Politics, Factions, and the Church

At the time of the founding of our Republic, one of the great concerns was the danger that political factions would undermine the fragile unity of the new nation. This was so serious that the Founding Fathers specifically and repeatedly warned about the deleterious effects factions would have on the country. For example, George Washington, in his Farewell Address (a document that is amazingly prescient and relevant in our age) said:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Likewise, James Madison in the Federalist Papers (No. 10) said this:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

There is no question that the spirit of faction is very widespread in our nation and that it is driving us further apart. The past election was a particularly bad season for this, and virtually everyone can tell about divisions in their families, uncomfortable or hostile conversations at dinner, being “un-friended” or seeing vitriol on Facebook, and so on. There is not just anecdotal evidence for this. A major study by the Pew Center last year documented the rise in partisanship and animosity over politics.

American politics is becoming almost tribal in nature. A person’s political affiliation is becoming a dominant aspect of their identity and it is increasingly shapes not just their views on public issues but their friendships, associations, etc. Party loyalty is becoming one of the highest values and group-think is becoming the acceptable standard. Politics is also invading more and more aspects of life. It’s becoming increasingly common at sporting or entertainment events for some athlete or singer to inject their political views into the show. Facebook is becoming more about political rants than pictures of the kids and silly cat videos. Corporations whose purpose is to sell us stuff are now seeing it as their role to tell us how to think as well. People on both the left and the right are bemoaning the fact that we are facing the politicization of everything.

This is not news, but I raise it at this time for a reason.  The President recently said that one of his major goals is to eliminate something called the “Johnson Amendment”. That’s a provision of the Internal Revenue Code that bans certain tax exempt organizations — particularly churches — from engaging in partisan politics. This has long been a goal of many Evangelical organizations and some Catholics as well. They want pastors to be able to openly endorse political candidates from the pulpit and to lend them material support through their churches.

I think this would be a disaster for the Church and for our society — and for our souls. Politics has its place, and its place is not everywhere. A healthy society has many institutions and activities whose purpose is to bring people together, not to divide them or to “kindle their unfriendly passions”. One of the most important of these places is in Church.

The purpose of Church is not to contemplate or promote temporary solutions to worldly problems. The purpose of Church is to worship God, the Creator and King of the Universe. It is a time to separate ourselves from the Kingdom of Man and immerse ourselves in the Kingdom of God, which is our true homeland. It is a time to renew our communion with Our Lord Jesus Christ and with His Mystical Body — with our fellow sinners of all political views. It is the place where we recall our solidarity with the Communion of Saints around the world, those who have preceded us and those who will follow us. We are called to lift our hearts and minds to God, to listen to His Word, and, if we are worthy, to receive His Body and Blood. In Church, nothing should distract us from trying to come closer to God in our hearts, minds and souls. Nothing.

Factions, parties, and partisanship — whatever term we use for it — have no place in the Church. They divide us in the most important place where we must stand united. St. Paul went so far as to call “party spirit” a work of the flesh, and compare it to many very wicked sins that exclude people from the Kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-21). We certainly need more guidance from our Church about the principles and demands of our faith, and how we can apply that to the issues of our day.  But we cannot allow partisan politics to turn us against each other — or against the Church — and divert us from our real role in the world. In the famous Letter to Diognetus written way back in the second century, this was how the Christians were described:

… there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country… They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law… To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world…  Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

That is indeed a lofty function, one that we cannot allow to be diluted by politics or factions.

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