Humility and Politics

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been receiving links from friends about the rise of the Christian left. Christian progressives are now coming to Jesus, and learning to vote for the Democratic Party. After all, if the Republicans are doing it, why can’t we?

I, myself, understand the attractions of partisanship. I respect the complexities of aligning any group of people around a specific cause. I also appreciate that most people have degrees of passion for the party, ranging from the ideologically pure to the unsentimentally practical. My own personal litmus test has been reproductive health, and at this time only one party seems to have room for it. It was not always so.

My own personal journey has swung wildly from one place to another, and now I find myself as a Red Tory, an Anarcho-Monarchist, a skeptical Democrat who would have made a good Laguardia, Millicent Fenwick style Republican. I’ll throw my hat in the ring as a citizen, but it’s not because I’m a Christian, but because I believe government should work on behalf of all people. One can be a good citizen without having Christian beliefs.

Some Christians, however, mislead themselves if they believe that a Christian faith leads to easy, single, “Christian” answers to specific policies. Nor can Christianity be the proper platform for a political party or vice versa.  Episcopalians, of course, have our jokes: there was a time where we were the “Republican party at prayer”; and “How do you tell the difference between a Democrat and a Republican in an Episcopal Church? The Altar Rail.” The Republicans represented the good-government pro-property rights establishment, and priests tended to be more supportive of anti-discrimination policies.

Then, however, priests were respected as conversation partners. And that’s what they were. They wouldn’t have told people how to vote or made much of the parties. In a church context, relationships may be prior to righteousness. But that sort of understanding is slowly eroding.

In our current context conservative evangelicals have been seduced by political power, demanding an ideological rigor that mainline, Episcopal churches should reject. They will get their reward. I offer that the alternative to provide deeper spiritual foundations – to inculcate habits of reflection and relationship that are prior to engaging the public square.  While I do think conservative evangelicalism is false and dangerous, as a religion and as a political force, I do not confuse it only with policies with which I disagree.

Not all of my beliefs about politics arise from my faith. My trust in demand side economics (St. Keynes), for example, or my opposition to the war on drugs (St. Friedman), or even my vague trust in American Diplomacy (St. Fulbright), don’t arise only from my theological position. I distinguish between the Marxist intuition that capitalism changes everything and the contradictions cannot hold from my catholic one which says, we’re still all sinners who we need each other, or you can’t serve both God and Wealth. They are distinct, and alternately harmonious, and contradictory. 

We should strive to inculcate the ability to handle, even with discomfort and tension, nuance, complexity, and ambiguity in the world. This arises from the virtue of humility. Instead, on social media, cable news, and politics, we reward leaders who enter the public from a position of hubris, where portraying vulnerability, caution, and prudence are seen as weaknesses.

This makes it harder for politicians to adjust when they understand more deeply than their constituents. They are penalized for learning, and so push through agendas and policies they may not even understand themselves. They are not equipped to serve the common good, but only those who will vote for them, because they are surrounded with people who confidently defend, through money and power, their own narrow interests.

Obviously humility does not easily develop in persons who enter business and politics. Most public officials must appear decisive and display a sense of confidence and righteousness to be convincing. It’s a double bind because on one hand we want our politicians to be honest, but we penalize them when they try to bring together constituencies that often have opposing interests. A crucial way through is for us to recognize that one can have direction and humility.

Peter Werner wrote in the NYtimes that humility allows us to understand the world is unfathomably complex. Our knowledge is incomplete. Humility is not to be confused with indecisiveness, but is a confidence in being able to change our minds. In our current context, however, too often we seek vindication rather than truth.

The alternative, certainty, abdicates our responsibility to think more deeply and understand the values of those who think differently.  But a practice of humility recognizes we are “better off if we have within our orbit people who see the world somewhat differently than we do…. this requires us to actually engage with, and carefully listen to, people who understand things in ways dissimilar to how we do.”

But as this article notes, many Christians have “traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates the least of these for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses.” They’ve traded the gospel for machismo.

We have something to contribute. In an article, “The World Outsmarts Us,” the author shows that we are not built to address of the complexities we now face. The way forward, he writes,

“It’s time we asked whether political frustration, anger and resistance to conflicting ideas results in part from a basic lack of ability to sense how the present world works. The best defence against runaway combative ideologies isn’t more facts, arguments and a relentless hammering away at contrary opinions, but rather a frank admission that there are limits to both our knowledge and our assessment of this knowledge. If the young were taught to downplay blame in judging the thoughts of others, they might develop a greater degree of tolerance and compassion for divergent points of view. A kinder world calls for a new form of wisdom of the crowd.”

This should not be news to faithful, apostolic Christians in the Benedictine tradition. The emphasis on practice, rather than an easy moralism, builds the spiritual and emotional skills to handle the complexities that humility teaches us. Both the the great Organizational Design theorist Edgar Schein and the Benedictines agree that one of the most useful and spiritually insightful practices is humble inquiry. It’s a willingness to admit ignorance, to cultivate curiosity, and to desire to understand. It’s even in the baptismal blessing.

The fundamental work of Episcopalian Christians is to develop practices of reflection and relationship. As our great saint Vida Scudder once said, we are to cultivate the powerful habits of “voluntary self-control and a sympathetic imagination.” With these in mind, the goal of having the humble stance.

Our knowledge is limited. Our understanding, incomplete. And so, we move, even though the paradoxes, tensions, and nuances that make of up our common life will always be present. We can eschew perfection in favor of the good; we learn from our mistakes and  correct them.  Through this, we can diminish the vitriol that diminishes a healthy partisanship, and rebuild the fundamental networks that – through the various churches and other social and spiritual institutions around us – have made our republic possible.

 

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