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

A New Season in Ideologically Driven Politics?

Timothy Sherratt


March 8, 2013

By Timothy Sherratt

Can Christian perspective make a constructive contribution to improving the political climate?

Barely two months into the new administration, the partisan atmosphere is as uncompromising as ever. In seeming disarray following the 2012 elections, Republicans have regained a measure of unity around the fiscal crisis. By claiming to have made a major concession on taxes—the expiration of Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans—they hold the administration responsible for allowing the Sequester to occur.

Now the conservative media accuses the administration of exaggerating the impact of the Sequester, which it frames as nothing more than a five percent belt-tightening that ought to be within the competence of any departmental manager.

Certainly the administration appears to have had its bluff called, although the first few days can hardly provide an adequate measure of the accumulating effect of sequestration. The public has cut the President’s job approval ratings sharply. Republicans have attracted criticism for refusing to compromise further on raising taxes. But they appear willing to absorb this criticism, at least for now.  

Are we entering a new season in ideologically driven politics? Since 2011, the typical agreement on fiscal matters has consisted of either postponing action or imposing automatic actions at a later date. Even in the contentious 1990s, no one doubted the energy behind efforts to reach agreement. As then White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta told The New York Times’ Hedrick Smith, given enough time, President Clinton was sure he could persuade anyone to his point of view.

How different things stand now! Even in the days leading up to the crucial March 1st deadline, talks to avoid the Sequester were all but non-existent.  

In the wake of the 2012 elections, the public is left unsure how to allocate responsibility. On fiscal matters at least, the political process is lurching from one deadline to the next without much face-to-face negotiation. In the media, a binary discourse frames each side’s positions in the language of loyalty or treachery. Is deliberation a lost art? And at what cost?

Is there something Christian perspective can offer beyond the worthy calls for civility and cooperation in our politics? Certainly, the need for such a contribution has grown rather than diminished. The American political system is no stranger to ideological appeals, but it seems less and less capable of avoiding their disruptive effects.

Part of the problem seems to be that genuine differences of the kind that agitate the political climate are filtered exclusively through the lenses of American yearnings for unity, which lead inevitably to denunciation of uncooperative opponents, however conscientious. A genuinely pluralistic recognition of difference continues to elude us.

The tradition of Christian reflection in which the Center for Public Justice is grounded equates justice with respect for differences of basic beliefs and their resulting obligations. This tradition rejects a political discourse that would render citizens or groups undeserving of full access to civic participation on worldview grounds. Established traditions ought to be able to find political expression, a seat at the political table.

In politics, we should treat worldview differences as evidence of ordinary human commitments rather than proof of hostile intentions. The former has had little traction in our political tradition. The latter has contemporary politics by the throat.

I am becoming convinced that Christians should take a more independent stance in American politics, to represent as best they can a biblically based view of the scope of government, the importance of civil society and the necessity of confessional liberty for all citizens. 

Realistically, a move towards greater independent political expression would exert its influence only in the long run. In the short run, the political dynamics of the fiscal crisis seem entrenched—to the detriment of important properties of representative democracy.

But in the short run, another feature of our system bears consideration: we hold frequent elections and these remain the surest way to get the attention of political leadership.  

—Timothy Sherratt is a Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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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.”