It was March 20, 2003. I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. Then I walked out on my political party. I did so principally in protest against President Bush’s attack on Iraq, the culmination of months of public arguments that we must rout out their weapons of mass destruction. With many others, I saw no evidence that there were WMDs. I also had to conclude that two Americans whom I greatly admired, Colin Powell and Condi Rice, had been co-opted to make the case for war when there was no case to be made. I withdrew in my heart that evening, and made it official the next time I renewed my Pennsylvania driver’s license.
I only wish now that I had done it years before.
For the past decade I have consciously broadened my ability to praise or denounce or persuade or dissuade or anything in-between what comes from any quarter, to urge my representatives of either party to back whatever direction that seems to me to be right according to God’s righteousness and write emails to thank them when they do so. The people with whom I discuss politics – and the number is not large – know that I have spoken for or against both the former president and the current one. And far from withdrawing into bitterness, which some do, I have stepped into a more positive and joyful space.
There are four broad philosophies that commend themselves to evangelicals:
One is to throw our weight behind the party that represents our values to a greater degree than other parties, to try to swing the platform to be relatively more in favor of their ideals, and to hold their noses when it comes to the rest. That’s why Jerry Falwell famously defined conversion as “get saved, get baptized, get registered to vote”; this meant registration in the Republican party, although many Christians had already become politically active in the 1970s, backing “born-again” Democrat Jimmy Carter or evangelical Mark Hatfield: a liberal Republican, Hatfield was pro-life but against capital punishment, the war in Vietnam, and the draft. Bill Bright vowed to “pray the wrath of God on Mark Hatfield,” and he had the honor of being on Nixon’s Enemies List.
The second option is to start our own party. Recent history shows that Christian parties have their own internal problems; others don’t want to “throw their vote away” on a party that has no chance of governing.
The third is one that appealed to many Christians up to 30 years ago, to withdraw, since political action was considered “of the world” and not a fit forum for Christians.
The fourth is to give no guaranteed or lasting loyalty to any party but to speak prophetically to all and act in favor of broad principle. This is the route I have chosen.
For some, this means that I’m refusing to get my hands dirty with the real work of grass-root politics. In a sense, my circumstances justify this, since I live outside the US and my main action to mail in my absentee ballot.
But there’s more; for when evangelicalism aligns itself with a political party, making itself part of a coalition of disparate and sometimes competing interests, it will begin to think like the crowd it runs with. I’m not so concerned with evangelicals converting to Mormonism. But the Republican party has three large sectors: Christians, libertarians, business. And so I see Christians reading the tomes of anti-Christian and oligarchic Ayn Rand, because others of their party said she has serious insight. I see people who believe in total depravity voting for libertarianism, which the last time I looked is based on the premise that people will act in their own enlightened best interest.
Although more and more young Christians are following the lead of the African-American church and voting Democratic, the Republican party has for the last 35 years counted on the firm support of evangelicals and traditional Catholics. In hindsight, they reckoned on my automatic vote. This means that de facto I would have been voting for a war in which 4000 Americans died, which led to the death of perhaps 130,000 civilians. Although evangelicals of my age and younger won’t remember it, Christians of 50 years ago did not necessarily look like today’s Republican party – we have been changed by the crowd we run with. That’s another story.
When the last Republican president used drones to kill foreign enemies, on the say-so of the executive branch, I felt free to condemn it, and did; I had no need to defend “my” president. When this Democratic president does the same things, and more frequently, I am free to condemn it and, sure, more frequently; I had no need or right simply to mutter, “Well, what do you expect from him?” Illegal wiretappings? Both Bush and Obama earn my sharp disapproval. I care less and less about political fallout for “our side.” My thoughts on water-boarding, climate change, illegal aliens, gun laws, free trade, government-sponsored science research, what else…ah, okay, whether the federal government should subsidize Big Bird – well, I’ll just say that I know my own mind (And don’t write in asking for a list of opinions). The political stereotypes of our culture (are you a “slash and burn Republican” or a “tax and spend Democrat”?) are to my eyes getting more color and less black and white. I evaluate what I hear on CNN, MSNBC and Fox and what I read, more or less faithfully, in the New York Times or the Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic and The Economist with, I hope, a discerning mind – not by tossing them into the twin baskets of Lamestream Media and Rightwing Nutjobs.
Most Americans vote a straight party line. I do not say that those who are committed to supporting one party are unthinking sheeple, and certainly not that I am more discerning than thou; I only know that, personally, I have discovered more space to grow over the past decade if I ordered a la carte. When I was young I followed the call to get with the program. In my middle-age, no party or politician can count on me to be their “steady date” to the dance.
You choose your course of action, but whatever your decision, let’s learn to speak prophetically to all, without guaranteed loyalty to one group or scorn for the others.
“Why I left party politics…and never looked back,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica