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Why ‘Who should be the next president’ is the wrong question

(RNS) It is time for us to be honest with ourselves: In continuing to obsess over which of these terrible candidates will be the next president, we are asking the wrong question.

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at Milwaukee's Divine Peace Lutheran Church during the Wisconsin U.S. presidential primary election on April 5, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CAMOSY-OPED, originally transmitted on Aug. 3, 2016.

(RNS) It is by now a familiar refrain. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are deeply disliked by a large majority of Americans. We do not trust either of them. And given that they have both been caught multiple times in brazen lies, there is more than enough evidence to justify our feeling this way.

Both have flipped on their stated views, sometimes multiple times in just a few days, for baldly political reasons. It is not clear that either candidate has a consistent vision for which he or she stands, and both candidacies were successful largely because of power, privilege and name identification.

The corporations that benefit from our consumption of media surrounding the election have every reason to keep us hooked on the question of who the next president of the United States will be. The ratings and hits bonanza coming out of the debates, conventions, interviews and even daily tweets was summed up well by CBS’ chief executive, who said this election “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

It is time for us to be honest with ourselves: In continuing to obsess over which of these terrible candidates will be the next president, we are asking the wrong question.

I propose that, instead of this question, our focus for the remainder of this election cycle should be on the following:

Deep reflection and prayer with regard to how we got here

How could we have gotten to a place where either Clinton or Trump will be the next president? What kind of social values and structures led to this happening? From where does the broad-based anger and cynicism come? What deep cultural changes need to take place to address these problems? Am I personally contributing to the kind of culture that gave us Trump and Clinton? How can I resist the structures that foster anger and cynicism, and instead help bring people together in solidarity?

Voting for local races

Many local elections, not least because they are less beholden to the power structures of our national politics, are far more interesting and hopeful than national elections. Pro-life Democrats have a chance. Republicans are permitted to take positions in favor of things like paid family leave. Added bonus: Your vote and personal advocacy can have a real impact on the result of the election — and, with it, your local community.

Living out foundational values

I’ve seen it time and time again: Advocacy for presidential election outcomes changes people over time. They start out with a certain set of core values, but eventually those values shift as they become obsessed with electing (or, perhaps more often, defeating) certain presidential candidates. They are pro-life, but slouch toward lazy arguments for the death penalty. They are anti-poverty, but find a way to reject school choice for those on the margins.

Instead of focusing on which candidate will be the next president, perhaps this election cycle is an opportunity to focus on recapturing and living out our foundational values.

Want to contribute to saving the lives of prenatal children? Volunteer at a pregnancy help center.

Want better education outcomes for the poor? Become a regular at after-school reading groups in a marginalized school district.

After all, when God calls us to give an account of our lives, how we voted for president will count far less than whether we saw Jesus in the hungry and gave them food.

By now I hear a critic: “OK, privileged professor, easy for you to say. You are going to be just fine regardless of who wins. But what about those on the margins? They can’t afford to sit by and pretend that what happens in the presidential election doesn’t matter to them. The stakes are just too high, and your privilege blinds you to this fact.”

This is an important objection, but it cuts both ways. Yes, some of those on the margins are imperiled by the ideas Trump has articulated, but others on the margins feel quite differently. Indeed, Trump’s base support comes from people without a college degree. Plus, given the level of dishonesty and cynical position-flipping we’ve seen from both candidates, it isn’t clear that they will do what they say they will do.

As the public discourse swims in a tide of stories about the presidential election, perhaps it is time to proclaim a fast from our consumption of media-related stories about the next president. For this election cycle, at least, there are far more important questions to ask.

 (Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University)