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Liberty and Justice for All

Party Pessimism

It was with great appreciation that I found myself reading and re-reading Angela Cowser's first two essays. Her pessimism about political parties in the U.S. comes through loud and clear.

  • "Because of the way campaigns and parties are funded, I've little hope for voluntary structural change."
  • "Transcending Ideologies - Should they - yes, especially as it relates to poverty and poor people. Will they? No."
  • "As they are currently structured, political parties are not the answer to teaching good citizenship practices and deepening grassroots democracy."
  • "After election day, partisans have little use for voters."

It is refreshing to see in print what I often hear in the community!

Interesting Similarities

I was particularly fascinated by Angela's insightful recognition of the similarities between political parties and Christian congregations. And I love her comparison of asking citizens to vote with asking people to attend worship. The outcomes are similar, she notes - "many do, but many more do not". Amen!

On a practical side, I have found myself in interestingly similar situations regarding my church affiliation and my political party affiliation. As a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, I'm grateful for my denomination's rich doctrinal history based in scripture. But I find my denomination's "position" on homosexuality and opposition to gay marriage to be extremely troubling. I found myself in a similar situation regarding its "position", some 20 years or so ago, on the role of women in the church (unable to hold church office). I've felt like I'm left with a choice of finding another church that more closely mirrors my understanding of scripture or hanging in there and trying to influence church polity and practice. Similarly, I've indicated in a previous essay that I appreciate the Democratic Party's emphasis (at least symbolically, as Angela suggests) on themes like income inequality, racial equity, and rights for marginalized citizen groups. But while I appreciate the important role of labor unions in society, organized labor seems to have garnered inordinate political influence within the Democratic Party. Unquestioned support of "labor" is typically expected of Democratic candidates. It's a classic quid pro quo and there are typically political consequences for not supporting union positions on issues. If I have strong disagreement with a union on an issue, I feel like my options are to leave the party (with perhaps no better alternative) or to work from within to influence it in a different direction.

Blaming and Demonizing

I also appreciated Doug Koopman's recognition of voters' deep distrust of politics and the associated response of both political parties to blame and demonize the other. Personally, the overwhelming negativity makes political service very difficult. When I meet new people in social settings, which happens a lot while serving in local elected office, I'm glad to be able to talk about my "day job" when someone asks about what I do for a living. I'm often embarrassed when someone I know "outs" me in a group conversation by interjecting that "he's also a County Commissioner". That revelation typically changes the conversation, more often than not in a negative way.

Where are the Mediating Forces?

Kevin Den Dulk's lament, about how the weakening of mediating forces in our society have contributed to the tendency of political parties to use symbols of identity to divide and mobilize, also struck home with me. As I write this essay, there is an ongoing Facebook conversation among a group of former local journalists in which the general conclusion seems to be that good journalism is dead. I can attest that it's especially dead at the local level. When I began my service as a County Commissioner, some 25 years ago, there were multiple media representatives at every meeting and at least one reporter at a dozen or so individual subcommittee and board meetings. In addition, every two years, the local newspaper interviewed and endorsed Commission candidates. Nowadays, visits by the media are rare (local government coverage tends to be a regurgitation of news releases) and endorsements of local candidates are no longer made.

Getting Local

In this final essay, I'd like to offer two parting thoughts. The first is that it seems like we have lost an historical focus on local politics - at least until something comes up that directly affects us in a negative way. Then, when that negative thing happens, we're ignorant about how to address it. We don't know where to turn for support because we haven't been paying attention. Angela talks about this in terms of building economic, faith and social community - "It's in the hard work of organizing and reorganizing communities that concrete changes that materially improve lives happen; it's where leaders, followers, and potential leaders are mentored face-to-face and in real time....". In bygone days, national leaders often worked their way up the experience ladder, which included significant interaction with citizens all along the way. Our last Presidential election demonstrated that someone can now be elected to the highest office in the land without any of that experience of representing a broader and more grass-roots community. We may be worse off for it.

Racialized Outcomes

The other area about which I'd like to share some observations is the role of the institutional church, in the form of congregations, in our political life. In particular, I believe that the church and government can and should play significant and complimentary roles in addressing one of our country's most significant and challenging issues - our pervasive and ongoing racism. While the overt racism that I grew up with in an all-white, middle-class town in the suburbs of Chicago has arguably been declining, racialized outcomes are as pervasive as ever in our communities. Disparities between white and nonwhite populations, in wealth, health, education, income, employment and access to power are significant, disturbing and unacceptable. These are areas that politicians, government and churches ought to be lock-step in addressing. When was the last time that you heard your pastor apply Luke 4:19 to the lack of a living wage that disproportionately affects African American citizens? "He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And when did you last see a politician actually push for (not just talk about) a living wage for all?

As Angela suggests, it's extremely hard to do this work, to call out injustice, in a climate where it is OK to lob anonymous, harsh and often hate-filled verbal grenades toward anyone who holds a contrary opinion. (Check out the online comments on most any news media website for vivid examples.)  If the church and government want to fulfill their institutional callings, what better place to start than focusing on the relational meetings that are a fundamental part of their healthy existence!

 

You may have gathered, by now, that, while I'm not particularly enamored with either of our political parties, my personal preference is for the party whose platform emphasizes economic and social justice over the one that emphasizes preserving, protecting, and defending the nation. The former themes are woven throughout scripture and the latter is hard to find or even extrapolate. But more important than party affiliation, for me, is the need for our local communities be relationally engaged with each other (in ALL our diversity) and with the individuals who they elect to represent them. If we work toward that, I'm convinced that we'll move closer to experiencing both shalom and "liberty and justice for all".

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