How Churches Can Help Our Nation Embrace Civility


The church will be stronger – and more relevant – when it is autonomous from partisan ideologues, Parham writes.
Last week's election results are now clearer. The political extremes will likely be meaner. The political center will likely be thinner. The prospects for civility and the common good will likely be bleaker. The potential for positive church witness and work couldn't be better.

First, a word about our context.

Alan Grayson, the rhetorical bomb-throwing liberal Democrat, was re-elected to Congress from Florida after having been defeated in 2010. Tea Party favorite Deb Fischer, known for her anti-compromising style, was elected to the Senate from Nebraska. Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was replaced by an even more conservative Texan – Ted Cruz. Liberal Elizabeth Warren defeated moderate Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

The fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats barely exist now in Congress.

One losing conservative Democrat was U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, a member of the First Baptist Church of Biscoe, N.C. He was defeated by a Tea Party-endorsed candidate, who accused Kissell of being a liberal.

One surviving conservative Democrat was U.S. Rep. John Barrow, a member of the First Baptist Church of Athens, Ga.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Barrow "campaigned as a member of the forgotten middle in Congress."

The Georgia paper questioned if "the deal-making middle can be a factor once again in negotiating the nation's looming challenges."

Utah Rep. Jim Matheson, another Blue Dog Democrat, who beat a conservative Tea Party challenger by a single percentage point, had warned that the political extremes gripped Congress.

"The extreme elements of both parties are a problem, there's no question about it," said Matheson on CNN. "There are too many people on the extremes of both sides. If we're ever going to get something done, you have to draw some common ground, be constructive."

Time magazine columnist Katy Steinmetz wrote that "anyone hoping that the next Congress will usher in a new era of civility, compromise and functionality will probably be disappointed."

Politico columnist Roger Simon wrote, "Compromise, which should be the very essence of our modern political system, is scorned."

"There is no desire for unity in our politics, only the desire to be re-elected," he said. "This means our politicians appeal to the extremes and not the middle – assuming such a middle actually still exists."

Politicians aren't the only ones at the extremes.

What are the prospects that the ideological talk-show hosts at Fox News and MSNBC will tone down their venom spat at the other side? Or that the alphabet soup of special interest groups – NRA, AU, NARAL, HRC, FRC – will stop demonizing the other side?

The prospects aren't good.

And then, we have Christian leaders. Some conservative clergy have made irenic statements without abandoning moral convictions. Others have said the sky is falling. As for liberal clergy, some are dancing in the end zone as if the election were a landslide, while others continue to belittle traditional Christianity.

The likely political impasse and ideological rigidity open the door for the one institution with the text and the tradition to find a constructive way forward in a polarized culture: the church.

Granted, the church is far from being a monolithic entity with universal agreement on social, economic and moral issues. And granted, extremist churches exist.

But the vast majority of churches are neither completely blue nor thoroughly red. Wise church leaders know that their congregations must transcend the ideological parties. That means at least two things.

First, churches must major on the majors of faith, not minor on political agendas.

Local churches build good neighborhoods. Christians make good neighbors. Faith folk are the ones who day-in and day-out meet a host of social needs, which strengthens communities. Mercy ministries and community building are what the church does.

Second, churches must find a way to be prophetic, to offer a moral witness without selling their heritage for a bowl of political porridge.

Regrettably, too many African-American church leaders think being prophetic means aligning with the Democratic Party's agenda, while too many conservative white churches think the only prophetic path is with the Republican Party.

The church will be stronger – and more relevant – when it is autonomous from partisan ideologues.

Perhaps one needed prophetic note today from pulpits is that compromise is a Christian virtue.

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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