Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Thinking Like a Third Party

Timothy Sherratt


By Timothy Sherratt

December 13, 2013

Demonstrations by immigration reform advocates at the homes, offices, and favorite diners of Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor over the Thanksgiving holiday gave imaginative symbolism to the plight of families divided by or living in fear of deportation. Stalled immigration legislation is one more casualty of the deep divisions known collectively as polarized politics.

Polarized politics has gorged on issues whose sensitivity for Christians obliged them to take sides, with a resulting politicization of Christianity. With nowhere else to go on abortion or religious liberty, for example, many made their way to the G.O.P. Hostility on those issues from the other side of the aisle created an apparent seamlessness to the Christian Right’s alignment with neo-conservatism. Understandable though that identification has been—and recall that we are speaking of overwhelming support for Republicans among evangelical voters in recent elections—qualified approval would have been a better stance. But “stance” implies somewhere to stand, and an attractive option in theory—a third party coalition with Republicans most of the time and Democrats some of the time—was never a realistic option in practice. 

Reform of the electoral system to provide proportional representation (PR) and multiple parties offers the surest way to end polarized politics. Third parties flourish under the greater representative fairness that PR establishes and they can forge the coalitions most attractive to their own principles. But PR has dim prospects because its introduction would threaten entrenched party interests in the states, which determine election laws. Alternatively, polarization could lose traction if one of the two main parties generated enough votes to control House, Senate and Presidency, as was the usual pattern until midway through the last century. Polarization would be moot under those conditions.  There are few signs that this kind of shift in voting patterns is on the horizon, however.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times offers a Catholic-oriented contribution to the dilemma of polarization. He finds this contribution in the revised priorities of Pope Francis. The pope has downplayed, but not changed, Catholic doctrine on the personal moral issues, but has played up the preferential option for the poor, thereby loosening the taken-for-granted linkage between Catholicism and conservatism that irks liberal Catholics. Some of their number, Douthat tells us, dream of a Democratic Party in the image of Sargent Shriver, strong on social welfare and orthodox on the “culture of life.” Such a shift would benefit “an American Christianity that needs to be something bigger than just the religious client of the G.O.P.”

While analysis of these tectonic shifts and their knock-on effects in the Catholic world lies outside my expertise, it can be concluded by now that polarized politics is a religious story, with leading roles played by Catholics, Evangelicals, and “Nones” (or non-religious). The consequences of the Pope’s recalibration of his church’s social teaching for party affiliations among the religiously observant are yet to be seen. But Douthat is surely right to point to churches as change agents.

The kind of change I have in mind is reflected in the beginning of the church’s year. In the Anglican lectionary, the last Sunday before Advent commemorates Christ the King, immediately before we prepare for his birth in Bethlehem. What an apt juxtaposition! The coming King, by and for whom all things in heaven and earth were created, thrones, dominions, principalities (Colossians 1:16, e.g.) is born into abject poverty as a displaced person, who will end his life executed by the occupying Romans. Taking our bearings as we do from Christ’s humility, death, and resurrection, we, too, must recalibrate living in, but not of, the world. Our Christian vocation calls us to pursue justice, and inherent in the pursuit of justice is political engagement. At the same time, we cannot allow the good news to be squeezed into the party platform of either of our political parties any more than we can allow the church to play the role of a religious client to one of them.  

Pressure to shrink the Christian message to a political platform may be an occupational hazard of pursuing public justice. Perhaps that is how the seasons of the church year may come to our aid, to help us rethink, refresh, and resist worldly temptations on a regular basis. In the present instance, our political system may not welcome the creation of a third party. But it makes principled sense to think like one. 

-  Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Sabbatical Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”