I first began to notice the discontent even before Trump. The rise of negative partisanship and the corresponding intolerance for dissent within political parties (does anyone remember the endless “RINO” hunts of the Obama era?) amplified a sense of both Christian discontent and Christian fear. You may have had material disagreements with your own tribe, but at the same time you heard the voices urging you to hold fast. Can you possibly let the other side win? After all, they will destroy us. They will destroy our country.
(Never mind that their ranks are also full of millions of Christian believers.)
But there’s something deeply unsatisfying about that stance. Your spirit rebels against the imperative to be a team player, to not call out clear injustice on your own side—to focus exclusively on your opponent’s sins. You remember Christ’s warning about noting the speck in your brother’s eye, when there’s a log in your own, and you wonder—can that apply even to politics?
Eventually, you might even reach a breaking point. Perhaps someone on your “team” does something terribly wrong, and it’s just too much. Or perhaps you see a profound injustice, but only the other side truly seems motivated to address it. You’re pro-life, and that’s a reason why you want to join a throng of thousands and say words that are necessary and true—“Black lives matter.”
But the instant you do, you get the questions and critiques. “Are you a cultural Marxist now?” “Don’t you know about Critical Race Theory?” “Have you read the official BLM website?” When all you wanted to do was stand against racism and brutality, a cause that is unquestionably just.
More and more, thoughtful (mainly young) Christians say to me, “I’m pro-life, I believe in religious freedom and free speech, I think we should welcome immigrants and refugees, and I desperately want racial reconciliation. Where do I fit in?” The answer is clear. Nowhere.
And that truth is a blessing, if you embrace it.
Late last month, Tim Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, created a stir by specifically resisting the political imperatives of negative partisanship. In the New York Times, he wrote that neither party aligns perfectly with biblical commitments to justice. And he decried “package deal ethics,” where political parties “insist that you cannot work on one issue with them if you don’t embrace all of their approved positions.” Under this ethic, if your faction loses the primary, you have one choice—fall in line. Here’s Keller:
This emphasis on package deals puts pressure on Christians in politics. For example, following both the Bible and the early church, Christians should be committed to racial justice and the poor, but also to the understanding that sex is only for marriage and for nurturing family. One of those views seems liberal and the other looks oppressively conservative. The historical Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments.
As our culture becomes increasingly secular, there is no reason to believe that either party’s political agenda will closely match the demands of biblical justice. And even if the parties were united in achieving biblical goals, then the means of pursuing those goals would still be subject to debate.
So, what should we do when contemporary political alignments do not match Christian moral imperatives? Declare independence.
No, that does not mean always voting third-party (though that’s a viable and respectable option). Nor does it mean refusing to work for a politician or run for office yourself. But it does mean holding that political affiliation very, very lightly.
To put it differently, your commitment to Christ is permanent, eternal. Your commitment to a party or a politician is transient, ephemeral.
On the surface, this feels like a hard road to walk in a highly polarized time. And it can be. There’s an immense comfort in a sense of political belonging, especially if you live in a deep-blue or deep-red region. It can be personally difficult to chart a different path.
But there are deep rewards. First, it liberates you from uncomfortable and destructive associations and arguments. While the Bible promises Christians that they’ll face challenges and sometimes-fierce opposition in their lives, it is vastly better to face opposition for the things you actually believe and the values you actually hold rather than being forced to align with an ideological and political “package” you do not want to purchase.
Second, it opens up opportunities for unlikely friendships and unexpected relationships. It changes your posture towards the world to one that welcomes allies case-by-case. It cultivates a posture of openness and fellowship.
I can work with a critical race theorist to end the injustice of qualified immunity, for example, without embracing critical race theory. I might next defend Christian students from a challenge to their religious liberty, joining with “law and order” Republicans I just opposed and opposing critical race theorists I just joined.
Third, it can increase your knowledge. When a person who possesses a partisan mind faces a new challenge, he often immediately retreats to his cocoon to discern his response. We find “our” experts, and “our” experts don’t challenge our minds so much as they equip us to fight the partisan wars to come. An independent mind does its imperfect best to seek truth wherever it is found, including intentionally seeking out the best opposing arguments.
When you prioritize truth over tribe, it’s amazing how much more truth you’ll learn.
Fourth, in an interesting way, openness can increase influence. I’ll give you a secular example. One of the strangest and most fascinating developments in the ongoing conservative civil war has been the sheer amount of vitriol directed at libertarians. To read the words of some nationalist conservatives, you’d think that the Republican Party was under the thumb of libertarian think tanks and that libertarianism had somehow become a dominant ideological strand of American life.
On the one hand—given our highly-regulated economy, our culture of mass incarceration, and our nineteen-year war in Afghanistan—it seems laughable (and is indeed a joke in libertarian circles) that libertarians have a particularly powerful position in American life. On the other hand, it is true that libertarians punch well above their numerical weight. It’s worth exploring why.
The short answer is simple: If you agree with libertarians, they will work with you, and even a small additional infusion of energy and resources can win the day. Are you a black Democrat trying to create educational alternatives in urban schools? You’ve got a libertarian friend. Are you a white Christian Republican battling progressive speech codes and cancel culture on a college campus? Don’t look now, but there’s your libertarian pal, sporting his Reason Magazine t-shirt and smelling faintly of freshly-smoked weed. But he’s got your back.
As I write in the first chapter of my book, I’ve been on a journey out of partisanship. I see now how my past partisanship led me astray, harming relationships and blinding me to sources of truth outside my bubble. I’ve changed how I think, how I write, and how I engage with my political opponents.
It’s of course changed how I vote too. I used to vote straight-ticket Republican. Now, every candidate has to pass the same two-part test. First, does this person possess the character necessary for the office he or she seeks? And second, do they broadly share my political values? Fail either prong, and you don’t get my vote. I’ll vote (or write in) someone who does, regardless of party.
I like how National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru and Princeton’s Robby George put the choice: “To vote for a candidate for president is to have an infinitesimal effect on the outcome of the election, but to wholly determine whom one wills to be president.” That’s what a declaration of independence looks like, and a declaration of independence is the first step to melting the idols of political allegiance.
One more thing …
Last week I wrote about Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s righteous defense of religious liberty in Washington D.C. This week, my friends at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty have filed an important lawsuit against Andrew Cuomo seeking a court order permitting Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam (BYAM) school for Jewish girls to open for in-person instruction.
Should this be a hard case? No, says Becket:
In a different case, a court might be asked to ascertain the point at which this fundamental right must yield to a government’s claim that in-person education poses a public health risk. Indeed, this Court already considered the public health claim once in Soos v. Cuomo, ___ F. Supp. 3d ____, 2020 WL 3488742 (N.D.N.Y. June 26, 2020), enjoining Governor Cuomo’s and Mayor de Blasio’s efforts to apply an indoor capacity limitation only on houses of worship.
But this case is even easier, because here the Governor himself openly admits that COVID-19 is “not being spread by schools,” and the Mayor agrees that there has been “very little coronavirus activity” in schools. And BYAM is particularly safe, both because it follows rigorous protocols—resulting in zero known cases to date in the school—and because it plans to test all students and staff before returning to school on October 27.
Nor can the government claim that the targeted Jewish neighborhoods have particularly high levels of COVID-19. To the contrary, Governor Cuomo recently stated that the COVID-19 levels at issue are quite low (“To other states that’s nothing”). Indeed, across the entire country, there is not a single other state whose protocols require school closures for the COVID-19 levels that have been used to justify the current shutdown.
Of course the defendants will have the opportunity to contest these claims, but the key question centers around the judicial test that the court applies to the state’s actions.
I’ve argued this before, and I’ll argue it again. It’s time to end the extraordinary discretion granted public officials at the onset of the pandemic. Apply conventional legal rules. In the absence of compelling, scientific evidence of a true risk to public health, religious liberty should prevail.
One last thing …
Last week I mentioned that we were enduring some hard times. I’ve received permission from my oldest daughter to share because she knows this newsletter has many praying readers. Camille is pregnant with our first grandchild—a little girl named Lila.
We found out not long ago that Lila has some rather profound birth defects, and those defects are very dangerous. I don’t want to go into the details, but we’re preparing for a white-knuckle last few weeks of pregnancy, surgery (or surgeries), and a potential long fight in the NICU. In short, Camille and her husband, Jarrett, covet your prayers for little Lila, and so do I.
Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images.