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An era of volatility

Hurrah for a peaceful election, but rumors of war persist

An era of volatility

Kristen Leach votes with her 6-month-old daughter, Nora, in Atlanta. (David Goldman/AP)

Beat poet Jack Kerouac wrote, “I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop.” 

That’s the American electorate now, almost every two years responding to the beat of different drummers. Six of the past seven national elections have resulted in at least one of the big three—presidency, Senate, House of Representatives—changing hands. In much of America’s past, continuity ruled. Republicans held the presidency for all but eight of the 52 years from 1861 through 1912. Democrats held the House of Representatives for all but four of the 62 years from 1933 through 1994.

V these days stands not for victory but for volatility, vehemence, and vituperation. The modern pattern of considering opponents not only wrong but evil began with Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy savaging Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987, 31 years ago. Our politics now reminds me of a speech young Abraham Lincoln gave 180 years ago, in 1838. He said, “We find ourselves in the peaceful possession of the fairest portion of the earth, [but] accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the every-day news of the times.”

Lincoln pointed to Vicksburg, Miss., where whites lynched blacks, “then white men supposed to be leagued with the negroes; and finally strangers from neighboring States going thither on business. … Thus went on this process of hanging … till dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.”

Lincoln was exaggerating in a way that would leave his audience sadly smiling—but only 24 years later 20,000 men would be killed or wounded in two days at Shiloh, Tenn., just north of the Mississippi border. WORLD’s next issue will be our Books of the Year special, and one book on our short list for History is Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future. Author Jason Phillips shows how North and South both expected conflagration, and the nightmare became reality. 

How do you imagine our political future? Some pundits see a new civil war looming, but the prospect of big armies attacking each other still seems remote. The two weeks leading up to Nov. 6 suggest that guerrilla warfare is more likely. More pipe bombs. (This time, providentially, they injured no one.) More synagogue massacres (11 dead). More of what The New York Times did in hiring thriller novelist Zoë Sharp to write a short story that ended with a Russian agent trying to shoot President Trump but misfiring, at which point “the Secret Service agent stood before him, presenting his Glock, butt first. ‘Here,’ the agent said politely. ‘Use mine.’”

Nevertheless, in 2018 the United States concluded our 116th congressional election in a row without cancellation because of military coup—so God’s mercy persists. That was evident even in the loss suffered by Republican Adam Greenberg in a race for a Connecticut state Senate seat. Greenberg was a baseball player who strode up to a major league home plate for the first time in 2005, only to be hit in the head by the very first pitch thrown to him. He suffered a concussion that left him with vertigo and vision symptoms and essentially ended his baseball dream, but he says he benefited from the struggle and eventually gained a political vision.

This issue’s feature section contains one article of election analysis but three articles profiling evangelicals who have glorified God by suffering in His name. Their stories are important to remember at a time when major media increasingly define “evangelical” as someone in a political movement rather than as a person who suffers so others can hear not fake news but Good News. While some identify with those walking the halls of power, wouldn’t we rather be brothers and sisters of Andrew Brunson, now freed from a Turkish prison, or John Cao, still stuck in a Chinese one?

Virginia Gov. Henry Wise in 1861 told Confederate army recruits, “You want war, fire, blood to purify you; and the Lord of Hosts has demanded that you should walk through fire and blood—You are called to the fiery baptism.” But war and fire do not purify us: Only Christ’s blood does. 

This issue’s last feature depicts Christians in Sutherland Springs, Texas, after the church massacre last Nov. 5 that left 26 dead, including an unborn baby. We conclude with the thought of Sarah Slavin, who lost her parents, brother, sister-in-law, and five nieces and nephews: “There’s been a lot of support and help and stuff, but when you actually get down to it, no one can get us through this. Only God can do that.” That’s true for individuals. That’s true for a country.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


  • Bob C
    Posted: Fri, 11/09/2018 01:11 pm

    It seems that almost every generation has groups of people more interested in expressing their disagreement with violence rather than trying to be civil and work together.  As Marvin Olasky and Sarah Slavin expressed, we humans are way too messed up to be civil without Christ.   

  • Xion's picture
    Posted: Mon, 11/12/2018 02:30 am

    When two sides in a debate desire actual truth, they converge.  Today the desire is more about inventing one's own truth and bludgeoning the other side with it.