Politics and polarization

By Curtis Ramsey-Lucas

In an op-ed that appeared in The Washington Post the week before Thanksgiving, Paul Taylor, author of “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown,” argued that the 21st-century United States is growing at once more polarized and more inclusive (America is us-against-them, but it’s also we’re-all-in-this-together, Nov. 18, 2016).

Taylor offers an example that captures our current paradox. Half a century ago interracial marriages were illegal in one-third of our states and a taboo elsewhere, while today interracial marriages are more common (16 percent) than marriages between Democrats and Republicans (9 percent).

“As our racial and cultural walls have become more porous, our partisan chasms have grown wider,” he notes. “Politics is no longer just a contest of my ideas vs. yours. It’s gotten meaner and more tribal. My group identify against yours. My grievances against yours. My insistence on these shifting boundaries vs. your resistance to them.”

This paradoxical tendency toward greater polarization and inclusion is evident within denominations like American Baptist Churches USA. It also shows up within its constituent congregations and in the communities in which they are situated. In the aftermath of a particularly bruising election, what presence might American Baptist churches offer our communities and society? In the midst of economic uncertainty and rapid social and demographic change, what community might we offer those who feel left out or marginalized? What part might we play in bridging partisan chasms and addressing the meaner and more tribal nature of our politics?

Perhaps we can begin by offering an alternative understanding of politics to that which currently predominates in our culture and society. The political philosopher Johannes Althusius (1557–1638) defined politics as “the art of associating [human beings] for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them . . . the subject matter of politics is therefore association, in which those who live together pledge themselves to each other, by explicit or tacit agreement, to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life” (“Politica,” 1614).

Politics is about the creation and maintenance of relationships that enable people to disagree, argue, interrupt one another, clarify, confront and negotiate, and, through this process of dialogue (rather than monologue), to forge a compromise and consensus that enables them to act. Politics is about how we establish, cultivate and conserve social life. Only if we existed and could find fulfillment in isolation would politics be unnecessary. Yet we are deeply social and relational beings, dependent on one another to be all God creates, calls and intends us to be.

With this issue of “The Christian Citizen,we begin a process of more regular online publication while continuing to publish occasionally in print. As we expand our readership online, we aim to continue to shape a mind among American Baptists on matters of public concern by providing a forum for diverse voices living and working at the intersection of faith and politics, discipleship and citizenship. In so doing, we hope to contribute to that understanding and practice of politics as the art of associating human beings for the purpose of establishing, cultivating and conserving social life among them.

Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is Executive Editor of The Christian Citizen, a publication by the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.