The Baseball Solution to Our Political Polarization

With November elections around the corner, campaigns are busy extolling the qualities of their candidates and demonizing the opposition. Political polarization is worse than ever this fall, with contests being framed as a struggle between virtue and vice, strength and weakness.

The David Purdue (R) campaign recently ran an ad claiming that opponent Michelle Nunn (D) funded groups linked to terrorists, while the Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) campaign has accused Mitch McConnell (R) of becoming a millionaire because of his work in the Senate. Both claims are inflammatory and untrue.

Fortunately, October also contains the Major League Baseball playoffs and World Series, which resist any attempts to paint a polarizing picture of the world. Baseball is a game of failure, with most trips to the plate ending in disappointment. Even Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter in baseball history, ended his career with a lifetime batting average of .344, meaning that he failed to get a hit 656 out of every 1000 at bats.

"There are two kinds of ballplayers," goes an old baseball saying: "Those who are humble, and those who are about to be humbled."

Baseball is clearly superior to contemporary politics in its understanding of human nature. Baseball grasps human finitude and weakness, and sees everyone as a complicated mixture of virtue and vice. A player can blast a thrilling home run and then commit a stupid error, while a team can lose dozens of games in the regular season and then win the World Series. There never will be an undefeated team in a full Major League Baseball season.

The great religions of the world share this clear-eyed view of human frailty, which probably accounts for baseball's popularity across faith groups over the past 150 years. Politics, on the other hand, is grounded in a Manichaean world view, one that sees everything in terms of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, light and darkness. Manichaeism thrived between the third and seventh centuries, and competed with Christianity before experiencing persecution and extinction.

American politics continues to embrace Manichaeism, however, especially when candidates attack each other and politicians express outrage over failures of any kind. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) is blasting candidate Barbara Comstock (R) in a fundraising email for voting for "the deplorable transvaginal ultrasounds bill." Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) recently said "it's time" for Secret Service Director Julia Pierson to depart, following an incident in which a man with a gun came close to the president. One day later, she resigned.

Our leaders have developed zero tolerance for error, despite the fact that no political position is perfect and all governmental agencies are staffed by fallible human beings. There is room for error in baseball, but not in politics.

"I have never met a perfect human being," says my colleague David Ensign, pastor of Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia. "And yet, our lawmakers make laws based on the assumption that people will behave perfectly. For instance, we give people the unfettered right to bear arms, believing that they will never misuse their guns." Fortunately, we Presbyterians have long believed in "total depravity," meaning that every human action -- even a good one -- is tainted somewhat by sin. We keep in mind the words of Jesus, "the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41).

In this Manichaean political season, I am happy to turn my attention to baseball, with its acceptance that even marvelous playoff wins will be tainted by errors. And I'll root for the Washington Nationals, an excellent team made up of players who know the struggles, injuries and imperfections that are bound to be part of any full baseball season.