The Call to Compromise: Farm Bill, Immigration Highlight its Necessity

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Farmers and their interests represent a powerful force in Washington. Given that they supply one of our nation’s most basic provisions, lawmakers respond to the needs these important constituents voice. In turn, farmers serve as an important political tool for the lawmakers that support them. They are iconic: their rural heritage and traditional work coincides nicely with what many people would identify as “American;” thus supporting the farmer’s cause and using the farmer’s image is often a useful political ploy in our nation’s capital.

For this reason, it befuddling, and more importantly, disquieting that Congress recently failed to reach an agreement on a five-year farm bill (yet again), due to political bickering and public posturing on a host of issues.

Its not that I necessarily support this legislation that our nation renews twice a decade. In fact, I think that it’s necessary to question the assumptions and professed “needs” that farmers (and others) claim in this pork-filled bill.  Farm bills have historically ensured massive subsidies for U.S. crop production, reinforcing existing structures of industrialized agriculture that can threaten our environment and the livelihood of millions of farmers internationally by distorting food prices and guaranteeing that American food dominates the market. It is time that we rethink these principles, and create forms of aid and regulations that respond to the realities of our globalized world.

Yet, the fact that our leaders can no longer come together to reach an agreement on something so intertwined with our heritage and economy is deeply disturbing in many ways. In fact, it riles me: lawmakers (especially recently elected conservative Republicans; we need to place credit where credit is due) show an increasing and stubborn unwillingness to compromise in order to address issues of national importance.

But as Michael Gerson noted in a recent edition of Capital Commentary, “Members of Congress are not elected to serve the purest form of their ideology.” Why? Because they are elected serve and lead a larger political community and not simply the rather narrow group of constituents that voted for them, or even worse, the interests of the groups and individuals that funded their election campaign. Such a view implies and even necessitates that our leaders look to respond to the varied concerns of their constituents by forging consensus and compromise, rather than clinging dogmatically to a policy position at all costs.

As Christians (or as members of any faith for that matter), compromise often sounds like a dirty word. Are we not called to espouse and promote our convictions whatever the cost? Doesn’t compromise betray these beliefs? And as idealistic youths, we may often think the same way: We can’t double back on our principles! Doing otherwise would deceive both our cause and our selves!

This desire to express the beliefs of our conscience and the conviction of our heart is healthy. And at times, our worldview, and the political dogma it produces, might genuinely require that we forgo accord with the opposition.

On June 21, 2013, the farm bill was defeated in the House by a 234 to 195 vote.

But compromise is not foreign to a Christian approach to politics. In fact, we ought to include it as an assumption of our work to seek a more just world. While this may seem strange, when we consider the merits of this political strategy, we can come to realize its value as a faithful act.

First, compromise is not an anti-biblical or even a-biblical concept. In fact, our biblical ancestors provide important precedent in engaging in compromise. In Acts 15, Paul comes to Jerusalem to settle an important and divisive issue facing the early church: circumcision. Jewish sects have called for Gentile submission to this religious rite of passage, while other elements—Paul among them—preach that the Christian’s liberty allows freedom from such Jewish practices. While church leaders side with Paul, they also send a letter out to the new churches spreading across the Roman Empire that essentially proscribes the need for respect for Jewish practices. This, if you will, is a compromise of sorts: While Paul’s position was the one adopted, the concerns of more orthodox Jewish sects were also addressed, thereby preventing any deep schisms in the early church.

Second, assuming an uncompromising attitude (at all times and on all matters) is pure moral hubris, and ignores the reality of our fallen human nature. When we as a political actor assume the moral rightness of our position, without paying any heed to other perspectives, it suggests a worrying reliance on our personal ability to judge between right and wrong on matters of complex legislation. As Christians, we must approach our politics with a certain dose of humility, recognizing that as fallen beings, we are prone to being wrong—thus the need for engagement and compromise with those offering different approaches and policy suggestions. 

And finally, failing to compromise often threatens public justice—and when it does so, it brings into question our lawmakers’ ability to lead. In the case of the farm bill, failed compromise puts at risk those dependent on food stamps and the legitimate agricultural needs that the bill addresses. More worryingly, the hype over the House consideration of the immigration bill suggests that this long overdue legislation may once again fall victim to Washington’s adversity to team play and propensity to use such opportunities as a political soapbox. This unwillingness to seek common ground on such matters—especially matters so basic to our national identity as farming and immigration—puts at risk the state’s ability to ensure a just society for its citizens and inhabitants.

Christians then, should not be afraid to compromise in politics. Biblical precedent exists, our sinful nature suggests its wisdom, and justice demands it. Thus, when I read of Rev. Samuel Rodriguez’s recent advocacy as part of large coalition for immigration reform in the New York Times last week, and his metaphorical threat to Republicans that “If 11 million immigrants are left in the middle of the water [the Jordan River] and do not reach the promised land, neither will the Republican Party reach the promised land of the White House,” I smiled. A Christian dedication to demand political compromise: just what our lawmakers need in Washington.

 -Aaron Korthuis currently works for the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras on issues of citizen security. He graduated from Whitworth University in 2012, and will begin his legal studies at Yale Law School in the fall of 2014.