A “turn out the base” church?

For all the billions of dollars and all of the negative TV advertisements that dominated the conduct of the recent American election, it’s not clear that any of it made much difference. TV advertisements are supposed to change people’s minds. But it’s becoming clear that the election just past was not about changing people’s minds: it was about getting people who already agree with you to vote.

That, at least, seems to be the most common explanation for Obama’s victory. His campaign “micro-targeted” people they thought would be sympathetic to them, worked aggressively to ensure they were registered, and then watched as the votes rolled in.

For anyone who has ever been part of an organization in the midst of disagreement and argument, this is a seductive prospect: I don’t need to win this argument because people already really agree with me; I just need to get them to stand up and be counted. The focus shifts from changing people’s minds to drumming up support among those who already agree. Changing minds and winning the argument is challenging work. Believing that everyone already agrees with you and all you have to do is turn them out is not.

The results of this line of thinking are clear for all to see: for instance, the half-serious calls for some states in the U.S. to secede. To which some Obama voters have responded, “Go ahead!” There is little thought that perhaps this is an opportunity here to engage in conversation, change minds, and move forward together.

What’s worrisome is when this same dynamic creeps into the church. People on all sides of theological arguments appear to believe that engaging in conversation with folks on other sides of the argument isn’t really necessary anymore. Instead, we focus on creating churches full of people who already agree with us and who can be reliably counted on to support us in our side of the argument.

The thing is, when we do this, we’re not really being the church. Just this evening at evening prayer, the New Testament reading (in the Church of England Common Worship lectionary) was from Matthew 5: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (vv. 23-24) That is, find the person you disagree with and work on reconciliation.

The church is the community of the baptized. The trouble is, there are no political prerequisites for baptism. (Grace doesn’t work well with prerequisites.) That means that by its very nature belonging to the church is going to bring us into contact with people who are different than us and whom we need to engage in conversation because we believe that we have something to learn from them and that our individual knowledge of God is insufficient.

I am sure that political strategists are already at work building a computer program that is even better than the Obama campaign’s was and that future elections will revolve more and more around turning out the base and less and less around engaging in conversation about the future.

I just hope the church doesn’t end up like that too.

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