Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Voter Education

I am overdue for a couple of rants and raves, so the continuity of this post will likely not be obvious.

It has seemed increasingly clear to me that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the only church body I know at all reasonably well -- and even her I do not know well) has been untrue to itself in this country by failing to teach its faithful how to live with and in the "two kingdoms" that it touts in its doctrinal texts. I speak especially of its refusal or its inability to teach the members how to vote in elections at all political levels.

Now let me say right up front that I don't know much about the so-called "two kingdoms" or "two realms" in Lutheran teaching. I have tried to education myself, since I didn't get much of that in my formal training (there was, after all, a whole lot of other stuff to cover). But it seems to me to boil down to a fundamental uncertainty of how to deal with the widely-defined political realties of human life. Since we do not live in a theocracy (for which many of us give thanks, mistrusting as we do even the bishops to establish a political realm of order according to the Word of God seen by their lights), we have to figure out how to deal with other people who share our air, our space, our intangibles (freedom, liberty, aspirations).

Lutherans say, I think, that God has given over the kind of day-to-day management of human sin and possibility in the world to governments, which in turn have the authority to impose order and restrain human sinfulness by the use of the sword -- i.e., by force, either physical or suasive. Such an order is God's will, and because that is true, Christians are bound to respect and obey the civil authorities as having been placed, in some sense, in their offices by God. (There is provision for opposing the governing authority -- Luther himself has offered permission -- but the general "tilt" of Lutheran politics has been an acknowledge of the legitimacy of the public authority, I think it safe to say.) In other words, God's authority or reign is exercised indirectly by or through the powers-that-be.

God's direct authority is gospel-focussed. He does not use force to make things happen; instead grace is his modus operandi. He is, of course, the object of our ultimate obedience and loyalty. So if there is a conflict between the civil authorities and the Gospel authority, obviously the Gospel authority wins.

But Lutherans have not been very cleaar about more than that, so far as I can see -- no matter at what length they have discussed the "two realms."

I am not a great fan of the teaching, mostly because I don't understand it and partly because I am not convinced by it. But because I do not understand it, I do not fight it -- very much -- except to suggest, along the lines offered by Hauerwas, that the Christian community contitutes its own polis, its own political reality, its own "culture." And as such, the Church may at times find the political authority irrelevant and even antithetic to the Church's life -- which is to say, believers' lives. (I am intrigued by the debate among solid theologians of the Hauerwasian persuasion, and many others who root in different traditions and theological points of view, who argue whether Christians ought even to vote in American elections. I'll read and think about that more before offering even a synopsis.)

Well, if we take as a given that Christians may -- indeed, must -- live in two realms (even if God is final authority over both and has not abandoned the civil to its own fate), then discourse about how one is, at minimum, to balance the responsibilities of these two realms -- not exactly accurately described as "church" and "state" -- is a pressing issue. At this time of this year, the most pressing issue is how do I make up my mind about which, if any, of the presidential candidates do I vote for?

And here we come to my point: If God is ultimate authority over the civil realm, and if the Church is where one is trained to life the life of faith obedient and celebratory of that authority, ought not the Church have some involvement in educating or forming the faithful into living faithfully in the civil sphere? In short, ought not the Church teach me how to vote?

Now by "teach me how to vote," I don't mean tell me which candidates or causes to support -- at least necessarily. But the Church -- at the congregational, synodical, and national level -- ought to be involved in helping voters who are members of the Church balance concerns, identify priorities, and articulate principles.

Obviously I operate with certain assumptions about how Christians reach ethical decisions: I believe that voting involves making ethical decisions. I believe that Christians are expected to use their minds, as informed by the teachings of the Church, to reach ethical conclusions. I believe that not all decisions we are called to make are black-and-white clear. And I believe that Christians of good faith may come to different conclusions on ethical issues -- though I am often bewildered when Christians reach different conclusions from mine.

Now I know that the Church is very active in formulating "policy statements" -- on everthing from the environmen to sex. But those grand statements are, as it were, released into the atmosphere -- with no serious efforts either to be sure that they are properly disseminated among the congregations or to bring the policies to bear on particular issues or campaigns. There is an almost gnostic tendency to act as though merely releasing the wisdom is enough, that to go farther and try to help people apply the wisdom to their mundane lives is unnecessary.

I suspect that is so because we fear, like the plague, conflict in parishes and across the Church (and I guess we should do so, since we are so bad at knowing how to deal with conflict). I suspect, too, that a certain level of self-interest governs: We don't want to alienate givers by articulating stances that seem at odds with one or another political candidate's positions. After all, we must minister to Democrats and Republicans -- and never question whether Christians ought to be knee-jerk Republicans or Democrats at all!

But our current lack of practice is not a faithful way of being Church. As Christians, we are called first and foremost to be loyal to God -- him who has been ultimately faithful to us. To be faithful to God is to be in his Church and to be faithful to our fellow members of the Body of Christ. To be faithful means to be in constant dialogue. It means to consult and advise. (It may be irreverent, but I have often described the intercessions in the mass as the Church's advising God about how to rule his world. In a relationship, the parties may not be equal, but they do engage in dialogue and listen to one another.)

Christians ought to be talking together about this and every election. We ought not split up into our various interest groups and reinforce one anothers biases (and I'd say that even if I fit into a caucus; however, the socialist, pro-life, non-violence, historically critical-Biblical literalist caucus is so small as not to require a meeting). We need and should be talking beyond or without party lines because in Christ there is neither "conservative" (usually meaninglessly defined) or "liberal" (usually inaptly defined), neither hawk nor dove -- there is the one Body of Christ in union with all the other manifestations (instantiations, as my teacher Jenson is fond of saying) of the Body in the oneness of the Holy Trinity. We ought to be trying to reach consensus (whether or not we do is another matter) on matters of local and national and international life together -- and if not agreement on whom to vote for, at least some consensus on what matters and on what is true and on what is irrelevant.

So why are we not talking about the war in Iraq in adult fora across the ELCA? That topic is never absent from any other gathering -- social or professional -- of which I am a part, yet it has never been discussed in my parish's education offerings. What about tax breaks? Those are not only -- if even -- a matter for "economics majors"; they are of basic importance to how we structure the entire range of programs that we offer through government and non-government organizations, and they have enormous implications, if one is to believe the Old Testament prophets (check out Amos, for starters).

I know: The problems are complex. Well, so is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity or of the Two Natures of Christ. Yet we have taken those on. If we have to take six months to understand trickle down economic theory or socialist doctrine, so what? If we have to ask people to do some research, so what? And if it gets touchy to draw the Bible's witness to bear on the discussion, so what: Why else do we have pastors?

But, I am told: Our adult fora frequently feature people who are advocating for affordable housing, and care for people with AIDS, and new styles of judging and disciplining petty crimes in the neighborhool, and food programs. We're doing the job.

And I guess to some extent that is true. But where is the part of the prgram that makes clear that this particular concern is or should be of concern to Christians? Where is the rubber-hits-the-road discussion of whether this ought to be of concern to the legislature so that Christians should write letters or picket or vote for Candidate A? Ought Christians honestly be satisfied that we offer a cafeteria-style assortment of feel-good projects?

But, we are told, people are not interested in "politics" in church. Not true, I answer. What they don't want is partisanship in Church. (The Sojourners fellowship, known for its Christian-faith-based political action, sells a fabulous bumper sticker that says, "God is not a Republican -- or Democrat!) But it is not partisanship to analyze the platforms and performances of politicians and determine whether they meet muster. But, further, if people don't want to deal with political issues in Church, they are not being faithful to the Gospel. For the Gospel mandates a certain level of involvement in the world.

No, I suspect that the church has settled for being a religious ghetto or relatively meaningless proportions in order to carry on its "religious" duties. And just so the Church has ceded the civic realm to some other influence and has effectly abandoned its teaching (whether true or false) about the two realms of Christian life. There is only one, practically speaking -- the non-Church. Come to church, which has a niche carved out for it on a limited-time basis; come as a Republican, as a Democrat.

And unless we face that and begin to change, all other efforts, my brothers and sisters, is just so much rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.


Jim said...

I am not being silly or sarcastic when I say that I don't believe that it is possible to speak of ethics and politics [as we know the two-party system in the US] in the same sentence. To abuse myself, it's oxymoronic to the same extent that "military intelligence" is.

The acts that matter go on in the Congress. GWB could not have had his foray into Iraq without the consent of the legislative branch. He makes a great target when fired at through the rear-view mirror, in 20/20 hindsight; but he obfuscated the facts and his reasons for wanting to go be a cowboy in Iraq so well that even those hostile to him in the government had to feel that he was somehow right. One of the few voices of reason to speak was the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, John Chane, who offered that UN inspectors could find any weapons of mass destruction quickly and effectively if they were backed up by UN troops to stop any foolishness on the part of Sadam's forces. He was ignored, almost actively, by the administration, and I heard no democrat or republican voices siding with him.

Bishop Chane spoke well and from an unimpeachably moral stand. His approach would have maximized the value of life and the probability of finding WMDs.

When we consider the perquisites of pork, that districts with powerful legislative representatives get more than their less-well-endowed neighbors, the awful truth emerges in the legislative branch as well. It's not about governing, it's about greed -- for power, for position, for ego. There are a few who abuse least. John McCain, save for his temper-tantrum focing the FAA to allow direct flights from Washington Reagan to his home airport in Phoenix, has served remarkably pork-free. So has my senator, Barbara Mikulski, though she often cranks up the gain when Government jobs in Maryland are threatened.

I don' think that there is an ethical discussion to be had until we have a reasonably ethical and moral government, and I think that day is far away in time.


Dwight P. said...

Jim, I don't for a second question or deny anything that you say -- except when you say that "ethics" and "politics" can't even appear in the same sentence, they are so antithetical.

What about your insights about pork? Why do such ploys matter? Isn't it because such sausage feeds the homebodies who then vote approvingly? What would happen if the church -- or more specifically, pastors in individual congregations -- began to teach about the insidious influence of pork-peddling? What would be the result of catechizing parishioners to the evil consequences of "my getting mine" -- not the least of which consequences is that the "least" of Our Lord's brothers and sisters (which is to say with scripture, himself) continue to hunger, while some are over-sated?

Now that can make a nice, ignorable point in a sermon, but I'm talking more than that. I'm talking about intentional educational fora to discern the differences between distractions and serious issues (can anyone say "gay marriage" in the context of perhaps the worst blunder in American foreign policy history -- as one of my lawyer friends puts it?). One lesson of the Good Samaritan parable is that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problemn. Why can't that be followed up with "And to avoid being part of the problem, you should, immediately after mass, pick up a cup of coffee and join us for a ten-part series, "How should I vote?"

In fact, I don't think it helpful to dust our shoes of the muck of political life. I say that, even though some thinkers who greatly impress me suggest that to vote is to be co-opted into acquiescing to a process and outcome that one steadfastly rejects as immoral. Maybe I'm getting a little handle on the Lutheran two-kingdom issue (or maybe not), but I don't think we Christians are allowed to sit in a pristine "don't blame me; I didn't vote" position. We are charged with responsibilty for the world, and part of that is its political life.

Finally, I must offer one correction: The day I posted this strand, I received a copy of THE LUTHERAN, my denomination's monthly magazine. The front page and much of the inside is devoted to the issue I raise. My church is at least asking the question, I guess. (I have read none of the issue, so I can't say whether there is anything of substance.)