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From Transactional To “Liturgical” Politics (John Senior)

The following is the third of a series of articles under a general symposium title of “Being Church in the Age of Trump,” which will appear in hard copy in January as part of the fall/winter edition of the journal @ this point: theological investigations in church and culture.  The journal, published by Columbia Theological Seminary and oriented toward laity, offers CTS faculty and others a chance to engage our wider constituencies around a particular issue/idea.  The title for this edition of @ this point will be “Reflections After the Election.”

Recent news of President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s recent deal with United Technologies, owner of the Carrier Corporation, to save fewer than 1,000 manufacturing jobs from transfer to Mexico, appears to be the first of many promised “deals” to “make America great again.”

We have certainly had presidents who have endeavored to make deals, e.g., the “Square Deal,” the “New Deal,” the “Fair Deal”, and don’t forget the contracts our politicians have made with us such as the “Contract with America”.  Trump’s deal with United Technologies suggests a new role for the president – Deal-Maker-in-Chief.

Trump will say that he’s doing exactly what he promised to do. Some will cheer him for it. But Vermont Senator and former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders isn’t impressed. Sanders argues that Trump’s “deal” amounts to nothing more than “corporate welfare” for a company that doesn’t need it.  Instead of tax incentives that pad corporate profits, Sanders argues, companies that outsource jobs should pay a “outsourcing tax” equal to the savings they garner in shipping American jobs abroad. With Sanders, I am inclined to think that “deals” like the one with Carrier are mostly smoke-in-mirror strategies that reinforce corporate earnings for owners and shareholders, while undermining the wellbeing of workers and local communities.

We shouldn’t be surprised that we elected a Deal-Maker in Chief. That identity is the inevitable result of the transactional form into which our politics has devolved. For ordinary citizens, and even for professional politicians, politics in the U.S. context reduces to the campaign, the end of which is Election Day.

Candidates make promises on a logic of exchange – you vote for me, and I will do X, Y, and Z in return. The voting booth is the site of political transaction.  It is where the deal is closed. Voting is a consumer experience. Political consumers try to get the best deal they can. Except for occasional stints on jury duty, the voting booth is where most citizens’ active engagement with political life begins and ends. The rest of the political process is consumption, too – of infotainment, punditry, demagoguery – all calculated either to garner our vote or to help us to measure how well our investment is doing.

There is a kind of idolatry about transactional politics. In a transactional mode, citizens expect that their elected officials will do the work of politics for them.  It is the politician’s job to “make America great again.” The citizen’s logic? We’ll see you next Election Day – and by then, you better have delivered.

Trump has succeeded in surfacing a trajectory in American politics long in the making, that politics is another kind of market transaction, and to succeed in politics, one simply needs to master “the art of the deal.” It’s no wonder that our president-elect sees himself as Deal-Maker-in-Chief, the One who will single-handedly defend American laborers through “great deals.”

The most consumable political materials are also the least nuanced and the most injurious – nationalist, xenophobic, racist, misogynistic demagoguery trades well in political markets. Complex descriptions of political problems and nuanced responses to them confound the simple yes/no decision one makes in the voting booth.

The transactional-consumerist model of political life makes decisions simple, to be sure. But that’s also the problem with it. Transactional systems view votes simply as zero-sum inputs that affirm one ideological position and reject others. In the meantime, the transactional conditions that invite demagoguery have left many of our fellow citizens traumatized in the wake of the 2016 election: women, immigrant communities, communities of color, religious “others.”

In the age of the Deal-Maker-in-Chief, we need a much thicker politics, one capable of crafting complex narratives about the pain and isolation many of our citizens feel, while also opening an expansive imagination of the world as it could and should be.

For example, some Trump supporters have legitimate grievances about a globalized market system that values corporate elites, shareholders, and consumers over workers. But the hard truth is that we probably can’t have Best Buy and Walmart (which we all love, if we’re being honest) and Motor City at the same time. As long we love cheap consumer goods from big box stores, in other words, industrial jobs are not coming back to America.

Now, we could have – and over the last eighteen months, could have had – a generative conversation about whether we want this kind of economy. A transactional politics, however, reduces this difficult conversation to thin narratives proffering readily consumable political memes. Complex problems related to a globalized economy become caricatures – “murderous” immigrants from Mexico and ISIS sleeper agents.

In order to dismantle transactional politics, politics must become liturgy, literally, the “work of the people.” It’s awfully easy to go home on Election Day and wait around two or four years to see if our elected officials did all of the heavy lifting for us. Of course, they inevitably disappoint. Politics as the hard work of the people means that we need to make time to create community.

Faith traditions have much to offer in framing that work.  These include priestly practices that encourage careful and hospitable listening and presence as citizens heal from wounds inflicted by demagogues as well as methods of community-building that affirm local assets of local communities and prophetic stances that hold power accountable to truth.

What does it look like to dismantle transactional politics? I think of the example of City with Dwellings, a network of winter overflow shelters that serve homeless folks in my city, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Working with a range of community leaders and faith communities – and mostly at their own initiative – Wake Forest School of Divinity students involved themselves in the development, organization, and day-to-day leadership of the shelters from the very beginnings of the organization.

Part of what attracted our students to City with Dwellings is that the organization seeks not only to offer shelter to guests who need it. It is also attempting to transform the way that citizens relate to and experience one another. Participants learn how to build intentional relationships with guests, so that the practice of hospitality is not transactional (in the sense of providing a service).  It is political in the sense of creating community.

City with Dwellings is first and foremost attempting to build a “city” that also has “dwellings,” where both terms signal a place where all live and flourish rather than simply shelter in the same vicinity. City with Dwellings is both a good example of and a vital metaphor for liturgical politics, a politics in which the people do the hard and continuous work of building political community.

I would say it’s time for liturgical leadership in politics.

John Senior, Ph.D., directs the Wake Forest School of Divinity’s Art of Ministry program, which includes its field education curriculum. His research and teaching focus on pastoral formation for ministry, field-based learning, ministry leadership in both ecclesial and public settings, and the role of theological education in preparing leaders for a wide variety of institutional contexts. Trained in Christian ethics and the sociology of religion, He is currently working on a book project on structural evil. Senior is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

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