Watching Politics From the Pew: Is Bi-Partisanship More or Less Christian?

Each week in Watching Politics From the Pew, Benjamin Bartlett offers a thoughtful Christian perspective on the latest political happenings in the news.

Two big things happened this week in the story of bi-partisanship.  Big bad things, if you like new legislation.  Big great things, if you like hard core battle lines in Washington DC.

President Obama gave a speech that made it clear he is done looking for compromise.  The focus on taxing the rich and unwillingness to address entitlement programs showed willful ignorance of basic debt math, and highlighted the fact that he no longer believes he can work with Republicans.  From here into the forseeable future, he is going to depend on the people to send him Democrats to work with.  If you want a quick summary of my feelings on this matter, David Brooks does a great job.

Meanwhile, Lamar Alexander is leaving his leadership post in the Senate.  Alexander is clearly frustrated by the hard line Republicans have committed themselves to, and no longer wants to participate in the strategy they have espoused.  I have a lot of appreciation for Alexander, and it frustrates me that even he cannot see hope for statesmanship in the US Senate.

I’m curious for your thoughts.  Is bi-partisanship and compromise an inherently good thing?  Should Christians support statesmanship, or can they be happy with hard line negotiations?  Are Obama’s compromises of the past or his harder line of the present better representations of how a leader ought to act?

For myself, I find great beauty in a group of politicians having different viewpoints, but all assuming that solutions are achievable and valuable in themselves.  I like it when they are forced to work out their differences.  And I think there is little to be proud of when they decide gridlock for the sake of perpetuating negative messages about the other side is prefarable to compromise.

I believe each Christian is responsible to be a good steward of the resopnsibilities that have been entrusted to them.  And I think it’s pretty clear that the political value of gridlock pales in comparison to the good that could be done if the government consistently sought compromise solutions rather than doing nothing.  So when my government fails to choose the correct option from among those two, I start hoping for something different.

So here’s to hoping that somehow, both parties are penalized for their gutless stonewalling, and that leaders will rise who value the health of the state and and the country above the power of individual parties.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • Tyler

    This is my first comment on Christ and PC but I have read many article. In fact I recently told Alan Noble that if he stops tweeting articles to read I will fall off the blogosphere altogether. So thanks Alan!

    As for the article, it seems that you did not land all to squarely anywhere in particular. So let me offer two points.

    My first point is about the nature of compromise. What is worth compromising? Certainly not the tenants of the gospel. If politicians want to quibble about policy why should anyone care? But it is the intersection of the gospel and public policy that we are concerned with here. This entire site is devoted to the question of how biblical principles are related to practical life. So, when we have concluded that Scripture requires a certain policy (such as the prohibition of murder, to use a clear example) we cannot waver in our conviction. That means no compromise and no bi-partisianship. If that entails gridlock, then so be it. But when remaining faithful to Scripture results in political gridlock, the failure is due to the government system and not the Scriptural principles. When this happens, I propose that we look to another institution for the solution.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but when you ask “Is bi-partisanship and compromise an inherently good thing?” I take it to mean “Is government bi-partisanship and compromise something we should employ for the the heath of the state?” I think government is not the answer. It is not the Democrats or the Republicans or the Jabberwocks or the Slithy Toves that are going to solve our problems. In fact, I am fully convinced that the state of affairs to going to get progressively worse from here on out (that is since Gen. 3). The answer then, is not to look to public policy or the government for solutions. If there is any institution we should look to it is the church. It is there that God has ordained cultural revolution. James (1.27) makes the point the church, “pure religion” is the cure for social ills “widows, orphans”. So I throw all my chips in with the church. Only the transformation that comes from the acceptance of the gospel will bring about the “heath of the the state and of the country” that you are looking for.

    -Tyler

  • http://thetruthofgenius.com Christopher Hutton

    I completely agree. As Christians, we want things to happen. The government has to stay active. If it doesnt, the government will turn belly-up, and die. So, Gridlock doesn’t help anyone but the extremists on both sides of the spectrum.

    I was going to ask, Ben, are you a supporter of the No Labels movement? I’ve heard of them, and like what they are doing, though I’m not actively engaged.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Hey guys,

    Interesting points from you both. Tyler, I think where I might draw a distinction is the difference between obeying God’s law in within the Church and how laws are drawn up in the secular State. For instance, let’s say there is a law written to allow a homosexual person to put their partner on their health insurance plan. Should I oppose that because I am opposed to recognizing homosexuality? Or should I support it because it is important to love and care for my neighbor regardless of whether he lives the way I want him to live?

    There is a similar problem with politics vs. progress. Perhaps President Obama advances a bill that really is good for the American fiscal system (for the sake of argument). Should I support it because it’s good for people? Or should I hold it up in gridlock because President Obama is overly supportive of abortion, and I want him to look bad so that he’ll lose in the next election? These are difficult ethical questions for Christians to work through.

    Christopher, I appreciate what you’re saying as well. But of course the flip side of the argument is there… when Democrats controlled the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, the Senate filibuster was one of the only ways Republicans could protect those they represented from things they disagreed with or thought would be unhealthy. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

    And no, I haven’t heard of No Labels, but I’m curious so I’ll do some research on them. Thanks!

  • The Quoted Jeff

    Ben, your just-for-the-sake-of-argument scenario is an interesting one, but not germane to anything that’s happened in national politics recently. That is, I don’t think that recent inability to compromise has been mainly motivated by politics. Political ideology in the US has just become very polarized, with lawmakers in power who have very different and strongly-held beliefs about what’s good for the country. The Tea Party are often vilified as obstructionist and mere political schemers, but as far as I can tell their refusal to compromise on issues like debt reduction has been motivated by sincere political philosophy. I think the same is largely true of Obama and the liberal Democrats in Congress. Their actions have been mostly motivated by a sincere belief in higher taxes on the wealthy and protection of social benefits for the poor.

    On the other hand, to whatever extent that recent policy battles have been strained by political motives, I can’t say that I fault those involved. Our two-party system, which wasn’t intended by the Founders (although the electoral college they created is largely responsible), tends toward partisanship and political divisiveness in policymaking. It’s unrealistic to ask our elected officials to win through a bitterly partisan electoral process and then check their political instincts and party loyalty at the Capitol doors. I’m pretty sure that if I knew I would have to re-compete for my job every two to six years, I’d be tempted to make everything an opportunity for political maneuvering too.

    Perhaps I’m just operating out of my Reformed Evangelical belief that truth is generally more important than cooperation, but no, I don’t tend to think that compromise is good in itself.

  • Jeff Cavanaugh

    Grrr…username didn’t change for my last post.

  • Steve Schuler

    Ideas like “bi-partisanship” and “compromise” are inherently neutral until we know what we are compromising with the other party about. Tyler’s point is well-put. Some issues should not invite compromise, and I think we can look to history for examples of good and bad compromises. The inherent problem is that most of us will not agree on what is a fundamental issue, on which compromise is unacceptable, and what is an issue on which partial success is better than no success at all. Personally, I think the current gridlock is bad because the issues on which each party is taking a hard line are not fundamental. The hard-liners should be willing to compromise. But if they truly believe that these issues ARE fundamental (and they are not just posturing for the next election), then I think they have a moral duty to follow their consciences and hold a hard line on their economic policies.

    Where I differ from Tyler (if it is indeed a difference) is that I think government has a necessary and legitimate responsibility for ensuring the execution of civil justice, for guarding the public welfare, and for mediating disputes between individuals and institutions within its jurisdiction. As someone who benefits from the presence of a constitutional, democratic government, I think I have a reciprocal duty to shape that government in whatever (admittedly small) way I can. However, as a Christian, I can seldom do so unequivocally. I often have to choose between the lesser of two evils at the ballot box, and I tend to ask my representatives to vote “no” more often than I ask them to vote “yes.” Still, I don’t mind when politicians strike deals and compromises that are likely to protect my economic interests or to promote public safety, to give two examples. Although I agree that, in an ultimate sense, “government is not the answer,” I would still prefer to live in a just state rather than in an unjust one. More often, though, the choice is not between simple justice and simple injustice, but between greater justice and lesser justice.

  • Ben Bartlett

    That’s ok… I prefer to call you The Quoted Jeff anyways. ;-)

    My feeling is that there is a bit of both things going on. After all, there have been many compromises put on the table that one side or the other ought to be able to agree with, but refuses to for political reasons. And every now and again memos are leaked showing that both political parties go out of their way to discredit opponents using tactics they know to be not entirely fair, but that have resonance with voters.

    I don’t disagree with your point… the nature of our government is that the two sides are always tusseling for control and that’s ok. But there is also a call to promote the general welfare, and the exponentially increased use of stonewalling tactics seems to circle closer and closer to damaging that call. There are times for politics, but that should be balanced with times for statesmanship. And right now I fear the pendulum is a little too far in the direction of a, “my party, right or wrong” type of direction.

  • Tyler

    My two points really need to be taken together. Essentially, it is plain that there will be times when our Biblical convictions will lead us to “stonewall” progress for the sake of honoring Christ. When that happens it should remind us that the the church is God’s preferred institution for reform. He obviously has intensions for others, including governments (cf. Rom 13). We have to ask ourselves, “As a believer what ought my focus be, and where should I extend the bulk of my efforts?” The answer must be extending God’s kingdom, not the Republican or Democratic agenda.

    Ought the government not be involved in social reform? I think that really gets beyond what you were intending to address this this post. Certainly there is a place for that. So, I think I could in good conscience vote for a proposition that would allow for domestic partners to receive health benefits. It think it is fair to say that God would approve of working for the welfare of all sinners (whether of the homosexual, lying or tax cheating stripe). And, while this may seem contrary, I can also see the prudence of working against a political opponent (working at defeating Obama, for example), at the cost of some other good (some fiscal policy for example), because a presidential candidate cannot very well implement any policy if he does not get (re)elected. But the question is which drum do I beat and how often? In terms of working to better the country as a whole, I tend to find myself beating the church drum a whole lot more than the political drum.


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