Why We Should Do Politics like Episcopalians
Despite the tiny number of Episcopalians in America - 2 percent or so of the population—more presidents, senators, and Supreme Court justices have been Episcopalian than have been identified with any other religious affiliation. That suggests that maybe Episcopalians have some gifts for politics.
Now there could be some less-than-flattering reasons for this, of course. The Episcopal Church was, before the Revolution, the Church of England, and so it was well-established in British colonies, and many of the best, brightest, and richest belonged to it. Despite fifty years of decline, it has continued to be a church populated by the privileged; Episcopalians have the highest median income of any American religious group except Jews.
But along with that high income goes high levels of education. As Lisa Keister points out in her book Getting Rich, Episcopalians tend to be better educated than most of the population, so Episcopalians have some knowledge as well as some social clout.
More importantly, Episcopalians have a history, through the Anglican Church, of finding solutions to seemingly intractable political, theological, and cultural problems. This process—for it is a process more than anything else—is called the "via media," the middle way, or the Golden Mean, and it has roots in Aristotle, who talked about how the middle way is most often preferable to the extremes at either side of the divide.
For Episcopalians and Anglicans, this middle way shows up in liturgy and in theology—successive editions of the prayer books have tried to walk the tightrope between Catholic and Protestant. As an example, unlike Catholics, who believe the bread and wine of communion are transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Jesus, or those Protestants who see their crackers and grape juice as simply a nice symbol of Jesus' sacrifice, Anglicans speak of the "real presence" of the Eucharist, and teach that the bread and wine have spiritual power and efficacy, even though they may not be the literal body of Christ.
Anglican and Episcopal Christians have—at least traditionally—been successful at negotiating controversy, finding a solution that preserves something of value for most people involved, and moving forward. The great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker was among the first to advocate a broad middle way and argued that fistfights over church leadership, polity, and non-essential doctrines were far less important than a faithful life: "Suspense of judgment and exercise of charity [are] safer and seemlier for Christian men than the hot pursuit of these controversies."
It was in this Anglican spirit that John Danforth, the retired Republican Senator and former Ambassador to the United Nations, recently preached that instead of Christians fighting other Christians and the culture to the death over social issues or social justice, a primary Christian political aim ought instead to be reconciliation.
The need for reconciliation is certainly as urgent as any time in our history. Over the past two years, I've found many people overwhelmed by the degree of enmity in the political and religious conversation. Our positions, whether left or right, are strongly held and are moral and just in our own eyes; those who cannot accept our conclusions—or who advance their own—can strike us as wrongheaded, ignorant, stupid, or even evil.
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.