Saturday, March 01, 2008
Emergent Politics
Okay, I've been meaning to post this rant all week but I've been way too busy trying to get our house ready to sell. Anyway, lately I've noticed a lot of conversation and criticism being shot at us emerging folk for being too "political" and even "partisan". Some are simply upset that some emerging leaders (myself included I guess) have actually expressed support for particular candidates, while others have simply accused us of merely being "Democrats" or "good old-fashioned liberals", and suggested that we are therefore being disingenuous when we claim to want to move beyond the labels of "Left" and "Right" or "conservative" and "liberal". And I'm not even going to deal with the complaints of my Anabaptist friends who criticize emergents (and everyone else for that matter) for being involved in politics at all.

First, let's face it, most emerging church folk are more progressive in their politics. No secret there. Many of us have been turned off by the rhetoric, policies, and tactics of the Religious Right and have openly reacted against that. Many of us probably do even vote for more Democrats than Republicans these days (though I'd also bet that many of us vote for third parties too whenever we're given the option). However, I would argue that this does not make us simply "Democrats" or even "liberals" in the "old-fashioned" sense of that word. Such an accusation seems trapped in the old one dimensional dichotomy of "Left vs. Right". The critics I have observed making this accusation seem to think that there are only two options, so that if one rejects the Right one necessarily must be "Left". If one does not support the Republicans that automatically makes one a "Democrat".

This is a false dichotomy in my opinion. In the first place, many of us are finding that neither side defines our beliefs very well. On issues of social justice and economic policies I find myself too liberal even for the Democrats these days, while on some social issues I'm too libertarian even for the Republicans (except maybe Ron Paul). I believe in balanced budgets and electoral reform, which used to be conservative positions, but I also believe that we need to slash the Defense Budget, promote Fair Trade, and adopt completely open immigration, which are things even the Democrats aren't willing to do. On abortion I consider myself both pro-life and pro-choice. So where exactly do I fit on the political spectrum? How can I be categorized into a narrow polarity between Left or Right?

But even more significantly than just the complexity of my opinions is the source from which they derive. My opinions, and I think the opinions of many emerging folk, are not based on devotion to a particular political ideology, but are instead based first and foremost on a commitment to the Kingdom of God. Our political opinions are driven by our theology, and not vice versa. We resist easy categorization because this theology itself is something that doesn't easily fit into the traditional Left-Right dichotomies. And even if a commitment to the Kingdom often leads us to positions that appear "progressive" or "liberal", this is merely incidental. We are not trying to be "liberal". We are trying to be consistent followers of Jesus, and that might just happen to occasionally make us appear "liberal" according to the world's categories. But so what? If we genuinely don't care about the labels, as I believe most emerging folk genuinely don't, then why should we care if our pursuit of the Kingdom occasionally brings us in line with other ideologies as well? And isn't that what we should expect if we actually believe in the doctrine of common grace, this idea that God is at work in the world, even outside of the borders of the "church"?

And the appropriate response to these points of overlap, in my opinion, is to join with these others and work together for common goals. This is part of my response to those who fault us for supporting particular candidates or particular legislation. Voting for a Democratic (or Republican) candidate doesn't necessarily make one a Democrat (or Republican) across the board. It might just be that we are pragmatically supporting those who are closest to our ideals and who share some points of overlap without naively believing that we will ever find the "perfect" candidate or any partisan agenda that ever completely aligns with the values of the Kingdom of God. I don't think there is anything wrong with pragmatically working within the existing system for proximate goals, just so long as we are careful not to be co-opted by the system or forget where our ultimate loyalties lie.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 11:33 AM | Permalink |


At 3/01/2008 02:56:00 PM, Blogger Mike

Well said, Mike. Thanks.


At 3/02/2008 02:00:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

"But even more significantly than just the complexity of my opinions is the source from which they derive. My opinions, and I think the opinions of many emerging folk, are not based on devotion to a particular political ideology, but are instead based first and foremost on a commitment to the Kingdom of God."

That sounds like something Jerry Falwell would say.


At 3/02/2008 02:37:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Probably so, though I think Jerry and I would have very different definitions of what we think the Kingdom is all about.


At 3/02/2008 09:01:00 AM, Blogger Mike L.

Good post Mike.

However, I think this whole notion of getting beyond left vs. right is not an exclusive Emergent message. It is the current sentiment of the whole nation. Emergent has no special claim on ending business as usual in our political process.


At 3/02/2008 05:57:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I'm sure you're right Mike, and I never said it was unique only to the EC. However, our reasons for moving beyond those categories may be different than others' reasons; that is, if our reasons really are theologically based.


At 3/03/2008 12:51:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

Ron Sider and Evangelicals for Social Action have been modeling this for quite a while. One of the things that attracted me to Sider's writing when I encountered it in ESA's PRISM magazine in the early 90's was the fact that he was equal-opportunity in his criticism. When I read a letter to the editor of this progressive magazine from an angry Democrat cancelling his subscription because in a previous issue Sider had sharply criticized Democrats and praised Republicans on a particular issue (when he usually was known for doing the reverse), I knew I had found someone worth reading.

One thing that frustrates me at times is an apparent suggestion by those turned off by the religious right, that it is only those within the religious right who ever let political ideology drive their theology. I've seen it equally in the religious left - especially in the mainline denominations (maybe not the case in emerging circles). Similarly, I get frustrated by the sometimes-implied suggestion that all politically conservative Christians are either unthinking, uncaring, or both. While there are some who fit that description, many don't. Many are passionately devoted to the Kingdom of God, and include in that devotion significantly more compassion for the poor and marginalized than their political opponents give them credit for - even if they disagree over the definition of what the Kingdom is all about, or what policies best advance the Kingdom, or how best to help those who need help.

Have you seen Chuck Colson's recent piece in CT? There is probably much you would agree with in there, as well as much with which you would disagree. I'd be interested in your thoughts.


At 3/03/2008 03:54:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I don't know much about mainline Christianity, but I have to wonder whether they really are letting their politics drive their theology, or whether, like the emerging church, their politics really did evolve as a result of their theology first.

My guess is the latter, though I suspect that after their theology led to more progressive political views there were those in the mainline churches (or who came to them later) who merely adopted the political opinions without fully understanding the theological basis underlying them. Thus it would be easy to look at the average liberal Christian layperson and assume that their politics drove heir theology.

I think the same is probably true of many in Religious Right circles. The more thoughtful ones, Colson for instance, probably do have sound theological basis for their politics - while the average rank and file is just passively absorbing what their radio preachers tell them and can't really distinguish between commitment to a political ideology and commitment to a theological worldview.

Anyhow, Colson's article was good. I'm glad he's admitting that evangelicals should have a broader agenda. However, I think I'd disagree with him historically on his claim that these things have always been a part of the agenda - at least for those on the Religious Right side of the evangelical spectrum. He needs to pay closer attention to what his side is saying if he thinks that. For instance, Dobson, Falwell, and others have often explicitly said that issues like environmentalism and global human rights are distractions from the more important issues of abortion and "family values". Not to mention that you'd be hard pressed to find any leaders of the Religious Right, Colson included, who would see peacemaking and non-violence as an important evangelical issue.

If you include people like Wallis and Sider among evangelicals (as I'm glad to see Colson doing), then yes, they do have a broader agenda than than that of the RR. But that seems to be an equivocation. The evangelical crack-up is occurring precisely because folks like Wallis and Sider are getting more attention, and people like Colson and Dobson are getting less. Colson is painting it as if we've all always been one big happy family and trying to claim credit for the work of people like Wallis and Sider. That doesn't seem accurate or fair.


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