In an age of ideological division, activist Greg Williams makes a case for holy partisanship
We shouldn’t be allergic to partisanship. Even hacks can make change.
When I first moved to Washington, I was surprised to hear people describe themselves, with only a hint of irony, as hacks. You can meet folks here who take joy in the small details of party politics and who want to build their team.
I have ended up as a bit of a hack myself—working in digital communications for a progressive faith-based political organization that pushes for policy and narrative change. My work focuses on getting people to join our email list, care about what we ask them to, and call their lawmakers about important things.
I do this work because I’m a Christian.
Often religious progressives suggest that people of faith should speak into the political realm without affiliating with any particular party or explicit ideology. From Jim Wallis’ historic attempts for a political third way to Shane Claiborne’s Jesus for President to Hauerwasian political theology, white, non-conservative Christians have often been scared of taking sides.
Even multi-racial faith movements can fall into this trap. Look at the revived Poor People’s Campaign. They organize across the country to speak up for the poor people who are often marginalized and ignored. Even then, Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, the leaders of the campaign, “do not plan to endorse candidates or to cast their lot with either of the major political parties. They want to change the political conversation around poverty. . . .”
Some equivocation is understandable—and not just to maintain non-profit status. There is real danger in connecting the work of God too closely with any human endeavor: Whether a political campaign, a business operation, or a non-profit venture, nothing humans do can bring God’s kingdom in its fullness. Unlike the religious right, the religious left is mostly unwilling to engage in partisan politics, which handicaps us from achieving the goals of justice God calls us to work towards. We shouldn’t be scared to say: “My faith calls me to be a Democrat.”
The Black church can provide a counter-example to this—a witness for justice for more than two hundred years that is currently a strong pillar for the Democratic party. Rev. Raphael Warnock is one example of a leader in the Black church who has been driven by his faith into the partisan realm, and who has built institutional power for the purpose of loving his community and neighbors well.
In this same sense, my Christianity is political—it speaks to my whole life and our life together as social and political beings. The story of the Bible is one of God dealing with a people, Israel. We are truly human when we are in relationship. We are bound together, and that requires us to make political decisions to live at peace. Naturally, my faith speaks into those questions.
But I believe my faith does more than speak to particular political questions. Our political context demands that Christians affiliate with particular political parties. As a society, we’ve long since decided that we are going to make political decisions along inchoate ideological lines that, however imperfectly, align with real, historical institutions. Those ideologies are messy (just ask your Republican libertarian friends) but they are how we’ve organized power: from who can make important introductions to who receives federal matching funds to who appears on the ballot.
Doing the work of convincing people, building coalitions, and passing legislation requires offices, databases, lawyers: institutions and the networks of institutions that we think of as political parties.
My Christian aspiration for a government that seeks holistic justice and a society built on human dignity leads me to be in common cause with a progressive ideology—and right now, that takes me to the Democratic Party.
This doesn’t mean that I believe no Republicans are truly or even consistently “Christian.” I worship every week with people who have very different ideological views from me, and we are all baptized into the body of Christ. We share the Eucharist every week. We are one body.
Nor does it mean that the Democratic party as an institution, or a vehicle for progressive ideology, is perfectly Christian in everything it does. Just look at Senator Menendez or some of the more objectionable confirmation questions during the Trump years. But in our current system, membership in institutions such as parties is a key way to push these institutions to change—even when (as for my GOP friends, the House Freedom Caucus) it is a conflicted membership.
Since my values lead me to a progressive ideology, to avoid building better institutions in the Democratic party would be to sidestep my responsibility to work for positive change. There are lots of other ways to build institutions and advocate for justice outside of electoral politics, but electoral politics determine what the police do, how we educate our kids, where buses run, and whether the clinic down the street can pay for a doctor or not.
If we want to achieve justice, we need to engage in politics. Whether we describe ourselves as forming a “religious left” to counterbalance the “religious right” or we simply live out our values in faithful presence within progressive institutions, that is our difficult mission. In a modest way, that is what I feel called to.
I hope that through this column I can give a peek behind the curtain. There is both a productive and a destructive tension between values and partisan politics, particularly in this digital era. Perhaps you can catch a little of the vision yourself. Our country needs people who are committed to the difficult work of politics because of a vision of justice. We could use more hacks.
Greg Williams works in digital politics at Faith in Public Life (although opinions are his own). You can yell at him on Twitter @gwilliamsster but he’d prefer if you were kind.