open-ended politics and the evangelical movement

The Rev. Rich Cizik has won a fight within the National Association of Evangelicals and will be able to work against global warming and torture. This is probably good news for liberals, but I also see a different kind of benefit. Consider, as a simplification, three types of politics:

1) The partisan variety. Here the goal is to put one’s favored party in charge of the government. Parties do serve crucial functions, and to work for one of them is a valid form of participation. But clearly there is a moral hazard: a party should be a means, yet it can become an end. Religious Right leaders like James Dobson and Gary Bauer are often called “partisan,” meaning precisely that they treat the GOP as a good in itself. I’m not certain that charge is fair, but it would be serious if true. To put it in Protestant theological terms, obedience to a party is idolatrous.

2) The strategic variety. Here the goal is to advance a particular policy or social outcome, using arguments, coalitions, tactics, and political parties as means. Strategic politics is effective, and therefore it would be idle to denounce it. Besides, when people arrive at legitimate policy ends for reasons of principle or valid interest, they are entitled to pursue their goals using legal means. Much of the energy in politics comes from such efforts. The problem arises when we assume that our ends are definitely valid and have preeminence. Strategic politics can preclude listening to other perspectives, learning, and balancing various competing goods.

Whether or not the Religious Right’s leaders are partisan, they clearly are strategic. They have a narrow set of goals and are willing to use partisan tactics, wedge issues, discipline, and power to achieve them. That is clear from their letter opposing Rev. Cizik: “Cizik and others … are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children.”

Such disciplined, strategic, goal-oriented politics is also common on the left. It makes a difference that the left’s goals are better (in my opinion), but there is still often a lack of learning and balancing.

3. Open-ended politics. In its purest form, this means that diverse people come together to choose their goals without regard to party or previous commitments. Of course, they bring values and experiences, but they are interested in learning from one another. It seems to me that Rev. Cizik represents this kind of politics. He may not be any more moderate than the Religious Right’s leaders, but he is more open-ended.

There is no reason why evangelicals can’t be open-ended about their politics. In fact, deliberating with others is a way of being morally serious and reflective and avoiding idolatry. The Bible offers guidance, but it does not specify policies, let alone rank them. Thus one can be guided by scripture yet open-ended. That posture increases the odds that new ideas and opportunities will develop and make the world a better place. Open-ended politics won’t end disagreements, but it can reduce invidious stereotyping. After all, if you oppose someone on abortion but collaborate with her on global warming, you can’t see her as wicked.

It would be a good thing–and not only for liberals and moderates–if the evangelical movement became more open-ended. There are plenty of liberal and moderate groups that should make the same shift.

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