There’s something that’s bothered me for a while now about the way the lingo of nonpartisanship has taken over the evangelical discourse, which I for some reason am unable to stop being interested in. No matter where this lingo comes from, I think it’s a response to the same reality: partisanship is really, really uncool in Christian circles right now. So there’s a rush to not appear partisan even if you are—think, the way Jim Wallis pretends his ideas are “not about left and right,” or the way you’ll hear Relevant, a theoconservative magazine if there ever was one, warn darkly of Christians being “wedded to one political party.” For the most part, I don’t believe anyone is really advocating actual nonpartisanship; it’s more a rush to adopt the new language of cool. There probably is a serious segment of young evangelicals who know little about politics and fancy themselves swing voters, who tend to think that virtue is the mean between the two extremes. But for the most part I think it’s a kind of hypocrisy that infects both conservative and liberal evangelicals.
Before I dig into this, let me say that there’s one sense in which I’m okay with it. If even one young Christian internalizes the idea that Republican politics shouldn’t be next to godliness, the nonpartisanship fad will have done its good deed. Also, a few clarifications: There is a more serious strain of thought arguing that evangelical Christians have made political activism the primary expression of their “witness,” which I don’t dispute. I’m not saying that all Christians should have to broadcast their political views, that faith should be partisan, or that the spiritual as something outside politics is mistaken. I’m mostly talking about the way that evangelical writers with public platforms refer to themselves and the way that they address politics (if they do).
There are basically two reasons why I think this proliferation of nonpartisan lingo in evangelical circles is pernicious. First, it allows conservatives to pretend their ideas are not as extreme as they are. Relevant can put “progressive culture” in its slogan, and “hipster Christians” can blather about art and consumerism. This makes them look very cool and culturally synced, but it obscures the fact that most of them have beliefs that are deeply offensive in post-Christian America, like that the right to marry should only be granted to certain kinds of adults. They really, really don’t want to talk about what they actually believe, because doing so would force them to actually suffer the cultural consequences of holding those beliefs. So I think if you’re a conservative evangelical, or even a sort-of-conservative post-evangelical, you can take up the nonpartisan mantra as a way of writing yourself into mainstream inoffensiveness, a way of deflecting some of the stigma of being what you are. And I think people who have extreme views should have to admit to their own extremism. This is why I respect the unequivocal theocons I debate, who are worthy opponents precisely because they don’t apologize for what they believe.
Second, if the nonpartisan dogma is starting to spread among the conservatives, then it is pervasive among the left-of-center. The evangelical “left,” to the extent there is such a thing, is terribly insecure, and as such clings to nonpartisan lingo with a special kind of desperation and dishonesty. The many evangelical writers and bloggers who have thrown off the religious right’s politics are perhaps understandably terrified of swinging the opposite direction. So they tend to write about their generally mainstream-Democratic political views in universalist tones, as if they are just the logical consensus view, so thoroughly nonpartisan that no one who defends them should have to take the tainted label of liberal. I also suspect there is a financial motivation behind their diffidence, since many of these people depend on evangelical audiences for their livelihood, and can’t really afford to say anything too openly liberal. So a lot of things they believe remain unsaid, unaddressed, undefended, and if they get political at all, they hedge with nonpartisan language.
The reason I address this at all is because when the pretense of nonpartisanship collapses, we can really see the available options for what they are. “Bipartisan” is Washington D.C. word that means giving up part of what you believe to get the business done. But ideas aren’t business, and holding up consensus-mongering as the ideal form of discourse is actually an invitation to shut down debate. When everyone is careful to utter their nonpartisan pieties, nothing is ever worked out—it’s much harder for good ideas to gain attention and bad ones to earn the ridicule they deserve. The talk in hip evangelical circles is about “separating faith from politics,” but anyone who takes either very seriously should see that’s impossible. Whether you are a biblical literalist who believes America is a Christian nation or you’re a left-wing Christian who heeds Jesus’ words about the weak makes a massive difference in your politics, one that cannot be papered over with nonpartisan platitudes. Hiding the differences doesn’t really make for greater unity, it makes for greater conformity.
What we’ve had in recent years is a Christian right that has proudly trumpeted its connection with conservative politics, and unabashedly wedded Scripture to its ideas about “big government,” gay marriage, etc, while the timid Christian left speaks in vague nonpartisan slogans. In the sense that liberalism is inherently about defending a mentality of self-questioning, that’s fine; I don’t necessarily prefer a religious left that imitates the right’s bellicosity. But chasing consensus and nonpartisanship is a direct concession to the status quo, which currently defines “centrist” as a slightly nicer right-winger. Until people of the left are willing to suffer for their beliefs, then the havoc the religious right has wreaked on Christianity will not be repaired.
Note: Because of their ad hominem nature, some of the original comments have been removed from this post.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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