We find ourselves amid another presidential election in the United States. It appears more consequential than usual against the backdrop of a global pandemic, a renewed confrontation with racism, and stark contrasts between the candidates. There is a corresponding urgency to our recurring debates about how we should seek to discern and apply the Christian faith’s teachings in our political views and activities. Does this candidate or that one have the character and temperament Christians can vote for in good conscience? What about the policy positions of the candidates and their parties—on abortion, immigration, race, health care, poverty, the environment, and so on? How should Christians weigh these matters in casting their ballots and talking with family members, friends, and neighbors about how they plan to cast theirs? And what (if anything) should our churches, pastors, priests, and lay leaders do to help believers understand what our faith entails amid the disputatious rough and tumble of the campaign?
These are all excellent questions. I am not suggesting we stop asking them. But they all invite one question that lies further upstream when it comes to avoiding disorder in our political beliefs and behavior: How should Christians think about and engage with political parties and the partisanship they give rise to in our polarized age? Parties competing for power—a contest heightened and personified in presidential elections—along with voters backing the candidate of one party or another are normal features of a free society. Indeed, political scientists agree the institutions, processes, and behaviors of party politics are perhaps the distinguishing characteristics of modern democracies. But there can be a dark side to these animating spirits. How can Christians realize the promise while avoiding the pitfalls of political parties and partisanship—and, in the process, help our society do so as well?
How can Christians realize the promise while avoiding the pitfalls of political parties and partisanship—and, in the process, help our society do so as well?
At this point, some readers might be thinking, “Hang on, I am not a partisan! Partisanship is bad—narrow-minded and divisive. I vote based on my objective, thoughtful judgments of the candidates or the issues, not for or against any party. I know some people who are partisan, there are even some in my church, but I am not one of them.” Readers who have formally registered or identify as independent voters may feel particularly justified in reaching this conclusion. But partisanship—individuals taking sides and voting with one group in politics in opposition to another—is not just a characteristic of free societies. It is woven into human nature and an expression of our agency. Most citizens (and thus most Christians) in our democracy are partisans at one level or another, even—in some cases, especially—those who profess not to be.
To preview the argument that follows, political parties and partisanship present two temptations Christians would be wise to avoid. The first is presuming we can and should plunge into politics and provoke, condemn, post, and tweet like the growing number of no-holds-barred partisans. The second is presuming we can and should swear off all allegiances to political parties and participate in politics above the fray, as objective and nonpartisan independents. As with our participation in other broken but potentially beneficial human institutions, we need to consider how we can engage with and reorient political parties and partisanship to better serve the kingdom of God. Churches and their leaders can and should help guide Christians in this critical endeavor. Politics is too important to be left to the politicians.
The Opportunity: Political Parties and Partisanship as Engines of Democracy
If we are ambivalent about being partisans—not liking the label’s connotations, but still behaving in ways that lead objective observers to apply it to us—we are in good company. Consider the case of James Madison, the Founding Father who did the most to shape the Constitution’s structure and then put it into practice as a leader in the first Congress. Writing in the Federalist Papers, Madison warned against what he termed “the mischiefs of faction”—a faction being a “number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Politics is too important to be left to the politicians.
Madison believed that factions, or what today we would call parties and interest groups, were inevitable in a free society. The question was how to control their adverse effects. He and his colleagues sought to design a system of government that would do just that. Extending the republic’s sphere to encompass multiple regions, interests, and values would make it more difficult to form a majority not oriented to the good of all. The same held for arrangements that separated, checked, and balanced power across three branches of government, and that decentralized power in a federal system.
Madison’s theoretical antipathy toward parties and partisanship was shared by others who joined him in leading the fledgling government, including George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. However, the anti-party theory of the founding generation rapidly began to disintegrate in practice. Once again, Madison took the initiative, in concert with his mentor Jefferson. They opposed the economic and foreign policies that the Washington administration pursued under the adept direction of Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury. In their quest to stop Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson began using allied newspapers and local leaders to organize like-minded Americans behind the scenes, creating an entity dedicated to advancing their views.
As Jefferson and Madison rallied their supporters, Hamilton and his compatriots organized theirs. By the end of Washington’s administration, two rival parties had emerged and were at loggerheads. Hamilton’s Federalist Party held sway through the one-term presidency of John Adams. However, by the election of 1800, Jefferson and Madison had built up enough support for their party that they were able to win control of the government. Despite their theoretical objections, prominent founders on both sides of the fledgling nation’s political divide felt obliged to create parties and engage in partisanship. They did so for two reasons: to counter policies and policymakers they believed were not in the nation’s interest, and to marshal the support they needed to gain and keep power.
In the first part of the nineteenth century, competition between the parties was institutionalized and rationalized in what the historian Richard Hofstadter called “the idea of a party system.” This idea amounted to the breakthrough in thinking about parties and partisanship that Madison and his compatriots could never quite achieve. In a nutshell, the idea was that party competition was legitimate and served democratic purposes. It channeled potentially destabilizing conflict into the political and electoral arena. In this arena, the constitutional rules of the game and periodic elections provided serviceable mechanisms for determining who should govern and toward what ends. By standing for certain principles and policies and competing for votes across the country, the parties would hold their rivals to account and engage citizens in the nation’s democratic process, enabling them to support and/or oppose alternative programs. Rather than destabilizing politics, a competitive party system in which each party acknowledged the other’s legitimacy could serve to keep politics within bounds.
While party competition was being institutionalized and legitimated in the United States, the franchise expanded to the point where all white men had the vote. Democracy became a numbers game, and the parties recruited mass followings among newly enfranchised voters and the waves of immigrants populating the rapidly expanding nation. The strength of parties came to depend on the size of their support in the electorate. They thus became engines of civic integration. Subsequent expansions of the franchise to women in 1920 and African Americans in the 1960s reprised these dynamics. Hence the influential thesis of E.E. Schattschneider, one of the great political scientists of the twentieth century: “The political parties created democracy and modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties.”
There is a rough but sturdy morality embodied in the central role that parties and partisanship play in modern democracy. Majority rule honors citizens’ equal status and provides the only legitimate basis for granting power to one group and not another in a democracy grounded on the proposition that all people are created equal—a proposition that we share as Christians. As Adlai Stevenson quipped when a supporter assured him he had the support of every thinking American, “That is not enough. I need a majority!” And it is only through party politics and partisanship—persuading others to join your coalition and minimizing your rivals’ appeal—that you can build up to the majorities needed to govern in a democracy.
The Dark Side of Parties and Partisanship
While political parties and partisanship are inevitable and, in many respects, beneficial for democracy, they can tax social cohesion. Henry Adams, a descendent of two learned and public-spirited presidents, remarked of his forebears’ vocation that “politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” It is through parties and partisanship that such hatreds tend to be organized and expressed.
Adams’s observation is truer today than at any point in American history since the Civil War. The last four decades in American politics have been increasingly marked by what social scientists call affective polarization. In affective polarization, it is not so much that people feel strongly attached to their party, but rather that they have a deep dislike of those in the opposing party. They see them not as misguided or naïve opponents, but rather as enemies who threaten the republic and the American way of life and therefore need to be defeated at all costs.
Several factors have given rise to this phenomenon. The success of the civil rights movement set in motion a political realignment in which the Democratic Party became uniformly liberal and the GOP uniformly conservative. The re-sorting effects were then intensified by political conflict over the expanded size and scope of government in the 1960s and 1970s, a debate that continues unabated to this day. These tensions have been further aggravated by hyper-partisanship in Congress fueled by a prolonged and still unresolved contest for control of the institution over the past four decades. We have also seen a kind of in-group fervor grow ever more passionate as we have come to get our news through ideologically driven media and share, post, and tweet our reactions to it in virtual echo chambers.
The result is a widening chasm of mistrust and ill will between in-groups and out-groups—that is, those affiliated with the other party. In 1960, fewer than one in twenty Americans said they would be “displeased” if their child married someone from the opposite party. Fast-forward fifty years. In 2010, researchers found that nearly one out of two Republicans and one out of three Democrats reported that they would be “unhappy” with this development. Maybe it’s time for a political remake of Look Who’s Coming to Dinner.
The approximately two in five American voters who identify as independents are not immune from the trending tribalism. They simply practice it undercover. Political scientists Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov observe that substantial majorities of professed independents consistently side with one party against the other, but they don’t wish to be seen as partisan because of the stigma attached to that label. Their independent status lets them have their cake and eat it too: They can express their true partisan positions via their votes, while describing themselves and being perceived as not stooping to engage in partisan politics. By dint of their independent status, they are not obliged to lend any active support the party they consistently back—nor to assume any responsibility for keeping it from becoming too brazen.
Political and moral psychologists have found that our expressed political preferences—for either party or none—are not typically based on rational and deliberate consideration of our policy positions. Instead, our political views reflect visceral feelings, instincts, and automatic responses that our reasoning brains then work to rationalize. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt likens the role played by our rational mind to that of a rider on an elephant galloping through the jungle. The elephant represents our feelings, instincts, and automatic responses. About all the rider can do is shift their body weight this way or that to hang on. The rider does minimal steering, and most of the time is trying to support the speed and direction of the elephant.
Haidt and his colleagues have identified a set of moral foundations that all humans have to a greater or lesser degree. Much as we each have different combinations of taste receptors that tell us when food is sweet, salty, bitter, or sour, we also have different blends of moral foundations in our lives: for care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Research indicates that the relative mixture people have of these moral concerns leaves them predisposed to being liberal, libertarian, conservative, and so on. Just as I may have a sweet tooth and you might like savory foods, I might have strong concerns for care and fairness (and thus be liberal) while you may have more respect for loyalty, authority, and sanctity (and thus be conservative). Here, too, the main point is that we don’t reason our way to the ideological and policy positions we espouse so much as we rationalize our subrational dispositions.
We don’t reason our way to the ideological and policy positions we espouse so much as we rationalize our subrational dispositions.
None of this should surprise us as Christians. We already know that, left to our own devices, we are self-justifying, self-absorbed, deeply flawed, and broken creatures. We are prideful, quick to take offense and lash out against those we perceive to be slighting us. We are all too willing to go along with the crowd and not speak out against what we know in our hearts to be injustice and persecution. But what if we are not left to our own devices?
We Need Guidance on the “How” of Politics
Churches, ministers and priests, and lay leaders should guide the faithful about the temptations of party politics and how to proceed in the face of them. We expect church leaders to provide counsel on most civil spheres and how we as resident aliens should engage with and within them. Christians need and are open to, for example, counsel from ministers about the proper place of work and professional commitments in our day-to-day lives. The same holds for guidance about whether and how we should engage with popular culture through television, movies, music, social media, and so on. Things should not be different when it comes to modulating our allegiance to a political party, or support for a candidate who is the standard-bearer for one.
There tend to be two dynamics at play beneath the view that Christians’ political beliefs and behavior should be off-limits inside the church. One is legal. There is a prohibition in section 501(c)3 of the federal government’s Internal Revenue Code stating that charitable organizations, including churches, cannot “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” Nothing in what follows is contrary to this prohibition.
The second dynamic is cultural. Of the two famously taboo topics at dinner parties—religion and politics—the latter remains taboo in most churches. Politics feels messy, divisive, confrontational—in other words, not something we want brought up in the one hour each week in which we hope to experience a modicum of order, unity, and peace in our lives. There are exceptions of course. White evangelical churches with pastors who are visibly engaged in politics on the right don’t seem to bother with these niceties. And many black churches maintain a strong legacy of getting souls to marches and the polls that extends back to their fight for freedom and equality in the civil rights movement.
That said, most churches with politically mixed congregations have understandable reasons to steer clear of politics and the potential for disagreement that accompanies the topic. There is little upside for their leaders to talk about how their flock should behave in politics. Such talk can quickly conjure up hints of what parties or candidates they should support, igniting political debates among the congregants. Given that many Christians have fallen prey to affective polarization, including self-described independents, even a suggestion about, say, respecting those we disagree with in politics—or, God forbid, praying for them!—can trigger defensive tribal instincts. What pastor wants to risk inciting conflict in the pews or resentment of their status as the church leader? Better to steer clear of controversial topics like this and let people sort things out for themselves.
This institutional abstention needs to end. It is hurting Christians, the church’s role in our democratic society, and society’s overall health.
This institutional abstention needs to end. It is hurting Christians, the church’s role in our democratic society, and society’s overall health. Just as we would want churches to counsel Christians about how to respond if they find themselves employed in a toxic workplace or coping with a family member who is an alcoholic, we need to provide guidance to Christians as they try and figure out whether and how to participate in our polarized and dysfunctional politics. There are better ways for us to think about and participate in politics that (1) respect not only the letter but also the spirit of the tax code’s electioneering prohibition; (2) take into account both the temptations and imperatives of parties and partisanship in a democracy; and (3) enable the church and churchgoers to play a more constructive role in our public life.
What Would More Christian Partisanship Look Like?
In deciding how we might go about this, we let’s begin with a framework for ethical partisanship developed by political theorists Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum. It includes five essential elements. The first is inclusivity—“the desire to win office (and power) on the most democratic terms possible.” This means ensuring that all citizens have an equal right to participate in elections and political life and opposing restrictions of the franchise that serve one party or group at others’ expense, for example, the poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow era, or voter ID requirements that make it harder for younger, lower-income, and minority voters to cast ballots today.
Another element of ethical partisanship is comprehensiveness. While parties, by definition, represent a portion of the opinion in the nation, they must have and articulate a view of the common good for the country as a whole, and for all citizens. That is, they cannot focus their agenda on policies and principles meant to reward particular regions or groups in a zero-sum game.
Ethical partisanship also entails two additional elements that are complementary virtues—loyalty and a willingness to compromise. Loyalty is essential because without it “any standing with others is impossible. Loyalty has its hazards: It can render one blind to all facts and events that seem bad for one’s party and one’s cause. But accomplishing anything ambitious in politics requires loyalty.” This imperative also implies an obligation to use one’s voice and influence to shape a party to which one can, in good conscience, remain loyal. A willingness to compromise is essential within parties so that co-partisans can settle on a program they can stand for together. It is even more important between parties, in order to legislate for and govern a free and diverse society in which no single party will have a sustained monopoly of truth, virtue, and power.
Finally, ethical partisanship requires a commitment to constitutional democracy that accepts both the fact and the value of pluralism in society. This commitment includes belief in and defense of the legitimacy of political opposition, free and fair elections, and the peaceful transfer of power between those who lose and those who win them. As Muirhead and Rosenblum point out, “Without this commitment, the ethics of partisanship dissolve.”
We can use biblical wisdom to translate these principles of ethical partisanship into a set of concrete practices Christians can apply in politics. To begin, we should always bear in mind Paul’s reminder that while in heaven we will see and understand the nature of things clearly, in this world “we see through a glass, darkly.” Our perceptions, not least in politics, are imperfect and distorted, hence the need for and legitimacy of political opposition to challenge prevailing points of view.
Another implication is that we need to be humble and circumspect in our political judgments—especially of those people with whom we are apt to disagree. Researchers have found that we hold stereotypical views of the parties in our heads—especially of the out-party. Republicans, for example, think that 38 percent of Democrats are LGBTQ, when only 6 percent identify as such, while Democrats believe that 44 percent of Republicans earn more than $250,000 per year when only 2 percent do. We also know Democrats and Republicans suffer from significant perception gaps in which they consistently attribute more extreme views to members of the opposing party than they actually hold. Finally, the Pew Research Center continues to find that majorities of voters who identify with or lean toward not only the Republican Party but also the Democratic Party identify as Christian. It always behooves us to ask, then, What might the believers who constitute a majority of the other party be seeing and thinking that I may not be, but should?
This question leads directly to another that Jesus posed to his followers: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3 NIV). When it comes to addressing the problems with political parties, rather than always critiquing the opposition, Christians in both parties should focus on clearing up their own side’s shortcomings and extremism. When a member of the opposing tribe criticizes ours, that is expected, a dog-bites-man story, and signals us to counterattack. When someone from within our tribe offers a critique of our policies, practices, or leaders, that is a different, man-bites-dog story, one more likely to prompt us to think twice. Internal criticism and dissent can be more persuasive and productive because they originate from those we are already in a relationship with and inclined to trust. Thus, Christians seeking to keep their party and fellow partisans oriented to the claims of ethical partisanship should speak up when they stray—in conversations with friends, letters to the editor and elected officials, candidate townhalls, and other means.
When it comes to addressing the problems with political parties, rather than always critiquing the opposition, Christians in both parties should focus on clearing up their own side’s shortcomings and extremism.
Ultimately, in politics as in the rest of our lives, the Golden Rule should be our guide: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NIV). This rule is especially relevant for the principle of inclusivity, the starting point for ethical partisanship. Suppose you would object to a proposed voting restriction, gerrymander, or institutional change if applied to you or your party. In that case, you should not support or accept its application to your opponents.
Bringing the Golden Rule further into the realm of everyday political behaviors, Christians would do well to follow the Braver Angels Pledge. Braver Angels is a national civic network dedicated to helping its members engage productively with those who see things differently in politics. The organization is not itself a religious organization but welcomes participants of all faiths and none. Braver Angels developed its approach based in part on the research of Jonathan Haidt and in part on the methods of family therapy. Their pledge reads as follows:
As individuals, we try to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it. In our communities, we engage those we disagree with, looking for common ground and ways to work together. In politics, we support principles that bring us together rather than divide us.
The first part of the pledge is the key, and it reflects what we have learned from an accumulating body of social-science research. The odds of persuading an adult to change their political opinions and adopt the opposing ones that we happen to hold are long indeed. But we can and should endeavor to understand their views and how and why they have come to hold them. In the process of doing that, we will discover what we have in common—likely more than we had thought. We can then get busy working to advance the goals we share, deepening our connection, and enabling mutual learning and reflection. Doing all of this will lead us to recognize there is more to appreciate and less to fear from our differences. We will also be better positioned to identify and commit to shared principles, as well as the processes and institutions in which they are embodied. Such shared commitments, in turn, enable us to live peaceably alongside others who see the world differently.
Majorities of those who identify as Republicans, Democrats, and independents profess they are Christians. If majorities of these majorities began thinking and behaving differently in their partisanship along the lines sketched out here, it would foment a sea change in our politics. The transformation wouldn’t eliminate but would modulate our accelerating tendencies toward tribalism. We would be less apt to view politics as the systematic organization of hatreds between friends and enemies, an apocalyptic struggle that can and must be won, once and for all, at all costs. Conversely, such a sea change would reinforce the institutions and norms of constitutional government, acknowledge the fact and value of pluralism, and uphold the legitimacy of political opposition.
Toward a Christian “Package Deal”
This transformation would also build a broader base of support for issues that Christians care deeply about by enabling cross-party coalitions to advance them. Observers such as James Mumford and Tim Keller have lamented that Christians are often vexed in politics because different positions their faith might lead them to support are not available in the polarized “package deals” of issues that each party has curated and then mandated for those who subscribe to its political creed. For example, Christians on the right might find themselves hard-pressed to welcome vulnerable immigrants, as those on the left can be when it comes to protecting unborn lives.
There are a few possible responses to this conundrum. One—perhaps the most common these days—is for Christians to put aside their scruples and push ahead as partisans to rationalize, justify, and defend one’s side as that which God has clearly anointed while attacking those supporting the other party as not just wrong but profoundly immoral. The current state of our politics suggests we won’t get very far with this approach when it comes to advancing God’s kingdom.
Another potential response is to pull back and stay above the fray—to not have any explicit or enduring to commitment to either side and embrace what David French has recently proposed as “the spiritual blessing of political homelessness.” But as we have seen above, whatever our professions, most of us have an ongoing allegiance to one side or opposition to the other. If we continue to vote on that basis but are not taking responsibility to support and improve the party whose side we are on, we are leaving the positions and approaches of that party to be defined by others. Judging by the general trends discussed above, such a retreat on the part of Christians from participation in party politics will not lead to more ethical partisanship, more inclusivity and comprehensive conceptions of the common good, more appreciation for the virtues (and obligations) of compromise and loyalty in politics, or a deeper commitment to constitutional government and pluralism.
Instead of writing off parties and retreating from them as too compromised and irredeemably broken institutions of this world, what if Christians in both parties (and Christian independents who lean one way or the other) took it upon themselves to engage and participate more fully in party politics in edifying ways? What if, instead of reprising on an endless loop the sterile debate about which party represents the views of Christians, we acknowledge the demographic reality that in fact they both do, in different ways. What if Christians took it upon themselves to engage with activists, officials, candidates, and elected leaders on their side of the political fence so both parties more fully represent the full range of things their Christians supporters believe?
The world we should be working toward is one in which both parties share commitments to, among other things, the importance of moral character in political leaders regardless of who is in the White House, to religious liberty and racial justice, to concern for the lives of unborn children and refugee children alike. Our religious commitments come before our political commitments, and the former shouldn’t be and needn’t be subordinated to the latter. Indeed, by participating in politics in ways that reflect our beliefs more fully, we can help redeem political parties and partisanship. It is not a job for the faint of heart, to be sure. But when it comes to helping God heal this broken world, what job is?