Must We Have a Trash-talking Presidential Campaign?
As my wife and I were watching the Sunday news shows this week, which included clips from the campaign trail and interviews with the candidates, we realized that if our grandson were visiting, we could not let him watch this. We would have to turn off the TV or change the channel to a children’s program.
There is no way that our grandson could understand, or that we could explain, why the adults on the screen were acting the way they were and saying the things they were saying. And there is no way that we could permit him to be exposed to the vile, puerile, non-stop exchange of vitriol and name-calling that our presidential campaign has become.
I am aware of the irony here. As a clergyman, I have frequently had occasion to reflect on the dangers that our TV/video/internet culture pose to the young: Television assails our children with mindless reality shows that present self-gratification as the only goal worth pursuing. And pornography, which debases the sexual act and detaches it from love and commitment, has become a staple of our culture. What teenage boys learn from videos–and much else that is on TV and the internet–is that girls are interchangeable sexual objects. How will women ever be emancipated if they are viewed solely through the lens of their sexuality?
But in years past it had never occurred to me that the words and actions of presidential candidates would pose a threat to our children’s moral well-being. Yet indisputably they now do. The problem began, as Pastor Max Lucado has pointed out in these pages, with Donald Trump. Trump, preferring personal attack to policy and insults to thoughtful debate, poisoned the political atmosphere from the very start of the presidential race. And now his main rivals, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, after months of indecision on how to react, have finally decided that the best response is ugly mud-slinging of their own. And thus we have the dispiriting spectacle of the three leading Republican candidates for President of the United States desperately attempting to one-up each other by hurling epithets (“liar,” “clown,” “con artist”), engaging in bathroom humor (“he checked to see if he wet his pants”), and ridiculing each other’s physical appearance. The result is that they have stooped to a level of mockery and disdain that would horrify any Sunday school class at any house of worship in the country.
The United States of America deserves better. Trump’s behavior, of course, is utterly contemptible, as innumerable commentators, religious and non-religious, have pointed out. And there is also something very sad in the failure of his opponents to see that the most effective response would have been a dignified and decent one, rooted in the basic civility that is espoused by Judaism, Christianity, and all of the world’s major faiths.
Whether pastor or parent, rabbi or iman, grandparent or guardian, most of us have taught our children that we do not respond to verbal bullying with more insults and name-calling. Arguing is fine, and in fact encouraged. We want our children to carefully consider and formulate their arguments, and to deliver them with passion. An argument passionately made for fairness and justice is a blessing and a source of pride. But we also tell our children that taunts are not arguments, and that name-calling is a sign not of strength but of weakness, and one that demeans all of God’s creatures.
Proverbs 3:17 states that “her ways” – meaning the teachings of the Bible – “are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” From this we derive the principle that good manners and civility are God’s way, and that departure from this way is not simply a matter of bad manners but of bad character. With that in mind, let’s stop making excuses for all of those who, while seeking the highest office in the land, coarsen our culture and, in the process, diminish human dignity.
My daughter and her husband have worked hard to interest my grandson in politics. After all, politics are important because justice and liberty are important, and fairness and caring are important. Our grandson is a little boy, but he already knows something about the presidency, which he views with a combination of awe and respect. To be sure, politics is a tough business, and that is something he will learn with time, but even in politics there are rules we do not break and sacred principles that we do not forsake. If one of these trash-talking candidates is ultimately elected, how will he command the respect of my grandson and other children, and what kind of a role model will he be?
And please, please, do not talk to me about “strength” and “straight talk.” A politician can be a straight talker and a strong leader without turning our politics into a childish, bawdy, profane spectacle.
Is it too much to ask that the candidates–all the candidates–remember that?