In 2005, I was elected precinct chairman for the 1st district of Georgia's GOP. I resigned two months later. In less than 60 days, I rushed deep into the bowels of partisan politics where I faced divisiveness, incivility and territorialism. Deciding I could not in good conscience fight for a partisan fiefdom that contributes to the rancor we call the American public square, I walked away. And I've never looked back.
As it turns out, most Americans share the same sentiments. More than two-thirds of our citizens are dissatisfied with a Congress that has become hopelessly divided across party lines. Roughly the same proportion is fed up with Republicans, the Tea Party, Democrats and the Occupy-everything movement. According to Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "By almost every conceivable measure Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days."
As a people, we've come to see the wisdom of Ross Douthat of the New York Times: "Is there anything good to be said about the partisan mindset? On an individual level, no. It corrupts the intellect and poisons the wells of human sympathy. Honor belongs to the people who resist partisanship's pull, instead of rowing with it."
The stakes rise for those who claim to follow Jesus because partisanship often produces irrationalism. In the late 1980s, a majority of Democrats were convinced inflation rose under President Reagan, but it substantially fell. In 1996, most Republicans claimed the deficit increased under President Clinton, but it steadily shrunk. Late in George W. Bush's presidency, twice as many Republicans as Democrats believed the economy was performing well. As one plunges deeper into the partisanship of America's culture wars, external facts seem to matter less than one's hope that their side is winning.
When people hear Christians speaking foolishly about political realities, should we not expect them to tune us out when we speak about the Gospel? If they see the irrationality of Christian partisanship, how can they expect anyone to believe other incredible claims about God and Jesus?
Political parties are built upon political platforms -- systems constructed by human beings. I've never encountered an earthly system that aligns perfectly with the principles of God's kingdom. All paradigms produced by humans are fraught with bias, error and agendas. It seems to follow that a Christian whose public engagement is informed by faith would find himself or herself in line with one party on some issues and another party on others.
Perhaps this is why Jesus Himself seemed to take a non-partisan position in the divisive culture wars of His day.
The Israel known by Christ was as bitterly divided as America is today. The Jewish people were essentially slaves to the Roman government. The Romans determined their living conditions and extracted exorbitant taxes to build Roman-style cities that threatened the survival of Israel's culture. The Jewish people in the first century were terrorized by a government that was more oppressive than Saddam Hussein's, more uncooperative than Kim Jong Il's and as imperialistic as Adolf Hitler's.
Ancient Judaism fractured, in part, over proposals for responding to the governing authorities -- from the revolutionary zealots to the sectarian Essenes to the power-seeking Roman sympathizers among the Pharisees and Sadducees. Unlike other Jewish political and religious leaders of His time, Jesus refuses to mobilize His followers with any of these groups and finds common ground with them all. Jesus spoke with Pharisees like Nicodemus and calls Simon the Zealot to be one of his disciples. He heals the servant of a Roman centurion, and as if to make a point about inclusivism, communes with Samaritans.
Instead of fighting against a particular party of people, Jesus spent His earthly life fighting for those who needed Him: the poor, the marginalized, the lost, those on the other side of every kind of aisle. In fact, He rarely acknowledged the government under which He lived. Even when Satan offered to give Him authority over "all the kingdoms of the world," Jesus said, "no thanks." He had something else in mind.
Fortunately, a new generation of Christians seems to be waking up to the destructive seductions of partisanship. Fifty-five percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 self-identified as Republican in 2001. Six years later, in 2007, only 40 percent did. Interestingly, the defected did not simply migrate to the Democratic Party. Most of them now consider themselves "independent" or "unaffiliated."
As pastor and best-selling author Tim Keller says, today's Christians may be "the vanguard of some major new religious, social and political arrangements that could make the older form of culture wars obsolete. After they wrestle with doubts and objections to Christianity, many come out on the other side with an orthodox faith that doesn't fit the current categories of liberal Democrat or conservative Republican."
Christians cannot join the ranks of the politically apathetic. Whatever following Jesus means, it cannot be merely a private matter. But we aren't forced to choose a human-formed party with a systemized divide-and-conquer agenda either. We can stand in the gap and claim loyalty only to Jesus. We can advocate for whichever policies our faith dictates. By eschewing either political party, we remain most faithful to the One who transcends both.
Jonathan Merritt (@jonathanmerritt) is author of the forthcoming book, A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars. He's published more than 300 articles in such outlets as USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post.
Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in Relevant Magazine. It was part of a series that included articles from a Christian Libertarian, Christian Republican, Christian Democrat, and Christian Non-Voter.