Monday, April 25, 2011

We're only as constitutional as we want to be...

A little while back, I posted a series entitled "We're only as Presbyterian as we want to be" (see part 1, part 2, and part 3). In it, I sought to expose the selective application of the convictions that we claim define us as Presbyterians; when deference to the larger body and following proper process is at odds with our personal preferences, our presbyterianism often goes out the window!

It strikes me that the same inherent problem is true of our American constitutional adherence.
As Americans, all of us are only as constitutional as we want to be.

This is clear and evident in conversations with those who oppose the actions of the sitting president. With President Obama in office, I've heard people say (or "read" their statements on Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that, "he's not MY president!"

Now by that I think (and hope) they mean that they recognize their own political convictions are starkly at odds with his, or something along those lines. They don't mean that they've renounced their citizenship as U.S. citizens because President Obama was elected! But words like this-- and the sentiment of antagonism that they simultaneously suggest and implant-- betray a spirit and understanding of the U.S. president's authority and office that is, well, unconstitutional.

In all fairness, let me point out that many took a similar tone and attitude toward President George W. Bush. He, too, was not only someone that folks saw disagreement with, and even disapproval of, but outright disdain for. The disrespect shown toward Presidents Bush and Obama by those who disagree with their policies is a clear demonstration that, in our American culture, we're only as constitutional as we want to be.

This is a cultural problem, clearly: the fruit of this approach to politics leads to civic fracturing and philosophical polarization. People can't discuss ideas without the end-result being hate and violence (at least in an emotional/psychological sense). Consequently, we only associate with those who think and believe as we do-- a group that grows ever-smaller as associations advance and nuances are teased out-- and we never have the benefit of having our ideas and assumptions challenged and refined.

It's a political problem, too: eventually this stems out into an abandonment of the core commitments that our constitutional system represent, and that will lead to disorder and kind of circular inefficiency (at best) or chaos (at worst). I think we're already seeing the fruit of the former, after about 20 years of this kind of abject disregard for the inherent respect due to office (I say 20 years because, by my reckoning, the whole cycle began, at least in the open and unvarnished way that we find it today, with Rush Limbaugh's very public disdain for President Bill Clinton): as it is today, the fundamental goals and political aspirations of the challenging candidates will be to
undo the work of their predecessors. That's a very inefficient way to govern.

It's a religious problem as well. As Tim Keller ably pointed out in his book
Counterfeit Gods, the root of this problem is idolatry:

Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil. After the last presidential election, my eighty-four-year-old mother observed, “It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.” After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion. How does idolatry produce fear and demonization?
Dutch-Canadian philosopher Al Wolters taught that in the biblical view of things, the main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identify something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. That demonizes something that is not completely bad, and makes an idol out of something that cannot be the ultimate good. Wolters writes:

"The great danger is to single out some aspect or phenomenon of God’s good creation and identify it, rather than the alien intrusion of sin, as the villain in the drama of human life… This “something” has been variously identified as … the body and its passions (Plato and much of Greek philosophy), culture in distinction from nature (Rousseau and Romanticism), institutional authority, especially in the state and the family (much of depth psychology), technology and management techniques (Heidegger and Ellul)… The Bible is unique in its uncompromising rejection of all attempts … to identify part of creation as either the villain or the savior."

This accounts for the constant political cycles of overblown hopes and disillusionment, for the increasingly poisonous political discourse, and for the disproportionate fear and despair when one’s political party loses power. But why do we deify and demonize political causes and ideas? Reinhold Niebuhr answered that, in political idolatry, we make a god out of having power.

I think the solutions for rooting out our tendency to be
only as constitutional as we want to be are the same as they are for being only as presbyterian as we want to be: humility, relationships, and benefit of the doubt. Obviously this will look a bit different in a civic-political arena than it will in the church. But I think identifying the idolatrous aspect is another factor that also applies to both. I'm going to give that some more thought and consider how it applies to our presbyterianism.

Meanwhile, what do YOU think? Are we only as constitutional as we want to be? And if so, how can we address that?

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