By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Partisan politics have always been competitive, sometimes fiercely so; but not since the mid-1850s have partisan politics become so infused with hatred. Intractable partisan divisions in Congress have produced widespread predictions of political violence; and partisan primaries leading up to November elections have been rife with allusions to violence.
A retired professor of political science noted on my Facebook page two weeks ago that “I fear we're too divided as a people to repair the problem.” I share his fear, but am hopeful that Americans will resist the paralyzing fear of political violence and moderate the pervasive partisan hatred that threatens our democracy. We’ll know more after the November elections.
How did we get into this mess and how do we get out of it? Our moral values shape our standards of political legitimacy. After his 1834 tour of America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that in a democracy “liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” And politics in America have long reflected the moral values taught in America’s churches.
America’s churches are racially divided, and that racial divide has shaped partisan politics. Until the 1960s, most Whites were Democrats and Blacks Republicans. While most churches remain racially segregated, their partisan preferences are now reversed. Most Blacks now vote Democratic and most Whites vote Republican--and never the twain shall meet.
Reconciliation is at the foundation of Christian morality. To love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves, including those of other races, religions and politics, we must seek to be reconciled with them. Reconciliation is a priority of our faith that takes preference over worship (Matthew 5:23-24); and our segregated churches illustrate the need for racial reconciliation.
The United Methodist Church (UMC) is an anomaly. It is currently headed by a Black bishop, but most UMC church activities remain racially segregated with little opportunity for interacial activities or discussions of political issues. For most United Methodists, church services on Sunday morning remain the most segregated time of the week.
Most Christians profess faith in Jesus Christ as the Trinitarian alter ego of God; but Jesus taught his followers to follow him, not to worship him. Worshiping Jesus and ignoring his moral teachings on racial reconciliation in politics is a form of hypocrisy; but many Christians do just that by ignoring the teachings of Jesus in their racially segregated partisan politics.
The UMC should promote racial reconciliation in politics to moderate the partisan hatred that threatens American democracy; but it’s not likely, since most in the UMC ignore the moral imperative to promote racial reconciliation in their politics. That’s too bad, since the future of democracy and the church depends on making racial and partisan reconciliation a moral priority.
In his tour of America in 1834, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that religion is a two-edged sword in democracy: While Christians “readily espouse the cause of human liberty as the source of all moral greatness,” and “will not refuse to acknowledge that all citizens are equal in the eye of the law, …religion is entangled in those institutions that democracy assails, and is not infrequently brought to reject the equality it loves and to curse that cause of liberty as a foe.” De Tocqueville noted that secular citizens are skeptical of religion in politics but know “that liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” See De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, The Cooperative Publication Society and the Colonial Press, 1900, p 12. Cited in E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation, at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/12/e-pluribus-unum-religion-and-politics.html.
Robin R. Meyers has condemned the hypocrisy of American Christianity in ignoring the moral imperatives taught by Jesus in politics. The title of his book says it all: Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus. Harper One, 2009.
Brian Klaas has opined that “American democracy is dying. There are plenty of medicines that would cure it. Unfortunately, our political dysfunction means we’re choosing not to use them, and as time passes, fewer treatments become available to us, even though the disease is becoming terminal. No major pro democracy reforms have passed Congress. No key political figures who tried to overturn an American election have faced real accountability. The president who orchestrated the greatest threat to our democracy in modern times is free to run for reelection, and may well return to office. …When democracies start to die, they usually don’t recover. …We may not be doomed. But we should be honest: The optimistic assessment from experts who study authoritarianism globally is that the United States will most likely settle into a dysfunctional equilibrium that mirrors a deep democratic breakdown.” See https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/07/american-democracy-breakdown-authoritarianism-rise/670580/.
Max Boot shares the fear that as a nation we are too divided by partisan politics to be reconciled. “We need to take seriously the possibility that the United States could become a failed democracy, if only to avert that dire fate. …The persistence of racism and income inequality, and far more gun violence than other advanced democracies, and yet can’t implement common-sense gun-safety regulations is a damning indictment of our democracy. We already live in a “backsliding” democracy, where voting rights are being restricted and freedom is under siege. The most severe threat comes from an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party whose maximum leader is an unindicted and unrepentant coup plotter. ..Former president Donald Trump remains the leading contender for the 2024 GOP nomination — and on the current trajectory he could defeat President Biden, whose unpopularity continues to plumb new depths. …I used to be an optimist about America’s future. Not anymore.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/25/trump-second-term-threat-us-democracy/.
Many Republicans talk of violence on the campaign trail. In both swing states and safe seats, GOP candidates say that liberals hate them personally and may turn rioters or a police state on people who disobey them. On the evolution of partisan hostility to partisan hatred, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/07/24/republicans-civil-war-midterms/?utm.
Third parties offer a means to moderate the hatred that pervades America’s two-party duopoly, but none have been able to come close to political success at the national level.
“For the first time in modern history, roughly half of Americans consider themselves “independents,” and two-thirds say a new party is needed (and would vote for it). Surprisingly, a majority of Democrats and Republicans say they want another option, too. “To succeed, a new party must break down the barriers that stand between voters and more political choices. Accordingly, we will passionately advocate electoral changes such as ranked-choice voting and open primaries; for the end of gerrymandering; and for the nationwide protection of voting rights and a push to make voting remarkably easy for anyone and incredibly secure for everyone.
Without such systemic changes, Americans will be left with a closed system and fewer options on the ballot. These reforms go hand in hand with a new party.
Some call third parties “spoilers,” but the system is already spoiled. There are more than 500,000 elected positions in the United States, but a recent study found more than 70 percent of races on ballots in 2020 were unopposed or uncontested. A tiny sliver of U.S. congressional seats will have close races this November. The two major parties have shut out competition, and America is suffering as a result. That’s why we’re proposing the first “open” party. Americans of all stripes — Democrats, Republicans and independents — are invited to be a part of the process, without abandoning their existing political affiliations, by joining us to discuss building an optimistic and inclusive home for the politically homeless majority.
America’s founders warned about the dangers of a two-party system. Today, we’re living with the dire consequences. Giving Americans more choices is important not just for restoring civility. Our lives, our livelihoods and our way of life depend on it.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/27/forward-party-new-centrist-third/?utm.
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