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Don’t Play Political Jenga with the Midterm Elections

All of us, at some social event, have played Jenga. 

In this insufferable game, players take turns removing one wooden block at a time from a tower that started out strong. When a player takes out a block, he or she puts it on top of the tower, creating a progressively more unstable, rickety structure.

I hate this game so much, and I’m glad it’s not as popular as it once was at parties.  

But people increasingly have a Jenga-esque approach to politics.  They are taking out – through their support of dishonest, conspiracy-minded politicians – the foundational bedrocks of democracy and threatening the stability of our republic.

On this week’s Good Faith podcast, my co-host David French and I discuss what’s on the midterm ballot for Christians, using the metaphor of Jenga to drive home our points.

Specifically, we discuss:

  • How politics is like a game of Jenga (and how it’s not);
  • The “survival” mindset Christians erroneously have about the midterms;
  • How democracy images God’s character;
  • Yet, how democracy is not the “temple of God;”
  • How your security does not rest on political outcomes;
  • How Isaiah 40 can influence our Biblical view on political instability;
  • What “game” Christians are actually called to play;
  • Two criteria that might inform your political support for candidates;
  • How “truth” is on many people’s ballots this midterm;
  • The culpability of both parties on conspiracy theories surrounding voter fraud;
  • The polarizing positions of both parties;
  • The Democrats’ strategy of elevating fringe Republican candidates to the detriment of our cultural stability;
  • How a national “heart attack” is a better analogy about a lack of political integrity than “cancer;”
  • Why you should vote;
  • One indication that your cultural and spiritual priorities are out of whack;
  • How elections are a manifestation of the “walking humbly” admonition in Micah 6:8; 
  • Why elections matter; and
  • How to vote thoughtfully.

DAVID FRENCH: We’re going to be talking today about the 2022 midterms, how we’re approaching those midterms, some thoughts about Christians approaching the midterms, and what it means for the larger project of understanding how Christians should be walking through this perilous political time.

CURTIS CHANG: I have some feelings about this election and I sense others do as well. Before we just dive in, how are you feeling, David? What are the emotions running through you?

DAVID FRENCH: If I’m going to be completely honest, I’m approaching them with feelings of resignation and apathy. Which sounds a bit strange considering I think and talk about politics a lot. I know there are a lot of important things at stake, but you also have to understand that there’s this old saying that I bring up a lot: “Where you stand is based on where you sit.”

In other words, your particular life circumstances can matter a lot to how you think about the world and approach the world. I sit in a very red part of America – a part of America that has a lot of good folks in it, who are thoughtful and approaching politics in a prayerful, thoughtful way.  Also, there are a lot of really, really angry people who have seized a lot of the levers of power, especially in the GOP.

Here, there aren’t many contested races, so I know who’s going to win the State House. I know that in my district and the neighboring district, it’s all done, for lack of a better term. 

I’m left sort of on the outside looking into a lot of races.  Quite frankly, I’m just watching Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Arizona, the races that are going to decide the control of this Senate. In many of these races, there is not a person running in these races I would vote for. That has an interesting sort of effect.

 It’s kind of alienating, to be honest.

That’s kind of where I am. Curtis, what about you?

CURTIS CHANG: It’s so interesting that you as a professional political observer and analyst are struggling emotionally with these feelings of disengagement and resignation.  I even hear notes of apathy.

But, I feel exhausted. I feel like I am just tired of every two years having to gear up for some political event that may have damaging consequences nationally speaking. Similar to you, there are not a lot of  contested races here. I’m the exact obverse of you in the Bay Area.  The congressional races are pretty much decided on many fronts.

From a national perspective, I have this feeling of dread combined with exhaustion.

Why am I feeling this way? 

David, do you know the game Jenga?

DAVID FRENCH: I’ve played it.

CURTIS CHANG: Are you any good at it?

DAVID FRENCH: I don’t like to brag. You know that.

CURTIS CHANG: No, of course not.

DAVID FRENCH: I have in the past been rather dominant in Jenga.

CURTIS CHANG: Why is this an utter surprise to me? If I had said, “David, do you play Shoots and Ladders?” I’m sure you would have said, “I absolutely own my opponent in Shoots and Ladders.”

DAVID FRENCH: Elementary school champ

CURTIS CHANG: Of course.  For those listeners who aren’t familiar with Jenga, you begin with this constructed wooden structure which is a solid wooden block.  Each side takes a turn at pulling out one of these wooden blocks that progressively destabilizes the structure. The one who pulls off the last piece of wooden block that leads to the structure’s catastrophic collapse loses.

You don’t want to be that person.  You want the other person to be the one that causes the collapse of the entire structure. 

I thought of Jenga when I was trying to make sense of my own emotional approach to this election.

Every two years, the nation is forced to go through a round of Jenga. 

DAVID FRENCH: That’s a great analogy.

CURTIS CHANG:  Every election, we hold our breath and think, can we survive another round? Is this the one that’s going to actually bring everything down to an utter collapse? Or can we hang on to this fragile, rickety cultural structure?

In 2016, I thought everything would be all right. Then, Trump got elected and I thought, can we survive this? He’s the first candidate to not promise that he will abide by the results of the election. How destabilizing is that as a piece of political structure pulled out of our cultural foundation? In 2018, two years later, the Democrats gain control of the House.  I think, maybe there’s at least some balancing structure against this other destabilizing force. But the Republican Party is even more captured by Trumpian sort of forces. And in 2020, Trump is removed, and I breathe a sigh of relief, but a few months later, we have an insurrection.

Two years later, 60% of Americans have an election denier on their ballot. Sixty percent of Americans are faced with potentially voting for an election denier.

It’s so widespread that, at least some polls indicate, 70% of Republicans say they distrust the outcome if their side doesn’t win.

That is a fundamentally destabilizing state to be in.

It makes me think, are we going to survive this one? Is this going to be the election that somehow all the pieces come crumbling down.

While this is happening, both sides – I would say the Republicans are more guilty of this – the political class and leaders are acting like they’re playing Jenga. TIn some ways, they’re deliberately destabilizing things just to win, hoping the other side gets blamed for the utter collapse.  We’re all going to suffer if this thing collapses.

In case it’s not clear, I hate Jenga. I will only play under duress. Jenga makes me feel anxious.  But every two years I feel like I’m being forced to play this anxiety-ridden, tense cultural exercise where everything seems out of balance.

DAVID FRENCH: Can I tweak your Jenga analogy? Imagine it’s Jenga, but you can choose to put a block in or you can choose to pull a block out. With American politics, we’ve got a tower that, quite frankly, is strong. It’s been strong for a long time. It’s a lot stronger than people say. But every couple of years, you have a choice. Do you pull a block out or do you push a block in to make the tower stronger?

For several cycles now, we have been choosing to pull a block out.

[This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.]

HOSTS: Curtis Chang and David French

PRODUCER: Kris Carter

The Good Faith podcast comes out every Saturday on The Dispatch. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Curtis Chang is the founder of Redeeming Babel.

Photo credit: DmitryPoch of Ukraine, Kyiv found at Deposit Photos

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