Why I left party politics and never looked back

One of my infrequent thoughts on politics, written in 2013 and revised in September 2018 in the run-up to the midterm elections.

2003 blog

It was March 20, 2003. I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. Then I walked out on my political party, the Republicans. I did so principally in protest against President Bush’s attack on Iraq that week, which was the culmination of months of insistence that we must rout out their weapons of mass destruction and chase out Al Qaida. With many others, I saw no serious evidence of either claim. I believe there was no conscious deception, but a severe case of cognitive bias on the part of the administration: it saw what it wanted to see. And here in 2018, there is still no trace of a single WMD ever, and overwhelming evidence that Al Qaida was not in Iraq, that is, until after we invaded and opened the door to them. All this cost the US 2.4 trillion dollars, which the government had to borrow.

I also had to conclude that two Americans whom before that point I admired, Colin Powell and Condi Rice, had been co-opted to make the case for war in Iraq, when there was no case to be made.

In the run-up to Iraq, many evangelical leaders urged caution. Others signed the Land Letter (October 2002), which tried to put together a theological justification for a military strike: claiming that a pre-emptive strike was in fact “defensive” in nature; that it was a truly “last resort”, due to their WMDs and harboring Al-Qaida; and because the US would try to not harm non-combatants. It will repay Christians of later generations to read the Land Letter and at the same time examine the actual results of the Iraq war to demonstrate how wildly – and if it were not for the massive death toll, hilariously – off-target such sentiments can be. [1] The Iraq war was also lethal for the Christian community there.

I withdrew from my party in my heart that evening, and later made it official. I only wish now that I had done it years before. [2]

For the past 15 years I have consciously tried to broaden my ability to praise or denounce or persuade or dissuade or anything in-between whatever comes from any quarter, to urge my representatives of either party to back whatever direction that seems to me to be in accord with 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 all recent presidents.

Among us evangelicals, there are four broad philosophies that suggest themselves:

One is to throw our full weight behind the party that represents our values (to a relatively greater degree than do other parties), and 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, in case his meaning wasn’t apparent; his university banned a campus Democrat club for many years. Yet many Christians had initially 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 led people in prayer in order to “call the wrath of God on Mark Hatfield.” Hatfield also had the honor of being on Nixon’s Enemies List. Today’s Republican party, which has shifted dramatically over the past 25 years, fits only jaggedly with what I think of as a plan for a just society; this doesn’t mean I’m any more in line with other parties. Besides all this, there exists a trend today, to identify one party as the Devil’s and the other as God’s. Life is not that simple, and regarding one party the Children of Light is dangerous, and can verge even on idolatry. And when the church imagines it can tame a party to be its political arm, it will inevitably find itself reduced to being that same party’s Sub-Sub-Department of Religion.

The second option is to start our own party. But in fact, evangelical Christian parties have their own internal problems – here in Costa Rica, that has certainly been the case – and many Christians don’t want to “throw their vote away” on a party that has no chance of governing, at least not in the two-party system of the US.

The third is one that appealed to many Christians up to 30 years ago, to withdraw from the political sphere, since political action was considered “of the world” and not a fit forum for Christians. I can follow the logic of these believers, but cannot agree with them.

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. [3] A noteworthy example: Charles Colson – with whom I disagreed on many political points – won my admiration for his decades-long commitment to the reform of prisons and the justice system. He swam against the current of his Republican party and the evangelical church, which tended toward a punitive approach to criminals and a Get Tough on Crime judiciary.

This fourth approach has become more and more eroded, especially in the past five or so years:

The evangelical church largely aligns itself with one political party – in 2016, 85% voted for Trump – making itself part of a coalition of disparate and sometimes competing interests. We parents tell our children that they will become more and more like the kids they hang around with. And this is precisely what has happened with American evangelicalism. I’m not so concerned with evangelicals converting to Mormonism (candidate Romney in 2012). But the other two large influences within the party are libertarians and big business. And so we 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 the Fall of man voting for libertarianism, which the last time I looked is based on the premise that people, if left alone, will act in their own enlightened best interest. And also supporting the interests of big business, often against labor, perhaps without having thought through why they do so.

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.

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-plus years counted on the firm support of evangelicals and traditional Catholics. In hindsight, I guess the Republicans of decades ago reckoned on my automatic vote. This means that de facto I would have been voting for a war in Iraq, in which 4000 Americans died, which led to the death of a minimum of 150,000 Iraqis; some estimates run to a half-million or a million.

shockandawe1

Many Christians supported this; many did not. The signers of the Land Letter argued that it was a godly necessity

When the US used drones to kill foreign enemies, on the say-so of President Bush, I felt free to condemn it, and did; I had no need to defend “my” president. When President Obama did the same things, and more frequently, I condemned it, and more frequently. I had no need or right simply to mutter, “Well, what do you expect from him?” Illegal wiretappings? Both Bush and Obama earned my sharp disapproval. I care less and less about political fallout for “our side” or causing damage to “their side.” My thoughts on water-boarding, climate change, immigration, The Wall, travel bans, the Affordable Care Act, gun laws, Israel and Palestine, trade policy, government-sponsored science research,  the legalization of marijuana, whether the federal government should subsidize Big Bird – well, I’ll just say that I know my own mind. 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, only occasionally, on cable news and what I read in the New York Times or the Christian Science Monitor, The AtlanticThe New Republic and The Economist with, I hope, a more discerning mind – not by tossing them into the 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 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. Now in my middle-age, no party or politician can count on me to be their “steady date” to the dance. I think this verse is relevant: “You were bought at a price; do not become servants of human beings.” (1 Cor 7:23).

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 guaranteed scorn for the others.

Additional Thoughts from 2018:

ABORTION

Nine out of ten Christians I talk to say, “I don’t like a lot of things in the Republican Party; however, I cannot vote for a so-called pro-choice candidate, and I must vote for the pro-life one. Therefore, since abortion is so important, I must vote Republican.”

I agree that abortion is one of the top issues of the day, although not the only issue.

Let’s look at some data:

Abortion rates and absolute numbers rose swiftly under Reagan, and since 1990, have generally fallen, both in terms of absolute numbers and in terms of a percentage of the population. [4]

Nevertheless, abortions tend to level off or even rise under Republican presidents. Not only that, as one (Christian) analyst puts it:

Under Bush, Republicans controlled the House and Senate, and 2/3 of the Supreme Court. Bush had sky-high public approval following 9-11, and he and Congressional Republicans owed their 2004 re-election to the overwhelming support from church-going evangelicals and Catholics. And what did Republicans do to overturn Roe or in any meaningful way limit abortion? Nothing. [5]

Pro-life words save no-one, pro-life actions do. I have little interest in seeing who stands most vocally against abortion, but, what steps do we take to actually make the rate and absolute numbers of abortion fall?

In fact, there are special Bible warnings to those who say to the needy, including the unborn needy, If you tell him, If you tell him, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that? So too, faith – in context, rhetoric about faith – by itself, if it is not complemented by action, is dead.… That’s why I cannot commit to a candidate simply on the fact that he or she “really stand up for the unborn”!

ISRAEL AND PALESTINE

Many evangelicals – not all! – argue that we must Stand for Israel, which according to Christians United for Israel (CUFI) means that Israel should confiscate all Palestinian lands, make Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and not allow Palestinians to have their capital there. I am pro-Israel. And pro-Palestinian. But mainly pro-justice for all parties. For that reason, I have to doubt that CUFI is a seeker after justice in any abstract sense. [6]

THIS NEXT ELECTION IS THE MOST CRITICAL ONE EVER!

Don’t be too shaken by this “the stakes have never been higher” line, because everyone uses it every election. That must mean, logically enough, that most of the people who say it are wrong. [7]

2018 – Barack Obama, “This November’s election is more important than any I can remember in my lifetime.”

2018 – Donald Trump, to Christians, the 2018 midterm is “a referendum on your religion, it’s a referendum on free speech and the First Amendment”.

NOTES: 

[1] http://www.drrichardland.com/press/entry/the-so-called-land-letter.  In hindsight, neither can I see how the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan (now in it’s 18th year!) was justified either on principle or pragmatically – it did not destroy Al-Qaida or Bin Laden, who was killed almost decade after the invasion to capture him.

[2] Unfortunately for me and many others, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania only allows people who are registered in party to cast a vote in the party primaries. I have registered with more than party at one time or another during my adult life, mainly to be able to vote for the candidate I wanted to see in that party, but at this stage I just register as “Independent.”

[3] I do not mean to say, “Vote for a third party on principle.” That philosophy would be just as binding as saying, “I will always vote for one of the two main parties of the US” (so I don’t “waste” my vote) or “for one and only one of the main parties of the US.”  Tim Keller wrote a fine editorial for the New York Times, making the same sort of case: “How do Christians fit into the Two-Party System? They Don’t,” (9/29/18), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/29/opinion/sunday/christians-politics-belief.html

[4] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/01/17/509734620/u-s-abortion-rate-falls-to-lowest-level-since-roe-v-wade

[5] https://www.christianpost.com/news/hillary-clinton-is-the-best-choice-for-voters-against-abortion-170258/

[6] https://openoureyeslord.com/2017/08/03/israel-and-palestine-and-a-hope-for-peace/

[7] See https://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/05/weekinreview/the-most-important-article-in-our-history.htm

“Why I left party politics and never looked back,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica

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