In Defense of Partisanship
In recent years many people, myself included, have decried the rabid partisanship of the Christian community. In many instances the affinity we have all felt towards the Republicans or Democrats, depending on our particular political ilk, has gone from mere pragmatic engagement, to idolatrous servitude. However, the problem has not necessarily been partisanship in and of itself, but rather the fact that we have taken our cues from party headquarters rather than the Bible. So before we all throw away our RNC or DNC membership cards, burn our party’s mass mailings, and go to the DMV to change our party identification to “unaffiliated,” let us take a moment to reflect on some of the benefits that come from being a member of one of our nation’s major political parties.
Let me begin by noting that what I am discussing is not the blind partisanship that we have so often criticized, but instead a mild partisanship that is ever mindful of the temptation to slip into the ideologies of the world, instead of the calling of the Church. If someone is going to belong to a political party, which is by no means necessary, let all of us recognize that there is some good that can be done by those who proudly put a (D) or (R) after their name.
Perhaps the best reason to belong to a political party is that it allows one to be influential within one of the dominant power structures in our nation. In our current two-party system either the Republicans or Democrats will control congress, the presidency, or both. The party in power determines much of what is brought up legislatively and politically. For this reason it is important to have Christians bringing influence on both parties, so that no matter who is in charge a voice for justice can be heard. While this can sometimes be done by those outside the party system, the way it is most influential is if it comes from within party membership. Institutions rarely change from outside pressure, but rather from internal guiding. This, coupled with the fact that political parties’ first priority is always to keep their base happy, is a good reason to be a mild partisan. For instance, both the DNC and RNC send out membership surveys in which they try to connect with the issues that their members most care about. Being guided by a holistically biblical agenda—instead of a narrow partisan ideology—when filling out the survey is a way to put pressure on the party to adopt a more balanced, and biblical, issue base. Another example is the nominating process. Both parties have caucuses and primaries in the run up to the general election in order to determine who will be on the ballot in November. By voting for the candidate that has the most biblical worldview we can bring pressure on the parties to nominate such candidates for the general election. This effort has the added practical benefit that only a small fraction of the voting population votes in primaries, meaning that a single vote is more influential proportionally, and that your voice comes through much clearer.
In the past we have seen the idea of mild partisanship bring about great change in the political process. Michael Gerson, a member of George W. Bush’s staff, was able to encourage the former president to fund efforts to combat AIDS in Africa. Representative Bart Stupak held the line on health care reform long enough to gain some concessions on abortion funding, and in the 2008 presidential election Mike Huckabee got Republicans talking about issues such as poverty. These individuals were not ideologues or rabid partisans, rather they were guided by a more balanced view of the world, and as a result, were able to change the way the Republicans and Democrats views issues.
As we have said, the problem comes not from being a member of a political party, but being controlled by a political party. We should be using the party process to bring about a spectrum shift, where both parties are more in line with biblical principles of promoting the common good and justice in all its various forms, not just making sure “our party” is in power. So the next time you get your members only survey from the RNC asking which issues you are most concerned about, continue to check the box for abortion, but also check the box for poverty or social justice (you may have to write it in next to the box that says “other”). If you are a member of the DNC do likewise, continue to check the box for poverty, but also check the box for abortion (here you will have to clarify that you are against abortion, not pro-abortion). Whether we belong to them or not, political parties will continue to exist and to exert powerful influence on our nation’s politics. Parties will be influenced by someone, so why not have that influence come from the Church?