When Red and Blue Meet in the Pew (Jan-Feb 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by Beverly Choate Dowdy
January – February, 2005

Questioners

Recently an African-American student asked me why some Republican kids at our Christian high school treat her like she is immoral for speaking up for the Democrats. Sometimes it’s a bit challenging being black in a red community. What would you tell her?

One Sunday shortly before the November election, the minister told the congregation that God would hold them accountable for their vote based on the abortion issue. Sound like something coming from the Vatican? No, it was from a minister in a nondenominational independent church. Feeling deeply disturbed, my best friend called me long distance. A long time Democrat, she passionately objects to the war in Iraq, advocates for worker’s rights and for environmental policy. She holds a masters degree and has been a Christian for 40 years. What would you tell her?

Over a spinach pochette and mango tea at La Madeline’s, a friend of mine, an African-American woman married to a white guy asked for help in reconciling her feelings about the discussions of politics at church. Attending a mostly white congregation in an affluent Atlanta suburb, she frequently takes offense at the presumption that all God-loving members of the flock vote Republican, adore George Bush, resent–maybe even hate–Bill Clinton, enjoy Rush Limbaugh and admire Sean Hannity. Truth be known, several of the black members of her congregation have confided their chagrin at the Republican presumption. Most members seem oblivious. What would you tell her?

How do we embrace the unity of the spirit and the bond of peace in what Deborah Tannen so aptly calls the argument culture? How do we cultivate civility in this era of political polarization? Should Christian gatherings become PFZs: Politics Free Zones? Is it even possible to do so? We exist as multi-dimensional people, privileged to live in a democratic society, and free to hold political views. When we come to church, we bring our whole selves to the assembly.

Disclosure

In the interest of fair disclosure, I’ll share some slices of my political biography. My mom, a yellow dog Democrat-the type who would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican–married my late father, a fourth generation Republican. His name was Herbert–after Herbert Hoover. I lean left, but have never joined a party and have voted both ways. I’m over fifty, so that makes me likely to be a bit more conservative than I once was if, as the saying goes, I have a brain.

My bi-partisan rearing left me convinced that folks of strong mind, good heart, and a baptismal certificate can disagree on politics and still love one another.

Unfortunately, my propensity towards purple has left me bruised from encounters with fellow believers. As far back as 1976 I remember being asked how I could hold a particular view and call myself a Christian.I think that was the time I said I didn’t think the world would end up substantially different if the equal rights amendment passed. I won’t go into detail about what happened when I told my mom that I voted for Bush because I thought he would be a uniter, not a divider.

Perhaps coming of age in the 1970s one mile from the city limits of Detroit colored my views. Viewing the Army Mobility Tank Command in full production through my teen years and hearing my 8th grade teacher tell boys at my public school that they were cannon fodder for Vietnam may have affected me some.

Richard Nixon’s presidency crumbling under the Watergate scandal and discredited from the deception over the bombing of Cambodia left many in my generation vilifying him. But not so the politically conservative Christian university community of which I was a part. The rhetoric went like this: even if you don’t respect the man, you must at least honor the office. Sincere about my politics and my faith, I carefully measured my words about Nixon’s foibles. It seemed Christian and civil. The Phillip’s translation of the New Testament emblazoned on my heart the passage:

You should show proper respect to everyone; you should love our brotherhood, fear God, and honor the emperor.

Nixon resigned on the day before my wedding.

Many years later, one of my sons asked me if I wore “power suits” during the 80s. I replied that I wore sweat suits. I pretty much missed the 80s because I was busy having babies and letting God and Ronald Reagan run the country. When I emerged in the 90s something had happened. The same folks who said to fear God and honor the emperor were vilifying the new President of the United States. The youth minister at my church had a picture of President Clinton on a dartboard in his office and was allowing the teens to toss darts at the chief executive’s nose. This was before Monica. It only took Jennifer Flowers and the Whitewater investigation to warrant this. I was puzzled because during Watergate my church-going conservative friends would have heartily condemned such conduct toward Nixon.

Today I live in Newt Gingrich’s former district. The county in which I attend worship was the object of a CNN report on red communities. I teach government and politics at a Christian high school. I wish some of my more cynical liberal friends knew the neighborhood folks, my church family, and my school community. I live and work among some of the most generous, loving, and gracious folks I have ever known. Along with being bright and motivated, most are financially prosperous and prudent. Their passion to do right rarely relents.

In the aftermath of this fall’s election when reading commentary online and watching pundits on television, I have mentally refereed discussions about right-wing folks. I call foul when some liberals at round tables on C-Span characterize them as ignorant and mean spirited. I call imaginary time outs and have the left-wingers huddle while I explain that middle-class Christians who seem to be voting against their own economic self-interest aren’t stupid—they are sincere and sacrificial.

Replies

But what did I say to my friends writhing under the presumptions of the Christian right wing?

At my school where I teach political science

As we approached the election this year, one day I asked the students in my classes to list issues they see as having spiritual and moral significance. On the white board, I wrote their responses: abortion, gay marriage, the 10 Commandments in public places, and stem cell research.

Next, we read Matthew’s narrative when the king calls the nations to judgment on crucial issues: the treatment of the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the stranger.

Then, I raised a few questions: What about recent efforts to reduce overtime pay for average working people? What about the increase in the number of Americans living below the poverty line over the last three years? What does it mean for a family to go without health insurance in America? What responsibility does our society have to nearly forty million working Americans going without good healthcare protection? How can mandatory prison sentencing create an inequitable affect on the poor in America?

Since we are at war, and Christ’s Sermon on the Mount emphasizes peacemaking and love for enemies, realizing there are more than a thousand Americans dead and uncounted thousands of Iraqis dead, I pointed out that some believe there could have been alternative to war. Of course, when this point was raised, a student suggested that maybe people who opposed the war in Iraq don’t understand that people are trying to kill Americans. I am not sure who in America doesn’t understand that folks want to kill us, but I am pretty sure where the student got that idea. I expressed concern that one cannot venture a debate among Christians about going to war without being accused of being stupid, pro-terrorism, or unpatriotic. It doesn’t reflect to me the highest ideals of democracy or Christianity.

I told them I couldn’t remember the verse about voting Republican–or Democratic.

On the day the black girl in my class registered her frustration over how kids react to her ideas about politics, I stated that there is a perception that the Republicans are more moral because their platform has a pro-life plank and because they proposed a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. At that point some other kids in the class demonstrated that they were confused how any moral person would be Democrat because, “Don’t liberals lie?” Clinton’s finger-wagging denial of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky gave some grounds for this accusation, but when I suggested that even conservative Republicans like Ronald Reagan have lied to the American people, one student said she did not believe it. At that point, we reviewed a bit of 20th century political history to document my assertion about Reagan and to help the other kids understand why many black Americans tend to trust the Democrats more than the Republicans.

I said both major parties have their moral and ethical challenges.

What would you tell her?

Over the phone

I told my best friend that although many folks might cast their votes for Bush with the phrases like “culture of life” ringing in their ears, and as important as the abortion issue is, I thought she could question the minister’s moral, spiritual, or any other authority to say that abortion trumps all other moral concerns. Besides, even a high school civics teacher knows that with only two major parties and the many issues at stake—one’s vote does not convey public opinion on a single issue.

I said that folks on the right and left can never really expect the Republican Party or the Democratic Party to establish the moral climate for which Christians pine. Political parties are not about morality. Parties purvey political power. They exist to win elections and govern to continue winning elections.

What would you tell my best friend?

At La Madeline’s

I told my friend at La Madeline’s that I know folks don’t mean to be hurtful when they assume things about politics. They embrace their ideas strongly and are rarely challenged by thoughtful people who disagree. I told her that just as my precious right wing brothers and sisters believe they are following an ethical even spiritually guided path in politics, I want them to understand that I too believe I am following an ethical even spiritually guided path in my views about politics. I don’t expect them to give up their convictions any more than they should expect me to give up mine. Then I told her I would try to start a dialogue about her concerns.

What would you tell her?

So now, can we talk?

Can we talk about how can we reduce the hurt and frustration experienced by the blue Christians at red congregations? Does it require that all those who are not Republicans move to other states?

Should or could our assemblies be PFZs—Politics Free Zones?

Could we consider the possibility that listening to radio commentators like Sean Hannity for hours every day contributes to a climate lacking civility?

On Saturday, the President said he was puzzled that only 11% of African Americans voted for him. Could we seek more insight into why that might be so and let that inform our conversation?

Might we agree that folks of strong mind, good heart, and a baptismal certificate can disagree on politics and still love one another?

Contemplate this quotation from Yale law professor Stephen Carter’s Civility

Civility … is the set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our common journey with others, and out of the love and respect for the very idea there are others. When we are civil, we are not pretending to like those we actually despise; we are not pretending to hold any attitude toward them except that we accept and value them as every bit our equals before God. The duty to love our neighbors is a precept of both the Christian and Jewish traditions, and the duty is not lessened because we happen to think our neighbor is wrong about a few things.

Or, perhaps we could share more spinach pochette and mango tea across the aisle.

How might Carter’s approach to civility show itself at the church house, at work, throughout our lives? Rather than expressing jubilation from the pulpit over the new Republican majority, let’s express joy over our common ground. Why not give thanks for the freedom to hold elections in safety and appreciation for the peaceful transition of power? Rather than humiliating or infuriating those black Christians who identify with the Democrats for their activism in civil rights and affirmative action, we ought to show respect by asking questions about how their life experiences affect their politics. Then, let’s stop and listen to their answers. Rather than alienating those Christians who may think America’s Iraq policy is illegitimate by praying only for American victories, together may we follow Timothy’s call to pray for all people everywhere, for kings and all those in authority, that we may all live peaceful and quiet lives full of holiness and Godliness.

Whether we bleed red, blue, or purple when it comes to politics, the blood of Jesus is our peace. Whether it’s over spinach pochette, in the classroom, or on the phone, we can and must continually cultivate love and respect for one other. Who knows, maybe when the next election comes around, more reflective reds may find some us a little less blue.New Wineskins


Resources

Martin Marty’s newsletter with commentary on religion and culture: http://www.contextonline.org/

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It
by Jim Wallis, Executive Director of Sojourners

A thought provoking prophetic voice: Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism

Brian McLaren in dialogue with Chuck Colson

To understand the Christian right: by Calvin College professor John Bolt: A Free Church, A Holy Nation: Abraham Kuyper’s American Public Theology

A favorite blogger: James Wiser, better known as Malibu Librarian

Beverly Choate Dowdy’s Blog

Beverly Choate DowdyBeverly Choate Dowdy teaches political science in Atlanta. She grew up in Detroit. Her father was full-blood Cherokee and Chippewa. She and her husband, Ken, have two sons, Chris and Trevor, who represent indie everything. They are 22 and 19 and rock our world with Jesus, music, and musings about nearly everything. Chris has the additional charm of a wife, Lauren.

[Beverly Choate Dowdy’s Blog]

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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