The Church’s Role in a Toxic Culture of Partisanship
“You are no longer my mother,” a son tells his mother before cutting her off from his life. The reason? She planned to vote for Trump.
On the other side of the political spectrum, a supporter of the President disowns his sister for her political views, refusing to notify her that their mother had died of a stroke.
On Facebook I have become accustomed to see posts from folk who are promising cutoffs from other friends because of their vote in the 2020 Presidential Election.
A slow acting poison has been released into our water supply, and we are not building up any immunity. That poison is partisanship.
We are familiar with the causes: some as old as humanity like anger, hatred, and myopia. Some are new: like social media, state sponsored disinformation through technology, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories.
As a recent news article reveals, our divisions are based on powerful perceptions about the worst we imagine in the other. “Another recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 8 in 10 Republicans believe the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists, while 8 in 10 Democrats believe the Republican Party has been taken over by racists. The report is aptly named titled ‘Dueling Realities.’”
I want to recognize that many are hurting, many are anxious, many are fearful. Because each human is created in the image of God, it is important that we remove those idols in our lives which prevent us from being in proper relationship with others. Rather than erase the image, we might lovingly reveal it.
How might the Church be faithful during these days of fractured politics?
I want to offer three ways forward:
- The church must reclaim reconciliation. As fractured relationships become the norm for American society, the church has a wonderful opportunity to proclaim the gospel that transcends political differences. The church is called to be a community of reconciliation that (when it is faithful) bears witness to the power and mercy and love of the risen Jesus. Reconciliation begins in the church. We must first learn how to love others within our own community across the political divide before we can hope to witness to a fractured world that has no model for reconciliation or repentance.
- The church must name partisanship as an idol. Whatever else the Church post-Covid will look like, I believe faithfulness means that we must name our political partisanship as idolatry. “You shall have no other gods before me,” is the first of the Ten Commandments. We confess that we have worshipped political ideology to the exclusion of God’s claim on our lives. The political is an important dimension of our shared life together, but it is not the most important dimension. It cannot supplant our fidelity to the God who stands over all political systems. If we are partisans of any party, it must be of the Jesus movement.
There are circumstances when the Church must speak out prophetically to be faithful. The Barmen Declaration, the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other courageous Christians provide inspiration and models for what such prophetic witness looks like. Faithful prophetic witness arises when we seek to honor the claims of a fiercely loving God who is partial to the weak and oppressed and suffering. It ceases to be faithful when we wish to provide our political beliefs with theological cover.
- The church should learn how to speak Christian again. We must recapture distinctively Christian language to describe our mission and our values, instead of being captive to political nomenclature. In America, it is common to view the church (wittingly or not) as the place where your political ideology acquires a light theological justification. That is why the dominant frame for talking about churches uses the political terms “conservative” or “liberal.”
Marilyn McEntyre’s work emphasizes the importance of choosing grace-filled words that do not alienate, while at the same time remain truthful. Stanley Hauerwas urges us to “learn how to speak Christian.” The words we use reflect the reality we are inhabiting. Let us take care with words. Atonement, sin, redemption, reconciliation, love, justice, mercy, grace, and peace…rather than conservative, liberal, progressive, libertarian, socialist, Republican, Democrat.
Cutoff is always an option for human relationships, and in rare cases it is required for the sake of our body and soul. However, cutoff as an instinctive response to political difference is not the Christian way. I repent of it in my life, and seek a more grace-filled future.
We have a lot of work ahead of us to bear witness in times such as these, but I believe it is joyful and life-giving work.