Our Candidates, Ourselves

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Following last night’s defeat in the Indiana primary, Ted Cruz has officially ended his 2016 presidential campaign. And even though Sanders beat out Clinton in the Hoosier state, his Democratic opponent appears to be on a clear path to securing her party’s nomination.  It would seem that we are finally nearing the (welcome) end to a particularly contentious primary season.

On the Republican side, the field at one point swelled to 19 candidates, most of whom did not hesitate to insult one another when it helped their own cause. Although things started out more civil on the Democratic side, Sanders and Clinton have proven increasingly willing to attack one another as the primaries wore on. In recent months presidential candidates have slung a colorful array of insults at one another including “jerk,” “pathological liar,” “serial philanderer,” and “spoiled brats without properly functioning brains.” Their vitriol has been matched if not surpassed by some of their supporters in the crowd and back at home.

With every new election cycle, people lament the negative tone of the candidates’ campaigns. However, there is relatively little reflection on what gives rise to and sustains this toxic campaign culture election year to election year. Why do political contests inspire such passion, even downright nastiness? Why does one person’s preference of political candidates lead them to attack other candidates and fellow citizens with such fury?

NPR’s “This American Life” aired a story a couple of months ago that may provide some insight into the matter. The story was one of two included in an episode about people whose actions defy common expectations entitled “That’s One Way to Do It.” It centers around an articulate, charismatic high school student named Alex Chalgren. Alex lives in South Carolina with his two adoptive parents, who are both devout evangelical Christians. Like most people in his community, Alex is politically conservative. What distinguishes Alex is his enthusiasm for Donald Trump and the fact that he is the South Carolina Director for Students for Trump.

Also, he’s black and gay.

This is how Alex fits within the theme of this “This American Life” episode. His dedication to Trump’s candidacy raises the question, Why would a black, gay man fervently support a candidate who has made overtly racist and anti-gay statements? Zoe Chace, the journalist who interviewed Alex, came up with this theory: “He was using Trump to reconcile two very irreconcilable things about himself—deeply conservative, super-gay. Trump, for some reason, is Alex’s safe place.” When Chace shared her theory with Alex in a follow-up interview, he responded, “Yeah… I guess you would say that.”

Although Alex is different than most on account of the perplexing disconnect between his political allegiances and certain aspects of his identity, he is no different than the rest of us insofar as we all seek identity markers—things outside ourselves that express who we are, or perhaps who we want to be. This struggle for self-definition is something I have observed in my college students and the dorm residents I have gotten to know in my capacity as Resident Minister. It is also a struggle I have grappled with myself.

College is often regarded as a time for self-exploration. While this language tends to evoke images of joining clubs, pondering the meaning of life, and new social and romantic encounters, the reality is that for many students the collegiate process of identity formation is more of a trial by fire than a series of whimsical new experiences. For today’s students, especially at prestigious universities like the one where I teach, the pressures to present the right image are legion, and they can be crushing. By virtue of attending a competitive university, many feel compelled to project the appearance of effortless perfection lest they fail to measure up to their peers. Driven by aspirations to high-profile careers, they feel pressure to present themselves as brilliant, accomplished young entrepreneurs when (if they are allowed to be honest with themselves) most are still figuring it out what they want for their lives. All this is to say nothing of the constant demands of carefully curating an online profile and managing a paralyzing fear of saying something—anything—that might offend someone else.

I do not make these observations of undergraduate life with the least bit of condescension. I know personally what a struggle it can be to attain and maintain integrity in one’s identity amidst the throng of voices telling us who we ought to be. For me this struggle reached a fever pitch not so long ago.

About this time last year I completed my doctoral degree and was actively (read frantically) seeking a full-time teaching position. Even though earning a Ph.D. is certainly something to be proud of (and I was), I could not help but feel that completing my degree was a hollow victory if it did not lead to a faculty appointment. A tenure-track appointment is still generally regarded as the gold standard for success in the academic world. It comes with a readily recognizable title and status that indicates to other academics that one is a legitimate scholar. This status was my Donald Trump, my perfectly curated social media persona, my safe space. For me it held a powerful allure and an assurance that, should I obtain it, I would become and be recognized as the person I yearned to be.

However, as is the case with any external marker—whether it be one’s political affiliation or online persona—this assurance was an empty one. The desire to define one’s identity by such external markers is a persistent one, perhaps even necessary, but it can also be a great temptation. The temptation lies in the fact that we can come to identify so fully with a political candidate or a job title that we lose sight of who we are most essentially.

I believe that this is what is happening when we witness such deep-seated antagonism among political candidates and among their supporters. If we stake our whole identity on a particular person or issue and someone challenges that person or issue, we react defensively because at that point it is not just an attack on an issue—it’s an attack on us. When people feel personally threatened, that’s when things start getting nasty.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, makes a distinction between primary and secondary identity that my students have found extremely helpful in sorting out these kinds of issues. According to Ignatius, our primary identity is that of beloved sons and daughters of God. Any other way of identifying ourselves—Republican, Catholic, star student, tenured professor, friend, mother—is a secondary identity. Inevitably we will incorporate these secondary identities into our self-image, and that is well and good. However, problems arise when we confuse a secondary identity for our primary identity. In other words, when we cease to think of ourselves first and foremost as beloved children of God and others as our brothers and sisters in Christ, it becomes all too easy to feel threatened by those who differ from us and to be divided by those differences.

Looking back, I recognize this sort of identity confusion at the root of my anxiety about getting a job. I felt that if I did not secure a university post I would have failed in some way; I would have been less of a person somehow. I was looking to a job title for my source of self-worth when I should have been looking to my Creator. That is, I was allowing a secondary identity to usurp my true primary identity as a beloved child of God. Only when the position I coveted eluded me was I compelled to look deeper for a more enduring source of self-worth.

In the end, I was blessed to be offered the sort of faculty position I desired. However, the greater blessing may lie in the fact that it was not offered to me sooner. Had that happened, I may very well still be looking to the wrong things for my sense of self-worth. The challenge for me now is not to fall back into that same deluded thinking.

We all yearn for the security of knowing who we are. If we have staked our identity on the wrong thing, we can devolve into shallower version of ourselves when our sense of self is threatened by a political opponent, a social rival, or unemployment. However, if we recognize ourselves for who we truly are—beloved daughters and sons of God—no confrontation or circumstance can shake that sense of core identity. When we are who God calls us to be, we are freed up to give ourselves and others the love we deserve, not because we have earned it, but because God loved us first.