Tonight we will try to watch and absorb the first Clinton-Trump debate (or perhaps you feel you just can’t bear to watch). When I was in 8th grade I joined a debate team, and there were pretty clear, reasonable rules regarding how to proceed, how rational arguments were to be presented and weighed, heard, and assessed – and oh my, how different the presidential debates (which have become utterly un-presidential…) have become.
I have a fantasy – that once in my life, during such a televised debate, one candidate will make a good point, and the opponent will say “Hmm, good point, I need to rethink my position.” Political suicide? This is what we need, and maybe even crave. For a debate shouldn’t be about crushing the opponent, or embarrassing your foe, or being more smart alecky than the other guy. A debate should be like a classroom of eager students, guided by a wise teacher, sorting through various ideas, diligently pursuing truth.
If the debates are disappointing to you, if the debates are little more than a sideshow of barbs, insults and gotchas, it may be because we ourselves do not know how to debate ideas that matter. Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote that the virtue of a democracy ought to be that we can disagree and not have to kill one another. We have forgotten how to disagree, and how even to learn and grow from the disagreement.
The idea of debate, for us, should be a sought-after opportunity to learn, not how my foe is stupid, but where I’ve missed the boat. I wonder if we were all to hone our own debating skills, our ability to listen, suggest, reiterate, and resolve, we might in a couple of decades have more intelligent presidential debates. Christopher Lasch wisely told us that “It is only by subjecting our preferences to the test of debate that we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn. Until we have to defend our opinions in public, they remain half-formed convictions based on random impressions and unexamined assumptions."
Christians, of all people, have good cause to be humble, to acknowledge we don’t have it all figured out, that we have probably thought wrongly and self-indulgently and not very broadly on issues that matter. So every opportunity to receive critique, to hear other viewpoints, to broaden our perspective, are welcomed, and even pursued zealously.
So watch the debates, if you can. Believe you and I can and will do better. Trust that an honest, humble, passionate exchange of ideas is something that would be productive within a democracy, and even pleasing to Jesus.