Culture

Charity in an Angry Time

Erick Erickson at the 2011 Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
Erick Erickson’s new book reflects on the decline of civility in American politics.

Editor’s Note: The following piece appears in the November 27, 2017 issue of National Review.

Our culture is in the grip of more than a few disturbing habits. Among them: defining people by their mistakes, hating our ideological enemies, and adopting grandiose ideas about our own importance. We treat people in the public eye as if their decision to put themselves on television or share their ideas online meant that we no longer have an obligation to treat them humanely. After all, if they want better treatment, all they have to do is change jobs.

Into this moral abyss steps an unlikely hero: Erick Erickson, a radio talk-show host, a television pundit, one of the founders of RedState, and a person whom an Atlantic piece once labeled “arguably the most powerful conservative in America.” I say “unlikely” in part because Erickson built his early reputation as a fearless conservative firebrand. His language could be lacerating, his devotion to the conservative cause seemed absolute, and he was on no one’s short list of cultural peacemakers.

But life happens. No, that’s not correct; God happens. Christians are familiar with the concepts of justification and sanctification. Justification is the moment when God — through His Son’s atoning sacrifice — declares a man righteous in His sight. Sanctification is the lifelong process of spirit battling flesh, of the redeemed man’s journey to holiness. In other words, it means that we change, and God uses many different instruments to accomplish that change.

Erickson has, in his new book, Before You Wake: Life Lessons from a Father to His Children, written a transparent (at least to this reader) chronicle of his own sanctification. Yes, it begins with shocking health scares that remind Erickson of his mortality and bring him face to face with the possibility that his wife might die. They both confront the idea that their children could be orphaned.

But the book is more than a meditation on suffering and possible loss: It’s a reflection on moral choices, good and bad, and the effect of those choices on Erickson’s life and his family. It’s a reflection on the cost of doing the right thing, and it’s a reminder to Christians that, unless we live for the Audience of One, we will invariably be blown and tossed by the winds of culture and intellectual fashion. Absent an anchor, we will condemn lying one day and justify liars the next. Absent true convictions, we’ll lust for power over all else, justify ourselves through our success, and despise those who refuse to yield or compromise. All along, our children watch. They watch and they learn from the decisions their parents make.

The book isn’t political, but Erickson is open about his decision to oppose both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race.

The book isn’t political, but Erickson is open about his decision to oppose both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race. He was one of the first of the so-called Never Trumpers to publicly announce his stance, and he paid a high price. Like many who opposed Trump, he faced an avalanche of vitriol online, and that vitriol spilled into the real world. People confronted his children, and he endured serious threats to his life and his family.

But he did so without regret, and even as he endured that punishment — and even as he endured health crises so profound that doctors were shocked that he was still alive — the sanctification process continued. In reading the book, one can see that Erickson has fully understood a reality that many of us reject — that even if a person commands a large audience and spends time chatting with senators and congressmen, he can have only a small amount of influence over the body politic. His truly large influence is over his family, and his truly significant relationships are with friends and neighbors.

Yet how many of us spend the most time where we have the least influence?

In one of the more convicting portions of the book, Erickson challenges the reader to do something that too few of us do: open our homes. Break bread with people, and not just with our existing friends and members of our church. Seek out new relationships. Cook your new friends a meal. And just talk.

In a book world in which all too many writers offer their five-point plan to fight, win, and save the world, Erickson urges the modest course. But is it really modest? After all, this is one of the few books that actually ask their readers to do something that’s not only tangible but also perhaps even a little bit vulnerable: be hospitable, and invest yourself in new relationships.

To encourage the reader, he fills most of the latter part of his book with one of the last things you’d expect from a conservative pundit: a large number of recipes. Yes, the founder of RedState — the man who once inspired his followers to mail Mitch McConnell boxes containing toy balls to represent the testicles Erickson believed McConnell had lost — has written what is, at least in part, a cookbook.

I’ll confess: I skimmed the recipes. I don’t know enough about the culinary arts to appreciate their quality. But I received the message and — quite honestly — felt convicted by my own shortcomings. As a writer, do I focus more on the people who are farthest from me and less on those who live next door? Has endless concern over the “big” ideas and the “big” fights caused me to neglect the relationships on which and the people on whom I can have the most impact?

Those are the questions that should resonate throughout the American political subculture. I’ve never in my adult life seen so many people so angry about things they cannot control. All the while, our children watch. How often do they see us compromise? How often do they see our hate? They should instead see our sanctification.

Erickson’s book isn’t long. You can read it in a day. But you’ll think about it long after, and if you’re honest with yourself, you might even find it life-changing. He’s written a necessary tonic for an angry time.

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