May 21, 2010
If the idea of the left-wing and right-wing parties joining to form a coalition government here in the UK isn’t weird enough to us Americans, a woman at church last Sunday pointed out to me another huge disconnect between American and British politics. In Britain, she said, it’s an open question who Christians are going to vote for; most likely, in a sizable and reasonably diverse congregation, fairly equal numbers of the members will vote for the Tories, the Lib Dems, or Labour. But in America, so far as she could tell, it was pretty much assumed that if you were Christian, you were voting Republican. She recounted the bizarre experience some of her friends had had of receiving emails from American friends back in 2008 asking for prayer that Obama wouldn’t win. I regretfully assured her that her impressions of the polarization were quite accurate. But why?
Why is it that Christians in the US are so politically partisan compared to their British counterparts? Is it because good and evil are so much clearer in US politics than in the UK? I must confess that I’ve never seen anything to suggest a clear division of good and evil between the Democrats and the Republicans. Is it because Brits simply don’t take their faith seriously enough to apply it to politics? I suppose there might be something to that, but I don’t think that’s a fair criticism. Let us pause to consider this, though. A flexibility among Christians with regard to political affiliation could imply an underdeveloped sense of the Gospel’s relevance to political life; however, it may well simply imply a healthy understanding of the provisionality of politics. In our modern societies, it is important for Christians to recognize that, although there may be in theory a robustly Biblical politics, none of the existing political options comes close to embodying it, but each of them does offer some prospects of achieving some provisional goods that Christians can recognize as genuine public goods. In such a situation, complete abstention from voting is a legitimate route to take (and is more or less my own persuasion), on the grounds that each of the options represents a sufficiently flawed, unChristian, and untrustworthy platform that it would be wisest not to support any. But it is also potentially legitimate to, acknowledging the essential rottenness of all the options, weigh up the provisional public goods of each option, and vote for the one that seems on balance the best, all the while granting that your Christian brother may well weigh things up a little differently, without this implying any fundamental disconnect between your ultimate values. Such a sense of provisionality seems (so far as I have discerned in my very brief time) to dominate the thinking on politics among British Christians, but not among Americans. American Christians, for the most part, have trouble letting go of the idea that political allegiances are matters of ultimate value, and should be a religious battleground.
The chief cause of this religious partisanship, so far as I can tell, seems to have been the abortion debate. Of course, that’s far from the only issue on which Christians line up with the conservative party line, but my sense is that it’s the tail that wags the dog. Where would Christians have gotten the idea that all these conservative policies were Christian policies? Why should love of gun rights be a particularly Christian political position? Or opposition to immigration? Or being perennially hawkish about military action? Etc. The closest thing I’ve been able to come to an explanation is simply this: when Roe v. Wade happened, the Democrats happened to be dominated by socially liberal leadership (McGovern), and so the Republicans were able to position themselves as the anti-abortion party. Christians, fired with fanatical political activism over the abortion issue, flocked more and more to the Republican banner and began assimilating its ways, even if there wasn’t anything very Christian about them. The abortion issue was one on which Christianity had a clear answer to give, and so it came to be the only one on which Christianity had any answer to give. And, since Democrats are seen as the embracers of abortion, which is clearly wicked, they can be easily demonized in the popular Christian imagination--they must be wicked, filthy people, and so every political stance associated with the Democrats must be a wicked, filthy one...no need to investigate the matter much further.
In Britain, where the abortion issue never became politicized*, Christians never flocked to one party en masse, nor did they start attributing life-and-death significance to politics. So, while we may allege that have not sufficiently put faith in politics in the sense of putting faith into politics, making their Christianity central to their political involvement, they seem to have thereby avoided our error of putting faith in politics in the sense of making an idol of politics and thus losing our grip on the Christianity that we were trying to bring into the public sphere.
*Note: It is particularly odd, as this woman and I were discussing, that the abortion issue should have become politicized in the US and not the UK given that in the former, it was was a judicial decision, and in the latter, a legislative one. Historically, an independent, unpoliticized judiciary has been seen as a chief bulwark of freedom, but American Christians have heedlessly chucked that ideal out the window in their single-minded pursuit of a political solution to the abortion problem, a problem that is not a fundamentally political problem. And so, even while decrying “liberal activist jurisprudence,” we have aggressively and explicitly tried to turn our entire political process, at every election, into an attempt to stack the Court with politically-aligned judges to overturn abortion. And so we have connived with the liberal activists for the destruction of an independent judiciary, so that we now regularly expect Supreme Court decisions to fall along partisan lines.