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In Defense of Parties, and In Choosing the More Limited One

“So, Doug, who are you really rooting for in the game tonight?”  It seems as though I am asked this particularly annoying question often, as there is always another Hope College-Calvin College athletic contest on the horizon.  Given that I am both an unashamed alumnus of Hope and a voluntary employee of Calvin, my condition apparently presents to some an unresolvable moral dilemma.

My latest answers to such inquiries are a mix of “if that is a serious question, your God is too small,” or “I have friends at both places, and I always support my friends.” Although often asked in jest, questions about my Hope-Calvin loyalty irritate me, and I think for fundamentally the same reason as excessive partisanship between Republicans and Democrats irritates me: there is far more to life than this. I watch college sporting events to remember how difficult it is to achieve excellence in team sports in a heated competition before a boisterous crowd, and to appreciate when it is successfully accomplished. Often, Hope-Calvin contests illustrate that; I leave satisfied when the best team on that day won a well-played contest “fair and square.” And then I try to move on to something important.

Part of this last essay addresses that issue—how much moral weight is there to political involvement and partisan choice in the United States today.  My simple answer is –far less than the questions imply or that my nearly forty years of full-time engagement with American politics seems to indicate. I feel personally called to significant political involvement. I also maintain a longstanding preference for the Republican Party. I don’t, however, see either choice as morally superior to minimal citizenship activity and support for Democrats. To me, politics is part of a life that has to be fully dedicated to God, and political parties are an invaluable tool in organizing government policies that hopefully move society forward. I find that work personally interesting, rewarding and comprehensible. I will try to explain a bit more in succinct form while reacting to at least some of the issues raised by my conversation partners. 

Jim Talen’s second essay responds a bit to my first essay’s mention of the Reformed Christian analytical tool of sphere sovereignty and the Catholic tool of subsidiarity. I appreciate Jim’s appreciation of sphere sovereignty and searching for some background on subsidiarity.  I would say the Van Til article is a decent source, but to any readers interested in pursuing this further, I would also recommend this article by L.D. Weinberger. Whereas Van Til seems to be looking for the distinctions between the two views to find the superior one, Weinberger looks how both views are useful analytical tools to examine the limitations of present policy solutions and show how politics might better respond.  My analogy is one of carpentry tools—sledgehammers and crowbars are excellent, and perhaps sufficient, to demolish part of a building undergoing renovation, but different and finer tools are needed to build the replacement. Subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty help identify how policy can be more responsive and responsible by paying attention to localism and the rights and responsibilities of groups, but one would not want to rely on them exclusively to construct American politics and public policy. Other tools, including the insights of general revelation and common grace to use religious language, are perhaps even more important to employ in effectively working in the American polity.  Neither Hope nor Calvin, nor another of my alma maters, the Catholic University in America, is the best college in the United States (although all have merit).  So, get out more. 

There are three other limits to politics to note. First, partisan political engagement around national issues is not a moral requirement to live a Christian life, even though it has occupied a conspicuous portion of my own.  Perhaps writing only to myself, more than twenty years ago, in Reformed Christian Citizenship in America, I wrote that “I look for politicians who take the time to pay attention to their families, who have developed outside interests that are not political, who take time off every week, year, or within their careers to cultivate the other areas of life. . . .  [E]vidence that life is more than politics is crucial. There is something tragic, even hypocritical, about Christian politicians and activists consumed by their political activity.” My voluntary relocation away from Washington, D.C. in the mid-1990s probably was required for me to follow my own advice on that point.

Second, a Christian seeking to engage the political system also has to feel deeply called. I believe the call has to be a rather specific one, to a particular type of service and in a particular time in life. After less than four years in my Washington, D.C. political career, in 1984 I was fortunate enough to connect to Paul B. Henry in his first campaign for the U.S. House, and to work in that campaign and in his first years of service in the U.S. House.  After Paul’s death in 1993, my colleague in those adventures, Gary Visscher, wrote with me a short tribute to Paul in which we note how well fitted Paul was to the position of elected legislator.  We made the case that his welcoming personality and skills in listening, balancing, and synthesizing made Paul perfectly suited for legislative representation, more so than careers in the executive or judicial branches for which he was also mentioned. It seems too often that people who claim a call to political service by seeking a particular office may be masking a more worrisome will to political power by any means necessary, misrepresenting a desire to dominate as an eagerness to serve. The challenging task for a Christian voter is to try to discern those motivations in the many candidates seeking such positions and, for the Christian contemplating his or her own political future, to a thoughtful and thorough self-examination of both abilities and motivations.

Third, the genius of the American systems of federalism and separation of powers illustrate the practical limitations of political power, reinforcing the moral limitations.  Even the most confident and uniform political ideology, buttressed by firm religious conviction that God puts one in the right, will be frustrated under our system.  This is fortunate. Every week in my church attendance and every day when I reflect as I should, I am reminded of the fallen state of both my will and my intellect. I do not always want what is best, and even if I did I probably would not know how to get there. I expect the truths about my own limits are true of others, including those with political power. It is providential that we have a system of government that prevents any one person’s will from being realized. Even the most politically skilled, ideologically pure, and religiously self-assured person will have a hard time imposing his or her will through politics and government for very long or to extend it very far. 

As I reflect on these unavoidable limits, the Republican Party seems at least as acceptable a place for a Christian to sojourn while on this earth as is the other party. To my mind, a government limited in both reach and ambition and dispersed in its administration is both morally wise and practically expedient. Kevin den Dulk suggests that ideologically pure GOP elected officials and full-time operatives really do exist, and that #NeverTrump-ers are operating out of both.  I think not.  Despite the ideological rhetoric, both parties are essentially pragmatic.  Healthy political parties seek voting majorities. We seem in a rather unhealthy moment when each of the two major parties is more intent on describing the other party as an offensive, if not lunatic, fringe.  They are each doing so with the goal of presenting themselves as the majority, reasonable, alternative to lunacy.  I don’t think this labeling of the other is a sustainable strategy for either Democrats or Republicans, as public distrust increases and political engagement declines further, particularly among the young.  For Republicans, the sustainable strategy toward a voting majority is to try to appeal to their suburban target voters in more inclusive and substantial ways.  The challenge facing the GOP in the near term is how to square a sufficiently large and comprehensive infrastructure program into its ideology.  That is not very hard, and the GOP did it in its earliest years, promoting infrastructure partnerships that enhanced individual opportunity for good work and good employment, partnering with states and localities to produce the conditions for gainful employment and earned income for everyone.  It will take time, at times, to include new pragmatic decisions into an ideologically coherent message, but it is not hard to see the Republican get there.

Political parties in the United States have very many practical uses to connect the will of groups of voters to government policy.  There is moral content to all these activities, but it is very difficult to identify and label some as particularly Christian and some as not.  Christians can certainly undertake political activity in both parties.  More importantly, Christians ought not to think more highly of themselves than they do of others; on the contrary, Christians should be more aware of their own pride, mixed motivations, and unclear thinking than others involved in party politics.  It has to be a calling, not a crusade; a humbling (and sometimes humiliating) journey and not a triumphal entry. So, root for one of the parties, and vote.  But do other important things as well. 

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