No Ultimate Politcal Solutions

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“The land of the free...because of the brave.” Even the uncertain calligraphy on the homemade sign along the roadside lent that lapidary truth a certain dignity.

On a bright fall day of breathtaking colors, the highway from Grand Junction, CO going south passes through one All-America City award winner after another, from the farming towns of Delta and Montrose to the old mining town of Ouray, and over the passes to Silverton and Durango. The neat red, white, and blue signs describing the awards, as well as the homemade ones displayed outside homes and businesses, advertise a determined commitment to family, home, and civic responsibility-- a clear-eyed embrace of the links between liberty and sacrifice.

But all is not well in this corner of the Rocky Mountains. “We the People…are p….’d off,” declared another patriot. The sentiment is widely shared, however expressed. And though it may dissolve into partisan acrimony in the next breath, the universal nature of disdain for the government shutdown and the style of politics it reflects deserve our attention. Citizens everywhere are giving vent to an appropriate frustration. Theoretically empowered, they lack the tools to bring our representatives to heel. 

Constitutional checks and balances have always promised to secure minority interests against majority power. However, the system of checks and balances was intended to be deployed in policy disputes, not used to interrupt core Congressional responsibilities for government’s functioning, let alone to threaten a default on the country’s debt obligations.

Despite the last minute deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, the die has been cast. Beginning with the Gingrich shutdown eighteen years ago, two decades of increasing party polarization have obliterated any remaining barriers of Congressional decorum, which, like all forms of etiquette, is a kind of trust. Cliché though it is, crisis politics is the new normal—which the recent deal confirmed when it created the next set of deadlines early next year.

It may be that some of the structural causes of polarized politics could be successfully tackled. Federal courts could conceivably reject contemporary redistricting methods if they fell short of achievable standards for guaranteeing equality. Computer programs could draw up districts based on a few basic parameters such as one person-one vote, equal population size, compactness of districts, and so on. 

But the problems lie deeper than the rules governing elections. Ideologically driven politics threatens to convert every issue into an ultimate issue, on whose right resolution hangs the future…of civilization. Wrap this high stakes struggle in faith or the flag, and you have a political style as all-American as apple pie. As the budget battle demonstrates, this style exacts a high price.

Paradoxically, Christians can both contribute to this psychosis and offer a partial remedy. Apolitical as most American Christians have tended to be, their return to the political arena in the 1960s to defend the moral absolutes they saw to be at stake helped shape the polarized politics of today. So, too, it should be noted, did liberalism shape this style of politics by similarly uncompromising attitudes, as the abortion and gay rights disputes illustrate.

The partial remedy I have in mind is this. If Christ is King, and his kingly power is expressed in his “full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice”—as the Book of Common Prayer has it—then we who follow Christ must give the lie to deploying politics in search of ultimate solutions. If Christ is Judge, we cannot look to the political process to secure a final judgment. We should tell ourselves that before engaging our representatives, of course.

In short, politics and government are not about ultimate solutions. Rather, they are about living in the fallen world, containing evil, pursuing justice, seeking proximate solutions that respect human dignity, and helping non-political agencies make their own contributions to human flourishing.

It might be easier to reach political agreement if political disagreement were not treated as evidence of treachery and one’s own convinced positions were not placed on a par with divine revelation. This would be one political message worth hearing from America’s pulpits.

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