Thinking about politics; a debate with myself


Last November I decided that what I wanted to do was write 500 words a day for a year. I did pretty well the week after Thanksgiving and the first few days of December. Kind of fell off the wagon then until January; made exactly two entries that month, one on the first of February, and here I am heading into mid-April, starting over. Not a good track record so far, and this is a confession. Okay.

One of the things that has occupied my attention during this time is the semi-serious question of whether or not to get into politics. Over the last few years a number of sincere, well-meaning people have tried to talk me into running for elective office. When I have complained about this confidingly to other friends, the response I get is much less on the line of a sympathetic dismissal of the idea, and more often a serious discussion of the pros and cons, emphasis on the pros. I’m near enough to a megalomaniac all by myself, so it doesn’t take much of this sort of thing to get me started. So over the last couple of months I’ve actually given a bit of serious thought as to whether to run, this year, in a primary and, if successful, a general election for public office at the county level.

Problem with this is, I’m a preacher, and one who has been admonished more than once with a repetition of the famous words: “If a man be called to preach, let him not stoop to be a king”. As a preacher of the Gospel, I’ve already got a pretty important job, and as such also quite enough standing in the community to suffice for most people.

Thing is, I’m not most people.

Then there’s the whole separation of church and state thing, and the fact that given the polarized and polarizing state of current political discourse, the whole process of being a public figure in that way might collide rather sharply with the way in which I have become accustomed to being a public figure. And then there’s the liberal/conservative label matrix. I should say a few things about that.

Politically, I’m a liberal, and have registered as a Democrat in every election since 1992. That year I found to my dismay that I could not, registered as an Independent, vote in the presidential primary in the state of New York. In penance for that shortfall, I made the first political donation of my life, to then-candidate Jerry Brown of California. I can’t remember if I sent him $15 or $25. In any case, I’m a political liberal in large measure as a result of being a particular brand of theological conservative. Issues like the dignity and equality of women and men and of all races (ethnoi), the responsibility of government (that meant kings, in the Old Testament; but it means “we the people” in our peculiar system) to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the alien, loom large for me in my reading of scripture; as does an unwavering commitment to nonviolence, which it seems to me is inseparable from the most radical teachings of Jesus.

I take my theological conservatism directly from a tradition that is fed by several streams: there is the Lutheran (salvation by faith, sola scriptori), the Wesleyan/Holiness, and the Anabaptist, and to a lesser extent by the wider Evangelical/Fundamentalist tradition (whose heroes are less Luther and Wesley and more Calvin and Zwingli). Mostly though, and in keeping with each of these traditions, I get it from the Bible itself, and my own reading and experiencing of the words, stories, teachings found in it. I’m a Jesus person. I take the words in red very seriously, and try to get others to do so as well.

It was the Anabaptists, by and large, who bequeathed to subsequent generations on both sides of the Atlantic the notion of separation of church and state. No such separation existed in 16th-century Europe, and as a result these folks, who thought that one becomes a Christian by deciding to follow Jesus, and thus joins a church by deciding to associate with others of like mind, were persecuted harshly by Catholics and Protestants alike, who all thought you were a (certain brand of) Christian because you lived in a land governed by a (particular brand of) Christian ruler. The idea that a church is a voluntary association of responsible adults, and not co-extensive with the state, was very much an Anabaptist idea. Because of this idea they baptized adults, most of whom had already been baptized once as infants; hence the name, Anabaptists, or Rebaptizers.  Because this procedure was seen as subversive, unpatriotic, and other nasty things, some of the leaders of this movement were, fittingly enough, executed by drowning. Many others of these folks, to escape such persecution, ultimately came to these shores, and rubbed elbows with Protestants who had come to escape the Catholics, or (as in Maryland) Catholics who came to escape the Protestants. While all of the 13 original states had established churches of one kind or another, the founding fathers were wise enough to remember what had happened in Christian Europe over the issue of whose religion should prevail (hint: 30 years’ war; look it up), and decided that there would be no argument about that issue on the federal level, enshrining in the first amendment a prohibition on establishing an official Federal religion. This idea of non-state-sponsored churches gained official acceptance slowly and erratically, starting with Rhode Island (not Massachusetts) and Pennsylvania (not Maryland or Virginia).

All that said, I also agree with something I have heard more than once from my Congressman, Steny Hoyer: “I believe in the separation of church and state; but I do not believe in separating the values my faith has taught me from the decisions I make in public or private life.” (This may not be a verbatim quote, but I have heard words very much like this from him at least twice this year as he spoke to constituents).

Now my Anabaptist forebears tended to prefer to withdraw from politics into separate societies of their own. Certain of my Holiness forebears, likewise, would warn me not to risk my sanctified soul with such worldly pursuits. As a non-confrontational sort of fellow, I would be departing from my own comfort zone if I were to buck both those traditions and start speaking out on political issues. Trouble is, I do find, in that meddlesome document, the Bible, plenty of examples of prophets and apostles, and, yes, our Lord himself, being quite vocal on the issues of the day.

There are some issues I am interested in. Housing, jobs, responsible budgeting, education, long range planning that balances environmental preservation with the provision of services and infrastructure that meet human needs. I’ve worked on some of these issues already.

It’s not like I don’t have plenty to do. I’m just thinking, that’s all. Just thinking. I’ll let you know.

Addendum, added 5/20/10:

Here’s where I let you know. This internal debate having reached its conclusion, one of me seems to have won by a narrow margin, and the conflicting pundits in my head are drafting their respective columns arguing whether the decision to proceed represents a bold step or a foolish venture.  I’m ignoring them both, for now, while considering that they both may be right.  What actually happened was that I went on a previously scheduled three-day spiritual retreat in mid-May, thinking that by the end of that I’d have gained some clarity; which I did not, if by clarity is meant “now I know what God wants me to do with this.”  I did, however, come away with a calmness and clearness of mind which allowed me to notice that I was equally undisturbed by either prospect.  The curious and surprising fact that the thought of entering the political process at this late date in my life did not scare the willies out of me was just enough of a nudge that it tipped the scale in that direction.  It was my decision, and the consequences to me, my family, my community are my responsibility.  Isn’t that what we are spiritually called to do, grow up, make actual decisions, and become responsible for our own decisions?  So…. I filed.

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3 thoughts on “Thinking about politics; a debate with myself

  1. I think … I think … I think if you were running for office in my town I would vote for you with no hesitation, but also I think the whole idea of “politics” would be anathema to someone such as yourself. You are not a politician, you are a preacher. And I think the two callings are diametrically opposed. You would be miserable as a politician, I suspect.

    But more importantly, I think you would be far more useful to the cause of social justice as a preacher than a politician. Think about it: When Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers at the temple, would it have had such a profound impact if he were running for office? No of course not.

    I’ve told my friends who are preachers that they have an authority the rest of us do not. And it’s true. When you speak out for the poor, the death row inmate, the immigrant, there is an authority that none of the rest of us have. A quote in the newspaper from someone with “Reverend” or “Pastor” before their name carries more weight than when someone such as myself speaks out on these issues, and certainly more than when a state legislator speaks.

    And remember: You can be in a political movement without being OF it.

    As for separation of church and state, I find it very interesting that the countries in Europe viewed as the most socially liberal (i.e., Scandinavia) are those which have a state religion–or had until the past 10 years or so. Seems to me the surest way to kill your religion is to put it under the government’s control.

  2. You are quite right, of course. As I tend to point out to others, Jeremiah was given authority over nations and kingdoms, but in the actual event he exercised that authority from a mud pit in the courtyard, not a throne at court. His authority was in his ability to tell the truth fearlessly, both to his own countrymen and others, whether or not they wanted to hear it.

    Sometimes, however, it seems that quite by accident someone with integrity does get elected to public office. It’s a fluke of our system. One must always be on the alert for such rare moments; hence the above post. I do lean strongly toward your way of thinking, all the same.

  3. Okay, so I was officially a politician for 117 days, from the date I filed with the Board of Elections until the day of the primary. It was a crowded field, as local elections go, and I was out-spent and out-advertised by several of my opponents. Result: I polled fourth out of five on the ballot, ahead of the person who had been endorsed by the local newspaper, and behind all the rest including one who dropped out early for health reasons ( he came in second, and would otherwise, more than likely, have won easily).
    Still, on a votes-per-sign basis, or even a votes-per-dollar-spent basis, I did remarkably well, so I’m told, for a political newcomer. One of my opponents had been running pretty much since the last election, and another (who won the day) started out with five times the number of yard signs and bought more later.
    More importantly, I learned a great deal about the process, who some of those persons are who, as St Paul would say, “seem to be pillars,” made some friends, and had a good deal of fun. I didn’t badmouth anybody, clarified my own thinking on a whole range of issues, and am ready to resume my more familiar role as an advocate for people who don’t tend to have enough dollars to spare for political donations. I’ll probably not do it again, but am glad that I tried. No regrets.

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