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  • Writer's pictureRich Scheenstra

A Common Sense Approach to Politics

Updated: Feb 28

Right-wing activist Jack Posobiec opened this weekend’s conference of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington, D.C. with the words: “Welcome to the end of democracy. We are here to overthrow it completely. We didn’t get all the way there on January 6, but we will endeavor to get rid of it and replace it with this right here.” He held up a cross necklace and continued: “After we burn that swamp to the ground, we will establish the new American republic on its ashes, and our first order of business will be righteous retribution for those who betrayed America.”



Okay, that's extreme. It reflects a Christian approach to politics that I would argue is absolutely unchristian. To associate the cross of Christ with ‘burning that swamp to the ground’ is antithetical to what the cross represents. The reason Jesus died on the cross was because he refused to burn the swamp to the ground. He definitely exposed the swamp – e.g. when he overturned the tables of the money changers, drove out the animals being sold in the temple, called the religious leaders whitewashed tombs, and labeled Herod a “fox.” He knew corruption when he saw it. But he saw it everywhere – in every human heart. So instead of burning the swamp, he became the swamp. As the apostle Paul said, “He became sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).


Jack Posobiec is right to look to the cross of Christ for wisdom about a Christian approach to politics. I just think he forgot that it was a cross he was holding up. The cross is the surprising center of the Christian faith. As Brian Zahnd writes in his new book, The Wood between the Worlds,

 

Once a symbol of Imperial terror, the cross has become the eternal symbol of divine love. When we look upon a cross today, we don’t see an instrument of torture and death; we see the supreme demonstration of God’s love. We see the lengths to which God will go to save the world.

 

So to display a cross as a symbol of "righteous retribution" – in order to “burn that swamp to the ground” – is to return it to its pagan roots. This understanding couldn’t be further from a Christian understanding of the cross as well as a Christian approach to politics.

 

So what is a Christian approach to politics? I’m going to address that question in my next post. In this post I want to talk about a common sense approach to politics. I’m guessing that when presented with the alternatives, most Americans, Christian or not, would appreciate a more common sense approach to politics than the standard fare being served in Washington these days.


Common Ground

 

A common sense approach to politics requires that there be some common ground. I’m assuming that the vast majority of people in the United States would disagree with Jack Posobiec about the need to abandon democracy. I would even argue that democracy is the most Christian form of government. It’s based on a fundamental biblical principle – that everyone, every human being, Christian or not, has been made in the image of God and is made to reign. This is stated outright in the first chapter of the Bible: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule...” (Genesis 1:26). That's why God was disappointed with the ancient Israelites when they begged him to give them a king. They were all kings and queens! God called them as a "royal priesthood."


The ancient world believed that only kings were made as images of the gods, and that everyone else was basically created to be slaves of kings and gods. This democratization of the image of God was unprecedented, and reflected a radical rethinking of how societies should function. Jesus’ identifying with the least and the lowest throughout his ministry – saying the first shall be last and the last first – affirmed this democratic impulse.

 

But humans are messy. Humans are imperfect. Humans do really stupid things. I’m not just talking about non-Christian humans. The Crusades and our own Civil War are examples of the numerous atrocities that have occurred in Jesus’ name by Christians over the centuries. For any Bible-reading Christian, such events should embarrass us but not surprise us. Jesus said it would be this way, that his church would include both the wheat and the tares, the wheat and the weeds.


Don’t get me wrong, the church of Christ has done an amazing amount of good. Historian Tom Holland, who is not a Christian, argues that virtually all of the values that we hold dear in Western societies are Christian values, and that we would likely not have most of them without the Christian faith. I’ll say more about that in my next post.

 

But it’s because of our common messiness and downright sinfulness that democracy is a kind of crapshoot. Like Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried. Fortunately, our particular form of democracy is based upon the assumption that most of us can’t be trusted a good part of the time, which is why our government has so many checks and balances. At the beginning of our republic, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville pointed to one of the dangers of our system of government: "tyranny of the majority." Our founding fathers hoped that enough of us could be trusted at least part of the time to keep this experiment of democracy going. Like Washington, Lincoln and King, many of us see a divine hand in our democracy surviving as long as it has.

 

So what might be a common sense approach to politics? Let me suggest three things. It acknowledges complexity, assumes the need for compromise, and seeks the common good.

 

Complexity

 

Issues like immigration, border policy, poverty, abortion, public health, racism, taxation, separation of church and state, economics and foreign policy are incredibly complex. They just are. Not only are the issues themselves complex, but so is developing policies to address them. Then there is the complexity of how government works and how legislation gets passed. Political candidates and government personnel are complex people. We are an incredibly diverse and complex nation demographically. Pluralism of all kinds is a given, and there is complexity and diversity within each demographic, whether that be age, geography, education, political party, gender, sexual orientation, race or religion.


When some people talk about “Christian nationalism,” we need to remember that the word Christian is itself a large umbrella word that includes believers with a diversity of political and moral perspectives. People who embrace Christian nationalism are usually thinking about a particular kind of Christian, almost always white and evangelical. But even the word evangelical includes a wide variety of doctrinal and political perspectives. So everything, all of life, including what it means to be a Christian, is incredibly complex. Each thing is complex, and when you mix each thing with all the other things that are complex, it’s amazing that any of this is working at all!

 

Voters’ motives are also complex. Our founding fathers grouped citizens into basically three categories. The first group consisted of people who voted primarily on the basis of their own self-interest. The founders saw this as by far the largest group of citizens. Who they are likely to vote for president is more likely to be based on the price of eggs or gasoline that week than the war in Ukraine or the January 6 riot. The second group consisted of people who realized that they could serve their own self-interest better by joining with others with similar interests. So self-interest is still the basic motivation, but with the added wisdom that joining with others is likely to be more effective for getting what you want. The third group, by far the smallest, is that group of citizens whose primarily concern is for the common good. They’re willing to make personal sacrifices so that everyone can flourish.

 

And I would argue it’s more complex than that. A person who is basically self-interested most of the time may periodically still rise to the occasion out of compassion or patriotism and vote in favor of the interests of others. In other words, it’s hard to predict who will be in what group at any particular time or around any particular issue.

 

Humans, in general, don’t like complexity, which is understandable. Complexity tends to make us feel overwhelmed and anxious. Even people who are invested in doing the right thing want the security of knowing they’re doing the right thing, and so we become invested in proving other people wrong rather than listening to them to get a broader picture. The desire for simplicity may prevent us from seeing how different things can be true at the same time, because the truth is really that complex and often paradoxical.

 

Here’s the thing with democracy. Ideally it's guided by an informed electorate as well as leaders who seek the common good over their own good. But because most issues are so complex, the vast majority of citizens aren’t going to know enough about most issues to offer a very informed opinion. And most citizens shouldn’t try to be informed about every issue. They have other things they need to be doing with their lives to keep our society functioning properly.


Part of the complexity is that when we do try to become informed, it’s hard to know which sources to trust. Complexity requires that we bring a healthy skepticism to everything we read or hear, and avail ourselves of a variety of resources. But again, that takes time, time most of us don't have.

 

For those of us who are Christians, it’s important for us to acknowledge that even the Bible is a complex book, which is why it can be interpreted in so many different ways, including when we apply it to politics. That’s part of its richness and beauty.


A common sense approach to politics acknowledges the complexity of almost everything. Once you acknowledge complexity, humility can replace arrogance, open-mindedness can replace rigidity, and real dialogue becomes possible.


Some of us are able to be more informed than others. We especially expect this of our political leaders, which is why we need them to be both competent and people of character. We need them to lead rather than pander to their base, a base that’s likely to be only superficially informed on most issues, and consequently easily deceived and aggrieved. As one pastor commented, most people are sheep – easily led, and easily led astray.

 

Compromise

 

Because everything is so complex, an all-or-nothing approach to policy and legislation doesn’t make sense. A common sense approach to governing embraces the art of compromise, which requires frequently crossing the line from partisanship to bipartisanship. It’s okay to hold to a particular political philosophy as long as it doesn’t become a political ideology. Ideologues tend to be rigid and closed-minded. It’s their way or the highway. (Think of the Freedom Caucus that keeps gumming up the works in the House of Representatives.)

 

Recently, a rare attempt at bipartisanship occurred when a group of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate came up with an immigration bill to address issues at the border. It gave Republicans most of what they wanted, and was supported by the National Border Control Council and Chamber of Commerce. But one of our presidential candidates made it clear that he wanted immigration to be a campaign issue and told Republicans not to support it.

 

Part of the problem is that we have basically a two-party system. Our Constitution doesn’t talk about political parties at all, and many of our founding fathers were hoping we wouldn’t have any. Other countries have constitutions that describe the role of political parties, and assume that coalitions need to be formed so that at least some parties are working together. So compromise is baked into the system. When there are only two parties, cooperation easily gives way to conflict. Winning takes precedence over governing, especially if your eye is always on the next election.

 

The filibuster in the Senate (where most legislation requires a 60% majority) was designed to force parties to negotiate and compromise. What often happens these days is that the minority party refuses to work with the majority party in order to make the majority party look unsuccessful at governing.

 

But given the complexity of most issues, a common sense approach to politics requires compromise. As Robert Tracy McKenzie states in We the Fallen People, within a democracy change is almost always going to come slowly. That’s both its blessing and its curse.

 

Common Good

 

In addition to embracing complexity and honing the art of compromise, a common sense approach to politics seeks the common good. It tries to help everyone flourish, not just a particular group. It assumes that politics shouldn't be a zero sum game. When a disadvantaged group wins, we all win, even if each of us has to give up something, and even if some of us have to give up more than others.

 

I realize that as soon as some people see the words “common good” they're going to read that as code for “socialism.” Socialism is one approach to seeking the common good. Capitalism is another. Communism still another. Some would even argue that autocracy or dictatorship is the best approach for achieving the common good. There are any number of political philosophies and systems that, on paper, seek the common good. So I don’t think I’m saying anything radical when I suggest that a common sense approach to politics focuses on the common good. I’m guessing that most if not all of my readers want their politics to serve as many people as possible.

 

Where we may disagree is on the role of government in achieving that. If we start with my first point, deciding what role the government should play is itself a complex question, and will likely vary from issue to issue.


For example, there are people who believe that the government should have a huge role in defining what a human person is and in getting rid of abortion. Many of those same people believe that the government should have almost no role in gun regulation, or in determining whether or not people have to wear masks during a pandemic. Likewise, people who believe the government should have little or no say about whether a pregnant woman has to give birth may believe that government has an important role in making sure young families, especially single women, have a chance to flourish – e.g. by helping with childcare. Libertarians may be the most consistent in their view of the role of government, but even libertarians believe that government should play at least some role in our lives.

 

I think pretty much everyone agrees that it’s possible for government to have too large a role as well as too small a role in the affairs of its citizens. Even libertarians aren’t anarchists, and I’m not aware of any farmers, no matter how conservative, who don't support the kind of legislation contained within the farm bill that’s decided by Congress every five years. Most people believe that having a farm bill is good not only for farmers but for everyone. That’s what I mean by seeking the common good.

 

Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance, Social Security disability insurance, mandated emergency health treatment, Worker’s Compensation, agricultural and energy subsidies, minimum wage laws, child labor laws, public education, food safety laws, infrastructure legislation were all called socialist at one point or another. Personally, I don’t find the term socialism helpful. It's just a red herring that gets in the way of doing the hard, complex work of debating real issues and solving real problems. The traditional understanding of socialism involves government taking over the means of production, emphasizing social ownership over private ownership. Personally, I don’t know anyone who wants that (including Bernie Sanders).

 

We like our liberty in this country. For better or worse, individualism is the air we breathe. Many people don’t realize that civil rights always involve a curbing of human freedom. For example, the First Amendment takes away the right of Congress to establish any religion as the official religion of the United States. The 13th amendment takes away my right to own slaves. The Fifth Amendment takes away the right of any party to force me to incriminate myself in a court of law. So having liberties always involves taking away liberties either from the government or other citizens.

 

Most governments are a hybrid of capitalism and soft socialism. They try to balance personal freedom with the common good. And it’s always complicated. I suspect that deep down almost everyone realizes that unbridled capitalism isn’t good for the common good. We support child labor laws and the rights of workers to strike. We want our food to be safe to eat and our water safe to drink. If a worker loses an arm because of a machinery accident, we believe the company or government has some responsibility for making sure the worker and his or her family doesn’t end up on the streets. All of this is common sense, and it’s for the common good.


But Is a Common Sense Approach Christian?


There may be Christian brothers and sisters (yes, we are a family, like it or not) who take issue with this common sense approach to politics. They may view complexity as mere muddying of the waters and a tool of the devil, and see compromise as giving ground to the darkness. I believe the cross can be our teacher here.


The cross is about as complex an event as you’ll find. It is both grotesque and beautiful, includes both judgment and forgiveness; it joins the divine and human, hatred and love, humiliation and exaltation, good and evil, heaven and earth, life and death, the end of all things and the beginning of all things, old covenant and new covenant, victory and defeat.


As far as compromise is concerned, Christ became sin for us. He associated with sinners rather than distanced himself from them. On the cross he said, “I thirst,” asking for help from his enemies, and forgiving them. He even said that what Christians bind (i.e. legislate) on earth will be bound in heaven. (Given the ridiculous rules Christians sometimes make for themselves, if that isn't compromise, I don't know what is.)


Finally, Christ’s cross is the ultimate example of what it means to work for the common good. He healed any and all who came to him for healing. He died for the sins of the world. “God so loved the world, that he gave his Son.” Jesus wasn’t just a Jewish Savior, he was the Savior of the world, which included his enemies. He became scum (this is what a cross was meant to communicate) to lift up those considered to be the scum of the earth. “Whatever you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.” As we’ll see in my next post, this understanding of the common good includes not only the common good of US citizens, but the common good of all citizens of the world. The cross reminds us that even the Son of God came not to be served but to serve. So theoretically, Christians will be even more committed to the common good of all people than ordinary citizens.


I'm looking forward to talking more about a specifically Christian approach to politics in my next post. I'll give you the short version now: it's a politics of love.






 

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