Does Political Partisanship Help or Hurt the Mission of the Church?

Partisanship
There has been a long debate about the role of partisanship in American politics. I often tell people that I am non-partisan politically. I happily vote in every election and I hold decided (“strong”) opinions about a number of political and moral issues. I would describe my overall political philosophy as conservative, if this term is understood as opposed to the Left and/or radically progressive, even Socialistic, positions. But even the term conservative has become virtually meaningless in the present context. (Maybe this should be fodder for a blog on another day but I actually think President Bush has done as much to set back principled conservatism as any modern president! This is why Libertarian arguments, many of which are appealing to conservatives, have become appealing to many who voted for President Bush in the previous elections.)  Because I have an interest in politics, and good government, I write and think about these subjects a lot. But I will not endorse or promote a candidate for the presidency this year. (I have not done this in the past either.) Let me explain my reasons as simply as possible.

I will begin with an understanding of the word partisan. Webster’s New World Dictionary (Third Edition, 1997), refers to a partisan as a person who “takes the part of, or strongly supports, one side, party, or person; often, specifically, an unreasonable, emotional adherent.”

I used this word just a few months ago in a sermon to suggest that the American Church has greatly exaggerated its role in partisan politics and thereby harmed its mission in the society at large. I believe that both the theological Left and the Right have done this throughout much of American Church history. (The Left actually did more of it in the 20th century, after the rise of liberal ecumenism, and to some extent the Right simply grew weary of this and reacted by joining the fray!)

By the above statement I do not mean that we should remain silent about moral issues. It is imperative that we, as the Church, bear faithful witness about issues that speak to life and morals. But we can do this without reducing our witness to political partisanship. In fact, if we are really wise we can and should encourage moral virtues in both political parties, not just one.

Let me give you two illustrations. First, the black voter in America has been given very few options because they became “life-long” Democrats in the 1930s. Now, in presidential elections, the vote is as high as 90% for the Democratic candidate.Dem
The party can thus presume on these black Americans for their votes. In the end there are often few options left. I think this leaves the concerns of black voters unheard in an increasing way. This is one reason for the “Black Caucus” in Congress. Second, there are conservative white suburban Christian voters who often act as if only the Republican Party can represent the moral standards of their deeply held Christian faith. Many Republican partisan insiders know how to use these voters as well. The problem is that they have presumed these votes and now pander to them in a number of ways. But the Republican Party Gop
does not hold to the truth on a number of issues that concern some Christians. Surely there is room for real debate on both of my illustrations and many more you could cite as well.

Now we have a new election season in full swing and a lot of heat is already being poured out concerning religion’s role. A major question has been: “Who is a Christian?” Is Obama really a believer? He says that he is, but then why did he need to even do that? He is not running for deacon or elder. Is this the Democrats way of trying to balance partisanship about religion in their direction? I don’t blame them if it is since the nature of political parties is to get their people elected. Ironically, it is John McCain who has not been talking about religion in a directly partisan way. (If anything, he makes what should be his base unhappy.) This change in Republican Party politics is one that I happily welcome. It also may lead to several million white voters staying home in November, since John McCain does not excite them at all! (The oddity here is that McCain agrees with most, though certainly not all, of the moral issues that these voters are so emotionally charged up about.)

Dobson
Then there is the well-known James Dobson, who got back into the debate this last week by suggesting that Senator Obama is not following a faithful Christian interpretation of the Bible. (The clear implication is that he, James Dobson, is following such a view. Thus the first shot in the "Bible interpretation wars" has been fired in 2008!) Now, Dobson is entitled to draw his own conclusions but what grieves me is that multitudes of Christians will listen to him and this kind of thinking will enter into the mission of the Church, at least in the minds of millions. (It would be better to say his thinking will hinder the missional understanding of the Church and set it back for millions of people who do not understand it very well in the first place.) This will sidetrack us from the real work of the kingdom by creating more heated and emotional rhetoric about partisan political opinions. I can’t tell you how sad this makes me when I talk to younger people who draw the (wrong) conclusion that this man speaks for the Christian community. This is one of several reasons why I do not use the word “evangelical” in some public, especially non-Christian, settings.

This is also part of the reason why the board of ACT 3 revised our Constitution in May. The following items, in our Constitution are particularly important to me and the missional-ecumencial stance of ACT 3:

ARTICLE III—PURPOSE

1.The corporation is a not-for-profit Christian teaching organization; its purposes are to advance the Christian tradition by encouraging obedience to the missional mandate of the Lord Jesus Christ, through the witness of Scripture and the wisdom of the Christian tradition. This is done through (a) teaching and preaching in local congregations, schools, conferences; (b) writing and distributing Christian teaching; (c) advocating an ecumenical vision of the Christian Church through various means; and (d) encouraging Christian leaders in their personal spiritual formation and growth through counsel and support.

2. The corporation does not discriminate in its membership on the Board of Directors, or in its hiring practices, with regard to a person’s race, color, sex or national origin.

ARTICLE IV—STATEMENT OF FAITH

We declare ourselves to be a Christian mission in agreement with the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, as confessed in either the Eastern or Western tradition.

ARTICLE IX—IRREVOCABLE DEDICATION

No substantial part of the activities of the corporation shall be the attempting to influence legislation, by propaganda or otherwise, and the corporation shall not participate in, intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements), or contribute to, any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.

Church_and_state
The word “propaganda or otherwise” refers to the very partisanship that I am referring to in my first few paragraphs above. The missional mandate of Christ is what the Church is to be about in the world. (This is also why you have seen me write time and time again that ministers who run for office should formally remove themselves from their ministry and standing in the Church as an ordained minister. I realize that you cannot "remove" ordination, in most circumstances, but what I am seeking is a definitive break with the gospel ministry and any association with political office.)

Whenever the Church embraces political partisanship it sidetracks its mission at best, or seriously harms it at worst. I think the latter is the case in 2008.

I am presently of the opinion that a whole generation of conservative Christian partisans will have to pass off the scene for this all to be changed. I am also quite convinced that having less and less Christians in the general population, which is a fact obvious to all who poll and observe this matter carefully, will itself guarantee that we will be  sidelined in this arena by our own overestimation of our collective impact.

I will say more on this soon, d.v.

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