I began, last week, an article on the meaning of political partisanship and asked how this has impacted the church in America and its mission to make disciples and proclaim the gospel of the kingdom to the nations. I continue with further thoughts in this second part of that blog.
Partisanship is necessary to party politics, especially two-party politics as we know it. Each party plays an adversarial role so that no single group can control our government without being challenged.
This is intended to make government more accountable. Partisanship, by nature, favors one way of thinking over another. If you are deeply partisan then you work to see your party succeed, certainly at the expense of the success of the other party and sometimes at the expense of the nation’s good.
William Safire has shown that partisan political activity plainly has some pros and some cons to it. Listen to our founding father, George Washington: "The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetuated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism."
And the famous Joseph Addison (1672-1719), an Oxford classicist, wrote in The Spectator: "There is nothing so bad for the face as party zeal. It gives il-natured cast to the eye, and a disagreeable sourness to the look. . . . I never knew a party-woman that kept her beauty for a twelve-month."
But the philosopher John Stuart Mill said, "A party of order and stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life." And the English Fabian socialist, Graham Wallas, said, "Something is required simpler and more permanent, something which can be recognized at successive elections as being the same thing that was loved and trusted before; and the party is such a thing."
Wallas, by the way, wrote a book in 1914, titled: The Great Society. When President Johnson used this term to describe his social agenda his writers denied they took it from this book. Any objective person would likely think that even if this were true Johnson’s programs were front-loaded socialism in a major way.
In the 20th century Woodrow Wilson said, "The trouble with the Republican Party is that it has not had a new idea in thirty years." Dwight Eisenhower, who sought to be "above politics" in his candidacy, added that Democrats in high office were "too big for their britches and too small for their jobs." Harry Truman, who was clearly an object of Ike’s expression said, "There never was a non-partisan in politics. A man cannot be a non-partisan and be effective in a political party. When he’s in any party—he’s got to be. The only way a man can act as a non-partisan is when he is in office, either as President or head of state or country or city."
When the Johnson Library was dedicated in Texas in 1971 then President Richard Nixon said Lyndon Johnson was a "partisan of principle." In retirement in San Clemente Nixon told William Safire, "I’m no longer a partisan." This has generally been the role that our former presidents have taken until Jimmy Carter, and now Bill Clinton, turned their former position into a deeply partisan platform for continual political rhetoric rather than simply limiting themselves to the good things they have both clearly done a great deal of since they left the office.
I have studied history a bit and lived through the second half of the twentieth century. I personally believe intense partisanship has increased over the past decades. This type of acidic and bitter partisanship has paralyzed us politically. It seems to have developed in the 1960s. It was not the result of the Civil Rights Movement, which could have united us. (In my life personally it did something like this in a very positive way.)
What brought about the change in the American political landscape? I think it was two historic issues: The Vietnam War and then Watergate. One led us to no longer trust our leaders with our lives and future and the other destroyed confidence in the presidency. Since Nixon we have had members of Congress call for the impeachment of every president and one was impeached. It seems as it a culture of "pay back" has now settled in. (This is a point made eloquently in former Senator John Danforth’s moving book, Faith and Politics.)
And when the Gingrich led House came to power things shifted to the other side. In 2006 people had enough and changed leadership. Meanwhile the level of trust in Congress has plummeted to all-time lows, even lower than President Bush’s popularity. The public is cynical, especially younger voters. I think this is a major reason why Barack Obama’s calls for change resonate even though the changes he promises are not well-defined, at least as I read them. It is also highly doubtful that he can bring about a great deal of what he promises to change. (Recently, his promises about what he can or will change seem to keep changing. Witness his back and forth about his Iraq withdrawal policy on Thursday of this last week. Whatever he does do I would suppose he does not wish to pull us out in a manner that leads to political chaos in the Middle East and massive human carnage. This would be no legacy to leave as a president.)
All of this raises an important point. Presidents are not given the power to radically alter our national course. This was the design of the founders. No matter who wins in November they cannot do as much harm as the most partisan critics fear or as much good as those who are zealous in electing them believe. Our system changes incrementally and it changes more at the level of culture than politics.
This leads me to my conclusion about the church and partisan political involvement and our mission. I believe the church has a mandate to preach the gospel. But this is not our only role in public. We are to be salt and light in the culture. This means that we can and must speak to issues of conscience and to the moral themes that impact the nation. This also means abortion will remain, as one example, on my own public radar screen for my lifetime. But this does not mean that abortion is the single issue I decide my vote upon. I am concerned about the economy because an unstable economy will impact all of us and the weakest and poorest will be impacted the most. I am also concerned about issues of justice and law. I could go on and on but you get my drift here.
So, how should we engage in partisan politics? Some of you should be partisans and work for your favorite party or run for office. Others of you should remain outside this approach but you can respect those who disagree with you, especially if you are a Christian and make love your true priority. Ministers, and the church as the church, should almost never engage in partisan political engagement. A church, or a group/denomination of churches, should not become Democrats or Republicans. (This is almost never done openly, in fact legally it cannot be done, but it is routinely done in de facto ways by churches and ministries, through literature, conversations and impassioned rhetoric about selected issues just around election times.) This means that I would not run for office or endorse a candidate so long as I am a minister of the gospel. I know some candidates personally and it is known by my friends that I like them and will vote for them. I do not wear buttons in public or make speeches for candidates. I will invite political leaders, especially in non-election cycles, to speak to issues of public concern that Christians should be interested in. I do not, however, hide my interest in politics this since this is my personal responsibility and choice as a citizen. And I do not use the ministry of ACT 3 to promote a campaign thus I remain very careful about what I say and how I say it for this very reason.
I think one entire segment of the church lost its way when their leadership became the proponents of ideological solutions to American politics that were more akin to socialism and the radical left than to classical political liberalism.
This led to a kind of "class warfare" and was seen again in the recent John Edwards campaign when he used the rhetoric about "two Americas." This language generally comes from Democrats in the modern context, especially since the New Deal.
Then, in the 1970s the Republican Party, or at least some in the party, decided to push back and engage religion itself. They were tired of how the Democrats got the votes of devout conservative people and felt they could get these votes if they politicized religion in a new direction.
This led to the birth of the modern Christian Right. A good friend of mine was there in the beginning and has told me numerous stories about how this happened and how the deals were made. Jerry Falwell soon became "the face" of this new Moral Majority and the rest is history. The issue this new movement had was abortion and thus in the 1980 election of President Reagan these two groups found each other in a whole new way, which is not all bad. But for the next 24 years this movement had some serious clout in partisan politics. I think it will have much less impact in 2008 and beyond. And I also think that there is massive evidence that younger people, and even younger Christians, are sick and tired of this approach. I hear almost every day about the son or daughter of a famous conservative leader/pastor who is actively working for Obama’s election. Congregations are up in arms about this. I want to scream, "Chill out folks. The mission of Christ will not be thwarted by a President Obama." We have far more important work to do than this. For a start, how about we begin with the love taught in 1 Corinthians 13. I am not saying to take this as a kind of pious aspirin tablet. I am dead in earnest when I say it is this love in action alone that will help the world see the importance of our message.
Let me ask you a simple question? Is our nation more God-fearing and is the gospel reaching into more lives, or less, since 1960? Does the real evidence say having George W. Bush in the White House has made the church much stronger? Was the church better or stronger with Bill Clinton in the White House? How many of the next generation are openly professing faith in Christ? (Clue: The percentage right now is the lowest in American history. At the beginning of the new nation, just before 1800, the percentage of people who regularly attended church was around 10%. Now the youngest generation attends in single digits, maybe even as low as 5%.) Look, I deeply love my country. I have strong political views. I do not want to see some ideology reach the level of radically altering our nation’s future. But I still believe, and you can call me naive if you wish, that our (and the our in this context means the whole church) struggle is "not with flesh and blood." When will we learn?