In Essentials

For decades I have heard people use the expression: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” I think a common reply to this is that we can never agree as to what is essential and what is non-essential. In fact, most of the time it appears that disagreement about what is essential is the most common source of disunity within the Body, so we debate and debate the particular question at hand.

However, it seems to me as I have been reflecting on this dictum that it channels the discussion into a false framework; well, not so much a false framework as disguising what the problem really is. It would be hard to disagree with this centuries-old formulation, so why so much disunity? I don’t believe it’s because we can’t decide what is essential and what is non-essential; I think it’s precisely because we all agree to an unstated single, core essential I would state as: The only real essential is understanding and obeying the teachings of Jesus Christ in all things.

So, Protestants believe we are saved by faith alone. We believe that is the correct understanding of the teaching of Jesus Christ in both proclamation and action regarding salvation. Catholics believe that when James wrote “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” he was expressing a different “correct” understanding of the teaching of Jesus Christ regarding the nature of salvation.

Every issue we disagree about from baptism to the ordination of women, from the number of the sacraments to the proper care of the environment, from the exact nature of the inspiration of Scripture to church polity hinges on the desire to correctly understand the teaching of Christ so that we can be obedient to that teaching. Those who believe homosexuals should be allowed to marry believe they are obeying a correct understanding of Jesus’s teachings about love. Those who don’t believe they should be allowed to marry believe they are obeying a correct understanding of Jesus’s teaching about holiness. Those who think communion should be open to non-believers, those who don’t, and on and on.

Because we are united in our unstated agreement that the only real essential is to be obedient to the teaching of the Living Word we can allow no liberty towards one another because how can one be at liberty to disobey the Lord’s teaching? So the fragmentation of the Church continues apace. “Even so, come Lord Jesus.”

Citizens or Fans

The political climate is such that no one who wants broad-based national appeal can possibly be forthright and specific.  As soon as one does, he or she looses too much appeal from too many. This is not a criticism of one side or the other, except to the extent that, as Yeats wrote: “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” 

We currently have a serious structural problem, the cracks of which are illuminated by the reality that both conservatives and progressives have basically reached an ideological impasse. Both sides believe they are right, and it has become an either/or situation.  This is not a situation the Founders foresaw.  It’s been getting worse for decades, but useful coalitions used to be built within the two-party framework.  I do not believe that is possible any more.  The only real hope is a multi-party system in which coalitions have to be built between multiple parties.

National politics is not about the base.  Neither party’s base is going anywhere, though they may just stay home.  National politics is about independents who want issue by issue policy solutions. So, if you have 4-5 viable parties actually in office, and parties A, B, and C agree about policy on issue X then they can put together something even if parties A, B and C disagree about issues Y and Z.

If just A & B agree on issue X and don’t have the numbers, then they work out deals with C, D and E about issue Y, giving parts of Y support in order to gain support for X.  Competition works better than monopolies in politics as well as business. It’s ugly business, but you can not govern a democracy without compromise between factions.

In Federalist 10, Madison makes the argument that liberty can not exist without giving rise to factions: ”Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

The only way to prevent this is to remove liberty by stamping out dissenting opinions; that is, until everyone shares the same opinion. Madison rightly knew this to be totalitarianism, well before the term was coined, and he considered it contrary to human nature.  ”As long as the reason of man continues to be fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”

Faction is healthy!  What isn’t healthy to democracy, according to Madison, is the “violence of faction.”  We don’t have a lot of that anymore, despite the inflammatory rhetoric.  What has happened, instead, is that factions have condensed into two basic Factions: Us and Them.  For all practical intents and purposes, factions have been co-opted into Faction on pragmatic grounds.  “There are more people in Faction A,” we reason, “who support my opinion about policy X than in Faction B, so, if I want policy X I will have to join them.”

So then Faction A and Faction B become like two armies justifying their constant fight for power on the basis of broad ideological Good v. Evil worldviews in which pandering, demonizing and demagoguery are merely the weapons of warfare.  And, what’s worse, the battles are usually between skirmishers fighting over peanuts in the media Colosseum.

Witness the Republican debate the other night. There was not one single question on the European debt crisis, Medicare reform, how to fix Social Security so each of my kids isn’t working to pay for 50 retirees each, or restoring our triple-A rating.  There were questions on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” HPV Vaccinations, Border Fences, which department of the government would you eliminate, and who would you pick a VP.  I do not diminish any of these issues, but they are motes, not logs.  Just as in the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries, all the questions boil down to just one: “Prove that you have the bona fides to be quarterback for Us.”

Madison wrote that “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 infriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

Like with football, it doesn’t matter that the “issue” is a pigskin; what matters is that the audience cheers for your side to move that pigskin as far as possible to an extreme end. In American politics today there are only 2 teams and the arena of the 24 hour news cycle has turned us all into fanboys watching “Last Man Standing/Running Man/Rollerball” as they seek to demolish one another over pigskin issues.

Who loses?  The fans of course, but then we made ourselves fans instead of citizens and we let them commodify our dissent.