By Joseph Howard
I‘ve written before about the problematic political sorting happening in America’s churches. People have a propensity to seek and attend churches that match their political convictions, rather than to be formed first by their faith and to let that direct their political engagement. This trend is detrimental to the Church, as well as society, and this sorting is part of broader cultural trends that relate to the way people identify with either of the two leading parties.
The origin of many of these trends bears moral scrutiny on the part of Christians, as each has resulted in more homogeneous, polarized, and partisan political movements in the United States. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, has been researching the key fissures in our common life; he and coauthor Sam Abrams put together a ten-point list summarizing the major systemic issues they have identified as being the root of many of our political woes.
- Party realignment and purification 1964-92
- Mass sorting of liberal vs. conservative voters by 1990s
- Change in Congress 1995 — death of friendships
- Media fractionation and the Internet (1980s and 1990s, respectively)
- Residential homogeneity, urban v. rural 1990s
- End of the Cold War, loss of common enemy 1990s
- Increasing immigration and racial diversity 1990s
- Increasing role of money in politics, negative advertising 2000s
- Generational changing of the guard 1990s
- Increasing education since 1970s
Christians should notice that the partisan realignment that began in 1964 was to a significant degree prompted by disagreements about racial equality and civil rights. The way this sorting led conservative white Southern Democrats into the GOP, and fundamentally changed the nature of the nation’s politics — leading to a more homogeneously conservative Republican Party, and a more homogeneously progressive Democratic Party — means that racial dynamics have been a largely forgotten foundation of the subsequent culture war, which matured into our current partisan impasse. The shift of the South toward Republican politics was a decades-long process, with the transition arguably beginning as early as Franklin Roosevelt, and continuing under Eisenhower, with a number of factors at work, but the relation to racial tension is undeniable.
Watergate slowed the Southern Strategy articulated by Kevin Phillips so well in The Emerging Republican Majority (1969), but it was realized under Ronald Reagan. While Reagan was
A master in applying “racism-free conservative principles to each case at hand,” Reagan reinforced the reputation of the southern Republican party as a respectable version of the newest “white people’s party” for many conservatives and some moderate whites. (Black and Black, The Rise of the Southern Republicans, p. 217)
The Democratic Party is not without fault in this sorting, as it has consistently alienated people who hold more conservative perspectives, particularly on subjects like abortion. The departure of conservative Southern whites meant that the only pro-life voices remaining in the Democratic Party were the black church and primarily northern Roman Catholics. Whatever one’s views on this issue — and this is just an easy example — ideological homogeneity and purity within our parties on issues that the American people as a whole hold fairly nuanced views about is a hindrance when it comes to actually governing.
It is important to reflect on the origins of our current political situation, especially the ideological homogeneity of the parties, if we’re going to find a way forward. Understanding the origins of this push for purity in both Republican and Democratic parties is important, because ideological and social purity — and the partisan polarization from which they stem and to which they in turn contribute — are central to much of our governmental and societal dysfunction.
The road to democratic hell is paved with partisan intentions. —Jonathan Haidt
As Christians we believe that pride is destructive of humanity at a foundational level. It should be unsurprising to discover that dispositions motivated by pride would likewise be destructive of civil society and the habits that are necessary for functioning democracies. It may surprise many Christians however, to discover that the foundational value that the Christian tradition prescribes as an antidote to the sin of pride is also just the sort of social mortar that can hold together the foundation of democracy, namely, the virtue of humility.
Humility is not exactly in its heyday in our society. It is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. To some, it is more vice than virtue. But if we take a step back, and look at what we know from a social-scientific and psychological perspective to be necessary for the healthy habits that lie at the heart of democracy, I believe we will see how indispensable humility is. St. Augustine wrote of humility’s importance, even presenting it as a divine virtue:
Consequently, inasmuch as there is nothing more adverse to love than envy, and as pride is the mother of envy, the same Lord Jesus Christ, God-man, is both a manifestation of divine love towards us, and an example of human humility with us, to the end that our great swelling might be cured by a greater counteracting remedy. For here is great misery, proud man! But there is greater mercy, a humble God! Take this love, therefore, as the end that is set before you, to which you are to refer all that you say, and, whatever you narrate, narrate it in such a manner that he to whom you are discoursing, on hearing may believe, on believing may hope, and on hoping may love. (On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed 4.8, in NPNF I.3, p. 287-288)
For the Christian, embracing humility is part of following Jesus. But how might this practice aid our task of working for the good of the city in which we dwell, as we are commanded?
One of the key consequences of humility is the patience to listen to and hear what another person has to say. Pride pushes us to speak, and to listen only so far as it will enable us to respond in a more decisive manner. Humility tells us we may not have all the answers, or even all the facts, and so we ought to hear others out. And, finally, it is only by listening to one another — and actually respecting one another, even and especially in our disagreements — that we can come to convince one another of those things that we are passionate about.
For example, a primary concern of people across the political spectrum is persuasion, how to convince those who disagree with them. Blaise Pascal spent some time reflecting on the question of how we convince others to change their minds. Olivia Goldhill has summarized Pascal’s insight:
Put simply, Pascal suggests that before disagreeing with someone, first point out the ways in which they’re right. And to effectively persuade someone to change their mind, lead them to discover a counter-point of their own accord.
While the cynic might suggest that in pursuing this path we’re simply being disingenuous in order to lead people to the end we wish to achieve, I believe this is the wrong way to look at the practice. Instead, I would submit this method of persuasion is only consistently effective if we have trained ourselves to truly see the merit in others’ perspectives, and to honestly appreciate what is right or true in their positions. Such a disposition is the result of true humility. It is also, I believe, evident in Scripture. Consider Paul’s speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22 ff.). Despite his concerns about the idolatry that was everywhere in Athens, he doesn’t begin by condemning the Athenians for their paganism. Instead he praises their religiosity, which I think he genuinely believed to be a positive quality.
For Saint Augustine, one of the consequences of encountering God is the recognition that we are not our own ground of truth. Truth is something that is discovered and, in the most significant sense, revealed to us. In other words, truth is an aspect of the divine. It does not find its origin in us, and we can be certain that we have not grasped the whole, and we must allow the possibility that we have gotten things wrong. This epistemic humility and epistemic fallibility are precisely some of the aspects that philosophers of knowledge argue are necessary for a fruitful exchange of ideas or debate.
Such a humility might find many practical points of contact in our political system today. To begin, acknowledging when one’s opponents are correct could have the practical effect of aiding the legislative focus on areas of broad agreement, and a legislative agenda might therefore be able to proceed with support from a cross section of legislators. Having restored the habit of working together by tackling issues when there is an accord, the more challenging tasks of finding consensus or compromise may be seen as possible once more.
The role Christians can play in a political revival of humility, and thus of bipartisanship could be significant. And our efforts at its revival are one of only two legitimate and faithful options that lie ahead of us as Christians in the United States (and probably in other countries as well): either we pursue a sectarian abstention from political involvement, or a considered and purposeful involvement in politics through participation in all parties, particularly our two largest, the Republicans and Democrats. If your breath just caught at reading that, you may be too beholden to your partisan ideology.
If the necessary virtue for democracy is humility, then its Achilles’ heel is pride. A prideful insistence that only one’s own ideas can be correct, or worse, that only one’s own party has it right, and is therefore somehow anointed for leadership and justified in crushing all disagreement or resistance, is undeniably harmful to our social and political institutions. In other words, to aid our ailing political institutions, Christians who choose to be involved in politics must self-consciously be involved in a manner that subverts ideological purity and the homogeneity of the parties.
If even now our political leaders who claim to be Christian thought of and trusted their coreligionist political counterparts as they should, what disagreements might be laid to rest? What language might disappear from our political discourse? What could be accomplished? I think it’s worth finding out.
 See Earl Black and Merle Black, The Rise of the Southern Republicans, p. 218 (Harvard University Press, 2002). “In 1980 Reagan won 61 percent of the southern white vote. He executed the Republican strategy of sweeping the conservative whites while also winning a majority of moderate whites.”
 A good discussion follows on what made Reagan the most popular president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, while also making him “the most despised president since early in the century” for black people.