By John C. Danforth
Government is broken, unable to deal with any subject deeper than politics itself. This is reflected in the 24-hour news channels where nearly all coverage is of the sport of elections with almost no attention to issues of substance.
Congress hasn’t passed a budget in nearly three years, and no negotiations are taking place. Government’s capacity to borrow will expire by the end of the year, and it is now borrowing 40 percent of the $4 trillion a year it spends. House Speaker John Boehner has said there will be no extension of the debt ceiling without corresponding spending cuts. President Obama has said there will be no extension of the debt ceiling unless it’s a clean bill. Also at the end of this year we reach the so-called fiscal cliff of draconian spending cuts and huge tax increases in a fragile economy.
Here are some more examples of governmental dysfunction. No immigration reform. No energy legislation. No highway legislation. No transportation legislation. One senator recently told me, “We don’t do anything.”
Here is the problem. Politics is the art of compromise, and in today’s climate, compromise isn’t tolerated. Each side of an issue insists that it is guardian of absolute truth.
At a time of polarized politics and gridlocked government, our Church can offer an important message that would help heal America by reminding us what politics is and what it is not. Religion alone concerns the absolute. Politics does not.
The first political story in the Bible is when Moses encounters God in the burning bush and receives the political commission to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt. God makes a point of keeping his political agent in his proper place. “Come no closer!” God thunders. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Moses is presumptuous. He asks God’s name. Moses wants a handle on God, and God will not give him a handle. “I AM WHO I AM,” is the response. The holiness of God. The humanity of man. It’s a consistent biblical theme, for example, in Isaiah, “’As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts,’ says the Lord.”
There’s nothing ultimate about politics. It’s simply politics. To treat it as more than that, as immutable truths that can’t be compromised, is worse than the sure way to political gridlock. It’s idolatry.
Consider the Second Commandment, “You shall not make any idol.” I don’t know anyone who is making a golden calf or a god out of silver or wood. But turning any manmade thing, including a political position, into absolute truth is idolatry.
Religion divides us when it imports certainty into politics. Religion binds us together when it teaches us humility. Humility in politics should be the prophetic message of our time. It could be a special message from our Episcopal Church with our long history of bridging strongly held differences.
John Danforth is a former U.S. senator from Missouri and an Episcopal priest.