Demon Possessed Politics

In the wake of yesterday’s tragic shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords no small number of commentators were quick to lay blame for the climate in which this kind of thing could happen at the doorstep of millions who differ with Ms. Giffords’s views.  I find that troubling — not because I share those views — but because it points to a general decline in thoughtful, judicious political conversation.

The murderer who perpetrated these crimes is, by all accounts, criminally insane.  Others may be convinced that he represents a coherent point of view.  But based upon the early reports that I have read about Mr. Loughner, I can find no reason to believe that we will ever obtain any information that will provide a rational explanation for his utterly irrational, indiscriminate, and criminal behavior.  Like Timothy McVey and others, his views are a chaotic combination of fear and prejudices.  In another day and age he would have been branded as demon-possessed.  There are others like them out there, but — thankfully — they are in the minority.

But the sweeping editorializing that claimed to understand the inner workings of this madman’s mind and then attributed them to millions of other Americans is not.  It is widespread, common on both ends of the political spectrum, and far more dangerous.

For people on both the left and right, the politics of leverage has fostered a climate in which it is fair game to demonize others using the behavior of the demon-possessed.  And that practice imperils the very structures that have made our democratic way of life possible.  At every twist and turn in political debates with one another, those who cherish the gift we have been given in this democracy of ours bear two responsibilities: thoughtful advocacy for a point of view and vigorous advocacy for the civil, respectful climate in which that advocacy is possible.

The great danger in the current political climate is that far too many are tempted to believe that the advocacy for a point of view is of preeminent importance.  It is not.  It is the defense of liberty that transcends the debates of the moment.  If we allow cynicism or fervor for a point of view to undermine the strength of our advocacy for freedom of expression, then we will have all lost.

Is there a spiritual issue here?  Yes.

As a Christian, I am convinced that advocacy for a civil, respectful climate reflects the freedom that God gives to all of us.  I also believe that God’s way of working in our lives is never coercive.  So, to the extent that our national life preserves freedom and avoids coercion, the potential for us to thrive in God-given ways is also preserved.

That makes a difference in the way I engage political issues.  And while I don’t always succeed, there are three things I try to do:

  • I resist the temptation to argue that our national life should conform my understanding of the Gospel.
  • I resist the temptation to argue that my political views and the will of God are one in the same.
  • And I try not to demonize others, using the behavior of the demon-possessed.

It is not simply the liberty of expression that is at stake.  It is the liberty of our souls.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.