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.

Even Christians villainize each other, since they tend to prioritize different political issues. As I pointed out in Faithful Citizenship, conservative Christians tend to exalt the social issues of abortion and homosexuality as their top political action items; other Christians may prioritize peace and justice issues such as war, the death penalty, and social services for the poor and underprivileged. Each side demonizes the other for not accepting their point of view, when truth to tell, each is trying to act on moral beliefs to the best of its ability.

But by privileging a way of thinking and being—reconciliation—over a particular thought or policy, Christians can actually live out the commandment to love God and our neighbor more authentically than if we enshrine our own particular dogmas and pretend that all of them are necessary to salvation. The list of things actually necessary to salvation is pretty small; our add-ons, however, are extensive, and if we hold each of those additional things as sacred dogma, we court trouble.

A willingness to accept the need for abortion in some cases might make you a bad Catholic, but it does not necessarily make you a bad Christian. As the great New Testament ethicist Richard Hays notes, Christians can hold varying viewpoints on the issue, and certainly we'd be hard-pressed to find in the Christian scriptures, creeds, and tradition a requirement that we hold a certain belief on abortion to know God's saving grace.

8/27/2012 4:00:00 AM
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  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.