The Problem with Our Politics

May 28, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


“Our politics is broken.”  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a political pundit utter these words on a cable news show.  Usually, when a pundit speaks of broken politics, he or she is referring to the divisive and downright derogatory displays that so regularly parade across our national stage.  These pundits long for the days when politicians could reach across the aisle and work with others who held different points of view to get things done and to move our nation into a bold and bright new future.  “Why can’t we all just get along?” these pundits wonder.

This dream, of course, is encapsulated in our nation’s de facto, though not official, longtime motto:  E pluribus unum.  “Out of many, one.”  We dream of the day when those in the halls of power – and the population who votes for them – will finally be able act civilly.  And yet, as nice of a sentiment as E pluribus unum is, it is neither Scriptural nor realistic.  Simple observation verifies this.  We may be many in this nation.  But we are certainly not one.

This is why the Scriptural vision of unity, rather than being ad hoc and accidental, is grounded in Christ and is intentional. The apostle Paul explains:

There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Paul uses the adjective “one” seven times in these verses.  And in each instance, the adjective modifies God and His gifts.  Thus, true unity can only be founded in the one true, Triune God.  Scriptural unity begins with oneness of God and not with the multiplicity of man, as does our folksy national motto.

But our problem goes deeper than a simple lack of political unity.  For disunity is merely a symptom of a more systemic and sinister problem.  Our deeper problem is that we buy into so many of the impossibly lofty things our politics and politicians promise.  We have saddled our politics with the responsibility of:

Fostering unity, creating jobs, saving the environment, caring for the poor, reducing the deficit, cutting spending, supporting unions and workers’ rights, formulating corporately friendly economic policies, reforming entitlements, ensuring the long-term fiscal solvency of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, providing for a world-class education, both deporting illegal immigrants and providing them a path to citizenship, and restoring prosperity.

If we just had all of that, then we would be happy.  Hmmm.  Is it any wonder we’re disaffected and disillusioned?  Does anyone really believe any human institution can deliver on all that?

Last week, I came across a column by New York Times writer Ross Douthat, where he poetically and succinctly summarizes the problem with the demands we make on our politics.  Douthat writes:

When strong religious impulses coexist with weak religious institutions, people become more likely to channel religious energy into partisan politics instead, and to freight partisan causes with more metaphysical significance than they can bear. The result, visible both in the “hope and change” fantasies of Obama’s 2008 campaign and the right-wing backlash it summoned up, is a politics that gives free rein to both utopian and apocalyptic delusions, and that encourages polarization without end.[1]

This is precisely right.  For all the help politics and politicians might be able to offer, and for all the good they might be able to do (cf. Romans 13:1-5), they are not up to carrying the weight of the metaphysical freight of the divine.  The expansive power of God is simply too much for them to bear.  Indeed, it is too much for any human to bear.  This is why strong religious institutions, as Douthat duly notes, that strongly trust in and teach the providence of God are so important.  For they proclaim the message that there is only one Messiah of metaphysical proportions and powers –and His name is Jesus.  Anyone else who attempts to do Jesus’ job for Him will fail miserably.  It is foolish to place superhuman hopes on simple humans, be they politicians or anyone else.

The upshot of placing superhuman hopes on simple humans can do nothing but result in the disastrous vacillation between “utopian and apocalyptic delusions” to which Douthat refers.  When a new politician is elected, we speak of him as if he will be able to usher in an eternal golden age of prosperity and unity.  When he unsurprisingly fails, we cry that the sky is falling.

I would submit that the Church stands at a particularly privileged position in our current political environment.  For we can serve as advocates for the One who can and does do what politics and politicians can only dream of.  We can serve as advocates for the One who not only provides for human beings, but changes human hearts.  We can serve as advocates for Jesus.  Sadly, many Christians have all too readily and willingly traded an advocacy of Jesus for advocacy of a certain candidate or political position.  Not that it is bad in and of itself to thoughtfully support a candidate, but we must remain clear on what our politics and politicians can and cannot do.  For our politics and politicians will not last.  And they also will not deliver – at least not in the way we might hope.  Jesus and His promises, however, will last and they will deliver.  In fact, not only will Jesus last and deliver, He will prevail.  As the Church, then, our call is to advocate for Him first.


[1] Ross Douthat, “A Nation of Osteens and Obamas,” The Washington Post (5.16.12).

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