and this place (Acts 17:26), but others have gone before us, and we must learn from them. We need not re-invent the wheel. Like those whose remarkable faith is now sight, we must roll-up our sleeves and double down on loving God and neighbor, proclaiming what is true and elevating what is good, fighting for what matters but never placing our hope in horses, chariots, or elections.

Only in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who was and is and is to come.

Publication date: January 15, 2020

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/natasaadzic

John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can't find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.

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