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FIRST-PERSON: The games of the political olympiad

WASHINGTON (BP)–The games of the 28th Olympiad should provide a nice segue into yet another contest now underway in New York. The parade of celebrity, cinematography and choreographed talking points are just the backdrop to display, for those with eyes to see it, the tepid state of public life in the United States. At least the Olympics depict in real time the pursuits of excellence by trained athletes who are evaluated on the basis of their performance by judges who actually adjudicate according to fixed standards.

Political conventions, however, have now become the modern equivalent of a circus where stars perform before an incredulous audience. Politicians do not train like Olympians. They need not. For unlike Olympians, their performances are not the fruit of self-discipline and long hours of toil. By the time they step into their modern stadiums of lights and cameras, the “competition” is a made-for-television saga. The goal is not the execution of oratorical skill primed with thought-provoking insights. Rather, the goal is a public relations rhetorical war where polling results dictate the soul of the message. A minimal amount of truth is given to a maximum number of people –- if truth is even a consideration at all.

Not that this is all bad. The effect of the modern political magic on the proverbial chattering class (i.e. the political pundits) has been amazing. With so little substance to discuss in commentary, talk has centered on commenting on another’s commentary for use in further ways to comment on the fact that there is precious little on which to comment.

Such is life in modern-day America. Yet, one wonders if the same audience who watched the Olympics will watch the Republican National Convention. If not, why not? Does not the appreciation for a well-executed dive translate into appreciation for a well-crafted speech? Would not the same admiration for an athlete who overcame great adversity to win a contest also reverberate for a man who overcame great odds to run for the highest office in the land?

Both national parties have joined with journalists to produce a convention that is far less interesting than the Olympics, and it is no wonder that those captivated by the thrill of the Games in Athens are less concerned with the games of politics in New York. Statecraft could trump athletics, but sadly, it will not. It is much easier to understand a man or woman competing, winning or losing, and accepting the verdict than it is to actually understand a modern political platform. An Olympic win is more elegant than contemporary political machinations.

Everyone knows that the true substance about the critical issues which confront 21st century Americans just will not sell well. Who wants to talk about the very real possibility that the economic systems designed to support the public pensions of thousands are actually not there at all? Recent demographic studies unanimously conclude that America’s Social Security system cannot be sustained. Healthcare is fast becoming the American boondoggle. Doctors fearful of litigation and piled high in paperwork are growing weary of the U.S. health system that now sees them as the enemy. It is now agreed even among political conservatives that most of the Socialist Party platform on which Norman Thomas ran in 1928 stands implemented. Justice wanes before the face of hardened ideologues who see the bench as the legislative chamber. Marriage is in crisis. Terrorism continues to loom. Yet, if the past is prologue, to watch another political convention one would never catch a glimpse of these real issues demanding attention.

What is more chilling is that the same audience who might dutifully watch either or both political conventions might be the same audience filling evangelical churches week by week fully expecting the same organizational tactics to be employed by the church of Jesus Christ. In large measure, they would feel right at home because modern evangelicalism risks becoming about as substantive as a reality TV program.

Quite unlike the Olympics where the toil and grueling hours of private practice make for thrilling displays of competent performance, contemporary preachers and church leaders look less and less like athletes and more and more like politicians. The tragedy is that few in the church will discipline themselves like athletes to actually pay the price of study and long hours of disciplined prayer to emerge before a congregation unafraid to speak what might be unpopular.

How strange this is when the ministry was compared by the Apostle Paul to an athlete training for the prize, not a political candidate campaigning for votes. As the last political convention makes its run for this election cycle, watch and weep. Watch for how many political speeches resemble modern sermons. Weep that few can tell the difference.
Douglas Baker is associate pastor of the First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Va.

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  • Douglas Baker