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A columnist looks back and looks ahead

(RNS) "After 30 years attempting to advocate for a particular kind of American public life," writes David Gushee, "I feel a deep sense of powerlessness in relation to where our culture and politics are going."

A man waves an American flag as he watches a July Fourth parade in the village of Barnstable, Massachusetts, on July 4, 2014. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mike Segar

(RNS) I have been writing opinion pieces since 1986. Ronald Reagan was president, and I was 24 years old. That’s a long time.

Thirty years later, in that oddly reflective time between Christmas and New Year’s, I look back and look ahead.

I was trained in a version of Christian ethics that demanded regular commentary on the day’s news. Hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, I was told. Speak what might qualify as a word from God into the maelstrom of the passing scene.

There is always both wheat and chaff in hurried weekly commentaries. A look back on the past year of my RNS writings reveals plenty of both.

I was right, I think, in my claim that progressive and conservative evangelicals are heading for divorce, though it will never be an entirely clean or complete one.

I was right that America’s national character is eroding — that one sign of that erosion is the nature of our politics and another is the nature of our social media.

My improved peace of mind and retention of good relations with friends and family suggest I was right to abandon Facebook last summer.

I was right that clergy entanglement with American politics is an abiding temptation that regularly makes clergy useful idiots to politicians.

I was right that the (mainly white) Christian right’s embrace of Donald Trump was deeply discrediting to the Christianity that group purports to represent. At least, I believe I was right.

I also think I was right in my regular critiques of the campaign rhetoric and policy proposals of Mr. Trump. Now we all hold our breath to see what kind of president he will actually be.

I was right that differences about ideology, politics, and faith continually tear at the fabric of our society, our churches, and our friendships.

I was right that middle ground on the LGBT issue is eroding.

I was right that the resolution of the Wheaton College/Larycia Hawkins case and her forced departure deeply wounded the cause of Christian higher education, not to mention Professor Hawkins and Wheaton.

I was terribly wrong in my assumption that Donald Trump could never beat Hillary Clinton for president.

I was therefore obviously wrong in my assumptions about the American electorate and in my predictions about what would happen in 2017 and beyond.

In my most controversial columns of the year, I was wrong in predicting that the conservative Christian side was about to be overwhelmed by a cultural volcano demanding that they relent in their convictions about, for example, LGBT inclusion.

And I was especially wrong in not communicating very clearly that the conservative side’s fears and worries about the survival of their values and their institutions must be taken seriously.

Now that Donald Trump has been elected, it is the liberal schools that are worried about possible threats to their very survival based on the overweening power of the federal government.

I doubt I am the only one who now sees that religious liberty issue in a whole new light, and worries deeply over a cultural and political climate where each side (left and right, conservative and liberal) experiences the other as an incomprehensible existential threat, partly because the other quite often is an incomprehensible existential threat.

I experience a continual sense of nausea over the state of our culture and public conversation, the quality of our public discourse, and the risk we have taken as a nation in the choice we have made for our next president.

After 30 years attempting to advocate for a particular kind of American public life, and experiencing the rejection of almost everything I have sought, I feel a deep sense of powerlessness in relation to where our culture and politics are going. I am not the only one who feels that American public life has gotten beyond me, that it is somehow now up to others to take their turn tilting at those windmills.

I do still feel capable of writing a good classroom lecture, preaching a good sermon for my church, and offering good leadership in the academy. This is where I will now turn my attention. If you all want to argue about the latest tweetstorms from whoever about whoever, be my guest.

My memoirs telling the story of my wild ride in American Christianity and public life will be out in September with Westminster John Knox Press.

Happy new year and all best wishes, faithful readers.

(David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Georgia. He writes the “Christians, Conflict and Change” column for RNS)

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