In 2020, there is little need to convince someone American politics increasingly are hyperpartisan.
As Paul Taylor wrote in The Next America, hyperpartisanship is “arguably the most powerful force in twenty-first-century American politics.” He continues: “These days, Republicans and Democrats don’t stop at disagreeing with each other’s ideas. Increasingly, they deny each other’s facts, disapprove of each other’s lifestyles, don’t live in each other’s neighborhoods, impugn each other’s motives, question each other’s patriotism, can’t stomach each other’s news sources, and bring different value systems to such core social institutions as religion, marriage, and parenthood. It’s as if they belong not to rival parties, but to alien tribes.”
Christians are not immune from this hyperpartisanship, either. According to the Pew Research Center, “Partisanship has become increasingly tied to religious identification over the past quarter century.”
Over the past two decades, Christian leaders from various political leanings have expressed concern with mixed results at the growing partisanship impacting Christianity in America.
In 2008, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative interest group desiring to impact American politics, expressed reservations at the growing hyperpartisanship among conservative Christians.
In Personal Faith, Public Policy, Perkins wrote the following related to this hyperpartisanship: “[We] must rise above the seductive draw of power and partisan myopia and be consistent voices, speaking the truth in love. … As long as we as Christians are willing to tolerate or overlook duplicity in our self-identified party, it will be clear to the world that our allegiance is to a party and not the truth, regardless of what we claim.
“Unfortunately, the Christian community is not now seen as an objective voice … the evangelical movement has been guilty of preferring access over accountability,” Perkins continued. “All too often evangelicals have tolerated major breaches of character or competence within the Republican Party. … But if we are ever to speak as the moral conscience of the nation, we must consistently stand for a clear set of values and principles, no matter if that leads to a temporary loss of political power.”
Around the same time Perkins was wrestling with hyperpartisanship among conservatives, Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, a progressive publication, lamented the lack of influence progressive Christians were having on politics.
The hyperpartisanship among religious Democrats, according to Wallis, stifled the allowable influences of these voices. Wallis sought to correct this, stating, “Here’s the facts … every major social movement in our nation’s history—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor law reform and, of course, civil rights—was fueled and driven in large part by religion.
“And I want to say to the left, the progressive side: Conceding the entire territory of religion and even values to a religious and political right is the biggest mistake the left has made in years, and they must never make that mistake again,” Wallis asserted.
Christian’s positive opportunity
Taking a middle ground throughout his work and ministry is Joel C. Hunter, recently retired pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed in Orlando, Fla.
In his book, A New Kind of Conservative, Hunter expressed his desire to expand beyond partisan issues to a holistic and more inclusive focus on values. However, as Hunter warns, groups always will be tempted to resort to fear and anger as a way to hype participation, raise money and garner attention.
Hunter, who has worked with both conservative and progressive groups, asserts: “Fear and anger inherently limit understanding and compassion. Now is the time for us to mature into a movement that is expanding its goals and striving to reach those goals in positive ways. … Compassion is a more accurate portrayal of the character of Christ and a more effective way to point others to Him.
“The battle for the future will not be won in narrow ways by party politics and special interests; it will be won by broad and deep ideals coming out of the hearts of vast numbers of people,” Hunter explained. “The future will reflect the concerns and prayers of grassroots Christians who believe that poverty, injustice, pollution and disease are among the significant issues the Bible calls them to address.”
Hunter desires for Christians to engage in politics, while avoiding the partisan trappings that place party over compassion and character.
Where Christians are strong
A decade removed from these reflections, we still have much work to do. In his book, Love Your Enemies, Arthur Brooks calls for a needed change in our politics: “We need a national healing every bit as much as economic growth. … In the very moment in which America most needs to come together as a nation … we are being torn apart, thoughtlessly and needlessly.”
Is Brooks’ desire for healing possible, or is our hope for a better way in vain?
Perhaps a way forward is to continue to learn from the past, heeding the words of Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man and Immoral Society, where he described power as “a poison which blinds the eyes of moral insight and lames the will of moral purpose.”
Too often, political power has trumped the prophetic call, weakening the impact of the moral voice on the society.
Niebuhr, in an essay titled “The Christian Church in a Secular Age,” exhorts Christians to repentance, bringing healing not only to the church, but to society as well.
Niebuhr wrote: “The Christian gospel which transcends all particular and contemporary social situations can be preached with power only by a church which bears its share of the burdens of immediate situations in which men are involved, burdens of establishing peace, of achieving justice, and of perfecting justice in the spirit of love.”
As Christians, we must resist hyperpartisan and tribalistic tendencies and, instead, practice repentance while pursuing justice and reconciliation, both for the individual and for society as a whole.
The approach of people of faith as we address complex political issues of our time should still reflect the exhortation from the prophet Micah: do justly, love mercy and walk humbly.
Jack Goodyear is the dean of the Cook School of Leadership and professor of political science at Dallas Baptist University.