A Reformation Model for Church and Political Party
Monday, January 8, 2018 at 10:41AM
Angela Cowser in 5. Party Politics and Beyond

I write as a middle class, African American female professional scholar and Minister of Word and Sacrament (Presbyterian Church USA) who has devoted her life to the propagation of a Christian gospel that is rooted absolutely in the richness of Hebrew and Greek notions of justice, in Jesus’ call for all people, groups, and nations to repent (metanoia - to turning around, reversing course), and to full financial and educational reparations for the sociopathic, anti-social, evil foundations upon which this nation was founded, and upon whose poisonous roots upon it continues to enrich itself today. I also write as a former community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) affiliate – Tying Nashville Together – which did its good work from 1991-2009 in Nashville, Tennessee.

This essay is informed by reflection upon racial, gender, and class discriminations which I have suffered through, the (successful) struggle to become an educated, informed citizen of the United States, and most importantly, to respond to the high call on my whole life of discipleship in Jesus Christ – in this life and the next.  I will take each of the leading questions posed, answer them forthrightly as I see things. The vernacular is straightforward, in plain language, in hope of clarity of argument and rich discussion and counterpoints.


The Political Priorities and Values of the Republican Party in the Early 21st Century

The political priorities of the Republican Party in 2018 are to raise money, find and provide financial and strategic support to candidates who can win elections (no matter how ethically odious they may be), build a variety of media platforms for propagandistic purposes (Fox News, Breitbart, TBN, CBN), and use whatever means are necessary – including gerrymandering, allowing foreign powers to “meddle” in US elections, and sustained, systematic suppression of minority and poor voters, etc) – to win elections. The values of the Republican Party include a fanatical obsession with individual rights of Whites (anti-gospel), a narrow and fanatical obsession with abortion and private sexual politics (not mentioned by Jesus), and a murderous obsession and advantaging with and of guns, gun owners, gun cultures and gun life (those who live by the sword will die by the sword) which places non-armed citizens at particular dangers in both public and private spaces.

The values of the Republican Party in 2018 are the same as they have been for as long as I’ve had a consciousness about it: the symbolic and substantive suppression and oppression of minority citizens and immigrants around issues of race, ethnicity, citizenship, and gender; a close melding of the goals and aims of the Republican Party and most conservative Christian fellowships in the US (especially the Southern Baptist Convention, non-denominatioal, Pentecostal, and conservative evangelical groups), the militant and unrepentant elevation of (male, heterosexual) Whiteness and White norms, and the political satiation of Republican mega-donors to the exclusion of and denigration of the material lives of white, working class and poor Republican voters (no action to keep Carrier jobs in Indiana as promised; destruction of the ACA which many Republican voters use). America is being made great again for White Americans! While working class whites are visually prominent at Trump rallies, it’s the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Rebecca Mercer, and many Fortune 500 leaders, among others, who drive the legislative and cabinet-level priorities, works and accomplishments. The poor and indigent are stigmatized and demonized as lazy, shiftless freeloaders. Their concrete needs are cannibalized to serve the interests of mega-donors and higher income Americans.


The Political Priorities and Values of the Democratic Party in the Early 21st Century

The political priorities of the Democratic Party in 2018 include raising money, fielding candidates who can win elections, supporting the gerrymandering of districts, satisfying mega-donors (Harvey Weinstein, George Soros) and national constituency groups (NARAL, unions), and building (and supporting) media platforms that undergird their positions and constituencies (MSNBC, The New York Times).

Symbolically (at national conventions) and in some instances substantively the 2018 Democratic Party elevates ethnic, racial, and gender diversity as core values (Nancy Pelosi, Hilary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Baraka Obama, Kazir Khan), support of women’s thriving including reproductive rights (and responsibilities) and some level of accountability on sexual harassment within Congressional ranks, and expands a pro-life position to include legislation and actions that support human life from newborn to old age (Medicare, Medicaid, ACA, CHIP, GI Bill). Symbolically, President Obama was a powerful and energizing symbol of African American racial progress and inclusion, yet there were no legislative victories under his presidency which were specifically aimed at and named with African Americans as primary beneficiaries. Legislative victories were framed as good for Americans, not specifically African Americans for had that happened, those initiatives would have failed.

The post-modern Democratic party seems assiduously neutral on religion, and yet, much of the theological rhetoric coming from progressive, mainline pulpits and denominations track many of the aims and goals of the Party’s platform – care for children, the poor and the disabled, and the elderly; pro-gun control; female reproductive and workplace freedoms, and a penchant for diplomacy and multi-lateral foreign relations. The poor are ignored.


The Parties’ Comportment (or not) with Christian Values

What are Christian values? There seems to be no universal consensus on what they are. In common parlance, some fellowships emphasize prohibitions against certain behaviors: no smoking, drinking, dancing, abortion, or premarital sex (Southern Baptists). Others labor to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (United Methodists), perform “servant leadership” (SBC), “do God’s work of restoring and reconciling communities” (ELCA), perform “spiritual unity, truth, and faith” (COGIC), or “teach the truth, feed the hungry, heal the broken, and welcome strangers” (PCUSA).

Jesus’s values as demonstrated in the gospels include truth-telling (Nicodemus), leadership calling and development (the calling of the disciples, the woman at the well), confronting oppressive religious beliefs and practices (The woman at the well, the hemorrhaging woman), teaching and action (Sermon on the Mount), and calling all people (and nations) to repent (Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Mark).

About one year ago, I did an informal survey of 25 United Methodist elder-clergy coaches (pastors) who serve in urban congregations for some consulting work I was doing with them. I asked the pastors to track their (work) time and activities for two weeks. What I found was that for almost all of the respondents, their time apportioned as followed:

Additionally, what we actually ask people to do in congregations is teach, give money (tithe?), fundraise, maintain buildings and grounds, and organize worship, and attend worship, Bible study, and festival celebrations. Our congregations are for the most part domesticated; our response to structural injustice often reduces down to hand-outs, coat drives, and food basket giveaways, especially around holidays. We pray for the poor, the tortured, those living and dying in war zones, victims of injustice. We do not repent and we don’t repair the people and structures that are broken by our injustice

So we have three data sets: what denominations say they value, what Jesus values, how top-performing clergy actually live out their values. Put these data against what the major political parties actually do and we have essentially two groups: political parties and Christian congregations mirroring each other in institutional maintenance [fundraising, administration], fielding winnable candidates (new members), and outreach and evangelism [fundraising]. Every two to four years we ask citizens to vote (many do, but many more do not); and every week we ask people to attend worship (many do, but many more do not).


Changes Needed in Priorities and Values

Is this a question about the need for change in political parties and/or churches? The changes needed in churches is perhaps for another essay. Because of the way campaigns and parties are funded, I’ve little hope for voluntary structural change. What could happen for political parties as they are currently structured, is to create a leadership academy that teaches potential candidates and interested citizens how to run successful campaigns, how governance actually work – at every level, and how government, business and civic sectors intersect and interact. In other words, create citizenship schools for ordinary citizens. Move from the strictly transactional and financial to the relational.



Transcending Ideologies

Should they – yes, especially as it relates to poverty and poor people. Will they? No.


Collectively, congregations have millions of organized people and millions (billions) of dollars in organized money. Because we disagree on values (and doctrine and the role of the church in society), that collective power remains unorganized and dormant. Presently, the pressure on political parties to change is coming primarily from corporate and mega-donor spaces, with spasms for change coming from voters on each election cycle. For churches, which still remain the largest unorganized, organized block of voters in the United States, little will change in the larger polis without a change in consciousness about power, its use, misuse and non-use and a radical change in how the Bible is read, interpreted, and applied away from a neutered Jesus, and an incessant and infantilizing spiritualization of material injustice.

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