My friend Ralph, who is more conservative than I, says when I post something political on Facebook, “Father, I’m surprised you would post something so partisan,” which I take to mean he believes clergy should be sufficiently dignified to abstain from partisan politics, or at least anything showing partisanship deemed too liberal.
It brings up some questions. What is partisanship? Why should clergy abstain from it? In what way are his views more conservative than mine?
Partisanship has to do with being a supporter or follower of a cause, person, or party. One way or another we’re all partisans. There is no such thing as being nonpartisan, unless ignorant complacency is nonpartisan. It’s possible to engage persons, issues, and parties while suspending bias to the extent possible. It’s what we expect, for instance, of judges, but that doesn’t make it nonpartisan. It’s simply the disciplined suspension of partisanship for a purpose. There are nonpartisan elections in which candidates are not identified by party. It doesn’t mean candidates don’t support a party, but that party identification is unimportant to the office. It’s sometimes said that important issues should be decided in a nonpartisan way. It expresses a hopeful expectation for negotiations in good faith. Good faith negotiations engage partisans in respectful conversation with the intention to arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement. Partisanship is always near at hand, but it need not be divisive.
As a Christian, especially as a priest and pastor, I’m called to follow Jesus as a partisan of all that he taught. For me it means a bias in favor of the poor and oppressed whether deserving or not. It means a bias in opposition to injustice and inequity, even when unsure about how to understand justice and equity. It’s a bias in favor of peace, generosity, healing, and the breaking down of barriers that separate us one from another. They are biases that compel me to engage in the public debate that sometimes feels it’s being held in the valley of the shadow of death.
Following in the way of Jesus leads through that valley, not as a Democrat or Republican, but as an advocate for a society more just and free than it has been, and is yet to become. It doesn’t matter what country or form of government one lives in. Courageous Christians in other places can be in real danger as they follow in the way of Jesus by confronting unjust conditions under which they live. As it is, I live in the United States and have a strong bias for the liberal democratic values on which the nation was founded. They set high moral standards that we’ve not yet lived into, but we’ve never stopped making progress. It’s sometimes slow and uncertain. On occasion we’ve taken backward steps, but we’ve kept at it. Following the way of Jesus in the public debate isn’t always safe, even in America. We’ve seen the danger one can face in the history of black preaching that forced greater honesty about systemic racism, calling us in the name of Jesus toward a more just society. The cost has been high, the progress slow, but it’s been in the right and godly direction.
I’m from another background, one of relative comfort free from anxieties about daily survival, and reasonably content with my place in society. Combine that with years of experience in public administration, consulting on public policy issues, and working to influence their outcome, I have a healthy appreciation for the value of our democratic forms of government. They’re not the enemy.
Contrary to my more conservative friends, I don’t believe limited governments are a good thing in their own right, nor is small, limited government an end to be pursued. Governments are not the problem that keeps the nation from getting to a better place. They’re the necessary tools for acquiring and organizing resources to make it a better place. To be feared and guarded against are systemic corruption, inefficiency, and ineffectiveness. To be opposed are governmentally sanctioned conditions that oppress, limit justice, and promote inequities. To be sure, governmental abuse of its coercive power is always a real and present danger. There’s always a question about whether we can keep the democratic republic that’s been bequeathed to us, or perhaps slip into some form of authoritarianism.
For me, following the way of Jesus in the way of the cross leads directly into the public arena where issues of public policy are worked out. But I may not be as “liberal” as friend Ralph thinks. I’ve learned to be pragmatic about what’s possible, what can work, what can be paid for, what consequences must be considered, and the danger of zero sum politics.
Ralph is no less committed to following in the way of Jesus, but as a firm believer in individuals taking responsibility for themselves. It’s their own fault if there are unpleasant consequences from poor decisions. Anyone can run into a string of bad luck, and a helping hand may be offered, but it’s not society’s responsibility to care for the irresponsible. If people are unwilling to follow Jesus’ moral teachings, the consequences are on their own head. The proper role of the Church is to teach others what that morality is, and it would be helpful if government allowed Christian moral teaching to take place in the public arena. Without saying so, he appears to favor a tacitly Christian government in an overtly Christian nation that allows freedom of religion for others, as long as they don’t interfere with the Christian majority. At the same time, centered on individualism as the root strength of American democracy, he favors the least amount of government needed for decent, but not lavish, pubic services facilitating commerce, transportation, and security.
Rather than saying I’m more liberal and Ralph is more conservative, which is something I say all the time, it might be better to say that we have different starting points. Ralph tends to begin with the responsibility of the individual to be a morally productive member of society, and I tend to begin with the responsibility of society to provide the conditions under which the individual can do that. Looking at it that way, there is always a place for us to meet in agreement, if we can find it, with perhaps one exception.
I believe following Jesus requires Christians to be politically active, and for clergy to have something to say about that from the pulpit. But I’m deeply suspicious of any suggestion that the U.S. should be a Christian nation. We have seen how a governmentally endorsed civic religion of watered down generic Protestantism helped enshrine white middle class society as the measure of what it meant to be American at the cost of freedom and opportunity for others. Separation of church and state is essential to maintaining our democratic freedoms. It allows the church to challenge the state without being an agent of the state.
Note: Ralph is a generic all purpose name standing for a number of friends whose views get consolidated in him. Apologies to any Ralph out there who would rather another name be abused.