Politically Disengaged, Socially Conscious

© 2014 Robert Osburn

The headwinds of political disengagement are buffeting Christian young adults. There is overall cynicism about the political enterprise, in the wake of feeling like much has been promised and little has been delivered. A general lack of trust in institutions including government is widespread. A preference for “really doing something” by providing tangible help to fix immediate and proximate needs is clear. And the illusion of the compelling witness of libertarian peers, who promote a supposed live and let live political philosophy that seems so much less controversial and complicated, is rampant.

These words, recently penned by the CEO of the Center for Public Justice, Stephanie Summers, are an almost perfect snapshot of the American college students I teach at the University of Minnesota.  There’s something beautiful about their earnest desire for tangible, practical solutions to human problems, and yet behind it all lurks a tragic suspicion about our institutions, especially our political institutions.

Besides the reasons offered by Summers, there are at least four more.  There is the general effect of postmodern discourse, that way of talking and writing about reality that is laced with jaded caution and suspicion that someone, especially those who lead institutions, are out to rob you of power while proclaiming their ideology has the answers to what ails humanity.  Even Christian evangelism is seen as nothing more than a ploy to lash poor benighted souls under the tyranny of Christian religion. 

Besides postmodern discourse, today’s technology conveniently lets students bypass most institutions (except social networking institutions like FaceBook) in favor of multiple direct personal encounters mediated by endless technologies.  Churches, associations, clubs?  Strictly optional when all you need is a cell phone.

Postmodern discourse, electronic technology, and, thirdly, a fractured culture add to the disengagement.  Ever since the 1960s, America has been a nation without a cultural consensus, and that lack of cultural consensus is making it much harder to find political consensus.  It’s easier to write off political institutions that fight all the time than it is to try to understand why they work so poorly.  1960s cultural fragmentation has created 21st century political fragmentation.

Finally, to complete the portrait of collegiate political disengagement, remember that this generation has their parents to thank for up to 50% of them having experienced family fragmentation owing to divorce, etc.  We know from research that divorce has devastating effects, among them a much greater propensity to steer clear of religious institutions and to settle for the private comforts of a saccharine spirituality. 

So, the typical politically disengaged American college student is the product of postmodern discourse, electronic technology, political fragmentation, and family fragmentation that adds up to one word: dystopia.  However, many students stop short of full-blown anti-utopianism and say, “Things will turn out tragically lest we somehow get engaged to make our world a better place. “ That’s the socially conscious part of students that really does look attractive and hopeful.  Dig wells, teach literacy, save rainforests, and so on.  Direct action looks so much better, as Stephanie Summers points out, than working with and through institutions that are failing (families and politics).

Unfortunately, lacking a Christian anthropology, many socially-engaged students will find their sails completely whipped apart by the desperate brokenness of those they have come to help. Combine that with the sense that the “system” (whatever it is in any given society) ensures the continued misery of the poor, and the picture clouds up quickly.  Students may, after all, end up with truly dark and hopeless visions unless they joyfully welcome the liberating bondage (Romans 6:18) of a Savior who straightens out our minds while He saves our souls.

Is my truncated portrait of many American college students (politically disengaged but socially conscious) the end of the story?  We already know that students are weary of institutions.  Add to that the prospect of many becoming truly dystopian after their save-the-world efforts come up drastically short, and, well, the prospect of dark anti-institutionalists running the world is not pretty.  Were it not for generous doses of common grace that Jesus seems to freely dispense, this is a recipe for chaos, disorder, and darkness. Gloom and doom.

There are, however, micro-alternatives (e.g., Wilberforce Academy) that are popping up.  Our objective is not in any way to undercut students’ social consciousness, but, rather, to give them philosophical and theological legs so that, rather than drifting into despair when their valiant efforts hit brick walls, they bounce back into institutions with a robust political theology that aims to transform what seems hopeless.  William Wilberforce lived in dark times at the end of the 18th century, but a few others like him in the Clapham Community were well-instructed by Wesleyan and a few godly Anglican pastors who taught them the ways of God.  Wilberforce and his colleagues (whose story is richly told in the 1953 book Saints in Politics) worked with and through institutions to effect dramatic and positive changes that no one could have anticipated, least of all the abolition of the slave trade. 

Turn around is possible, but we will need far greater efforts (like Wilberforce Academy) to give our students the biblical, theological, and philosophical grounding that creates the leaders our institutions will need to endure, and for civilization to be renewed.