Record turnout benefiting both major parties in the 2020 election underscored that contemporary American political life may be more defined by entrenched partisanship than by any other feature. Pre-election polling suggested there were few undecided voters, while both research and the parties’ campaigns indicate that negative partisanship is the primary motivation behind people’s choice of party affiliation.
Together, these data points suggest Americans are more partisan than they realize. For Christian realists, this is not a good trend: through motivated reasoning, partisanship distorts our thinking, and for Christians, it distorts the Gospel as well.
Realism is rooted in an accurate perception of reality. Christian realism acknowledges not only a material reality that confounds purely ideological renderings of history, but also a moral reality that makes the pursuit of justice rather than the accumulation of power the highest goal of politics.
On the other hand, pure partisanship—or what a group of 15 scholars recently termed “political sectarianism”—consists of commitment to an uncontested view of reality and fidelity to one’s ideological compatriots over the whole of one’s polity. It leads to viewing those who disagree with oneself not as friendly competitors but as unwelcome adversaries, even enemies. And as we have seen over the past year, extreme partisanship can even lead to political violence.
Nevertheless, Christian realists are not precluded from participation in party politics. In the US political system, parties are one method of organizing in order to achieve limited political goals democratically. At its best, the American two-party system moderates extreme platforms, forcing each party to move toward the center in order to gain governing majorities, thereby making party membership less fraught. Even so, Christian realism should not entail unwavering membership in any political tribe. Why not?
- Parties change over time: In the history of the United States, the clearest example of this is the inversion of the relative positions of the Republican and Democratic Parties on the issue of civil rights for Black Americans. One party does not have a monopoly on justice.
- Issues and circumstances also change: During the mid-twentieth century, the geopolitical threat of the communist bloc to democratic states was significant, and justified a strong Christian realist preference for democratic market capitalism. By the end of the twentieth century, that threat had receded, necessitating a rethinking of political alignments.
- Notable Christian realists changed sides: Early in his career, Reinhold Niebuhr was (to put it loosely) a pacifist Marxist. Events convinced him to abandon both positions for something more putatively conservative. Similarly, in the 1970s and ’80s Jean Bethke Elshtain was associated with the feminist left, but by the 2000s, her realist concerns about both politics and the nature of family life caused a break with her former ideological compatriots.
- Access to a transcendent perspective: Christian realists know that politics is not the final determinant of human affairs, nor is human activity sovereign over history. Because they draw ultimate meaning from the Christian story rather than political ideology (however closely tied to a particular view of Christianity it may be), they are not seduced by the religious aspects of political ideology or affiliation. Christian realists have no need to seek a religion in politics, because they already have a religion in Christ.
- Principles take precedence over partisanship: Committed partisans follow a philosophy of the ends justifying the means—because no matter what they do, the other side is worse. As in just war reasoning, Christian realists weigh outcomes, but will not sacrifice foundational principles for political gain—much like procedural democracy prioritizes the rule of law.
- Evil resides in every human heart: This fact about human beings should cause Christian realists to view the opposition party with charity, while also subjecting their own party to scrutiny. Under certain circumstances, this realization may mean severing their affiliation with a political movement. Partisans, on the other hand, tend to view right and wrong as being a feature of group membership, rather than of specific actions or states of affairs.
- Similarly, there is no purity in politics or even in the church: No party can align on all points with Christian ethics, because not all Christians align on matters of ethics. Therefore, Christian realists neither demand purity of a political party, nor view alignment on all issues as the standard for political cooperation.
- Christian realists balance competing moral and political claims: Not only can both sides be partially right about an issue, but rarely is one issue of such grave importance that it justifies overriding every other value one holds, or voting based on a single issue, no matter how weighty.
- Political arrangements, including political settlements, are temporary: As several have recently remarked, in a democracy, acknowledgment of one’s electoral defeat goes hand in hand with knowing that soon enough one can try again. Good or bad, all regimes eventually end. Christian realists should therefore avoid the apocalyptic tone that accompanies much partisan rhetoric.
Despite these reasons, someone might object, “But the other side does not recognize these limits to gaining partisan advantage; to temper my own partisanship on principle (i.e., Christian realism) is therefore tantamount to surrendering to evil.”
This objection is reminiscent of Michael Walzer’s ethically dubious defense of the “supreme emergency”: the other side’s actions are so wrong that they justify overriding moral limits in war. On this issue, I side with James Turner Johnson: supreme emergency thinking should be put forward with extreme caution, if at all. As with political sectarianism, the supreme emergency too easily leads to a destruction of the very system of justice that just war reasoning commits to preserve.
Like just war thinkers, Christian realists should be skeptical of the introduction of absolutes—including tests of partisan or sectarian loyalty—into political discourse. In the arena of domestic politics, Christians should be realists first and partisans second (or third, or fourth…). In today’s political climate, this is a heavy lift.
But difficulty alone should not deter a Christian realist from attempting to maintain independence of thought and action. To quote that famous Chesterton line, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” Standing against political sectarianism is another way in which Christian realism can be Christian: by turning down the political heat, Christian realists can model a political process in which each person is treated with respect and dignity, to be persuaded by reason, example, engagement, and care, and where actions are guided by the political virtues of justice, order, equality, and liberty, rather than the vices of partisanship.