The imagination of the world has been captured by the campaign and presidency of Barack Obama. I must confess that I was taken by his speaking ability, his seeming charismatic leadership, and his ability to organize a brilliant campaign to first gain the Democratic party’s nomination and then win the presidency of the United States. As Barack Obama was virtually unknown a few years ago, this was arguably no small feat. His message of hope, new beginnings, change, political civility, and national unity tug on the heart strings of most human beings and moved the hearts of enough Americans to elect him president.
Last fall, during a trip to Kenya for a speaking engagement, many of my Christian friends there were gripped by the Obama candidacy. Part of this was because he was a “son of Kenya,” and part of it was the lofty call of his message. Then, two weeks ago I was in Trinidad and Tobago for a speaking engagement. Most of my new found friends there were elated that Obama was the president of the United States. They spoke of a hope that only comes from a messiah!
All of this has caused me to reflect on the issue of style – persona, image, appearance, and approach, and substance – paradigms, principles, and policies. A person’s style tend to appeal to the heart while the substance tends to appeal to the mind. In a world of images (computer monitors, TV, movies, celebrities, and sports stars) image is everything. It is as if the world sees President Obama as a “superhero,” not a limited and fallible human being.
In modern politics, style will trump substance. Someone has said that Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the most beloved American president, could not be elected in the modern political environment. His look and demeanor would not have met the modern image threshold.
There is another way to look at style and that is in terms of the style of our modern political discourse. What is our approach? Are we civil (i.e. civilized), kind, and courteous or are we rude, coarse, and uncivil? Do we recognize that our political opponent is the imago Dei, and do we treat them with respect even while we may disagree with the substance of their policies? Or do we see our adversary as an “enemy” to be demonized, dehumanized or destroyed?
My mentor Francis Schaeffer used to say that you can tell what you think of another person by the way you treat them as you pass through a revolving door. Both Parliamentarian William Wilberforce in England and John Adams (the 2nd President of the United States) were seriously concerned about the lack of civility in political discourse in their day. They fought for kind and courteous civil engagement. We can disagree with someone and still treat them with respect. We may challenge their premises and policies without disdaining their motive or demonizing their person.
There are those who may function from evil motivation, and in fact may be at the threshold of personifying evil. We can think of Adolph Hitler in Germany, Joseph Stalin in the USSR, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and Idi Amin in Uganda. But we must be cautious in using a broad brush to paint our political opponents as evil. A majority of people are functioning from sincere motivation. The problem is false premises (substance) lead inevitably – either intentionally or unintentionally – to policies and programs that are malformed and destructive of mankind and creation.
-Darrow L. Miller