Hints of a Post-Partisan Universe

Partisanism (if that is indeed a word) has become the bane of contemporary American life.  More and more it seems that people are taking sides, one against the other.  If one side says that something is white, the other side immediately claims it is actually black.  And so it goes on and on and on.  More than people are concerned about the issues we must confront, we tend to be more concerned about our maintaining ongoing conflicts with the “other side.”

Of course on the contemporary scene, one need look no further than our own government to witness the devastating effects of such partisan thinking and behavior.  In Congress, practically every issue is addressed according to party lines.  If the Democrats want to do X, the Republicans are lined up to  diametrically oppose X, and uniformly support Y; which, of course the Democrats unanimously reject out of hand.  Rare is the politician who thinks for him or her self.  They all toe the party line.  None of them really judge the matters in front of them purely on their merit, in light of their personal opinion of what would best serve the American people.  Is it no wonder that in spite of the fact that for all too many years, the American people have been clamoring for such significant changes as health care reform and election finance reform, yet in spite of the expressed will of the people, absolutely nothing has been accomplished, nor probably will be accomplished given to current state of affairs.  To watch the State of the Union address on TV – any State of the Union address during these past many years – is to witness a physical manifestation of such partisanship.  Regardless of whatever party the current President happens to belong, you can watch as the members of his party applaud those key moments in his speech while the members of the opposition party sit with their hands folded across their chest; that is unless their party leaders give them the signal that it is permissible at some points to applaud.  For it matters not what the President says.  It only matters to which political party the President belongs.  It is all very sad, and infantile, and it cannot help but leave all cognizant and concerned Americans with a profound sense of hopelessness.  Ultimately, no matter who the President happens to be, the State of the Union remains clearly the same:  deadlocked and immobilized.

What is true for the realm of American politics unfortuately is just as true in the realm of American religion.  Here, too, we have drawn our battlelines.  Yet these battlelines are not necessarily determined by what would seem to be the obvious; the major divisions of faith – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.  Rather, our battlelines have been drawn according to whether one identifies as a religious conservative or as a religious liberal; as a fundamentalist or as a progressive.  Once those lines have been drawn, we tend to be as dismissive of the other, as the Democrats are of the Republicans and visa versa.  If the religious conservatives stand on one side of an issue, you can be sure that the religious liberals stand on the other.  One’s black is the other’s white, and neither will even consider the possibility of the existence of shades of gray.  And just like the political parties, very few among us feel any urgent desire to talk to the “others” in hopes of finding some resolution to our differences and perhaps even some common ground.

As a rabbi who has found value in connecting with Christian conservatives when it comes to addressing issues involving Israel, I have experienced this partisanship up close and personal, with much of its ugliness.  Through our local Jewish Federation, I have worked hand-in-hand with an organization of Christian conservatives named CUFI – Christians United For Israel.  This group is populated by many of the very same people with whom I have crossed swords on a number of social issues, such as women’s reproductive choice, separation of church and state, and same-sex marriage.  Yet when it comes to Israel, we share a common view of the importance of the continued existence of that nation and the protection of her right to exist, as well as her citizens’ rights to live without the threat of terrorism.

Yet my work with CUFI has not been without its speed bumps.  Right off the bat, I had to endure the challenges put to me by my mainstream Protestant friends; my dearest and closest allies on so many social issues.  “How can you, in all good conscience, work with those people?” they would ask.  Even more painfully, the very fact the these conservative Christians support Israel has driven so many of these liberal friends to stand against her.  If the “Religious Right” claims that the actions of Israel are justified, then the “Religious Left” feels a near sacred duty to denounce Israel’s actions as grossly unjust.  The circumstances are of no concern to them.  As Mark Twain once put it, “My mind is made up.  Don’t confuse me with the facts!”  All that seems to matter is that it is inconceivable for them as liberals to share any common ground with the conservatives.

That is not to say that the CUFI conservatives do not also demonstrate such blind partisanship, for they most certainly can, and sometimes do.  I have found myself criticized for having offered prayers at CUFI “Night to Honor Israel” events in which I have stated that God loves all people, regardless of what faiths they profess, or that God exists in a special and unique relationship with each and every religion.  To some of these folks, God can only have a special relationship with Christians, and especially those who profess their brand of Christianity, with God having provided the Jewish people with a singular exemption to policy.  I have had to challenge some CUFI speakers for speaking derrogatorially of the Roman Catholic Church, and especially the Pope.  Just last year, there were a number of conservative pastors and congregations which withdrew from the “Night to Honor Israel” event because of my having officiated at a same-sex marriage, regardless of the fact that the “Night to Honor Israel” is completely separate and distinct from all the other issues which may divide us.

The bottom line is that on the landscape of the American religious scene, there is more than enough partisanism to go around.

However, within the last few weeks, we have been afforded a small glimpse of the possibility of a post-partisan world, at least within the universe of American religious groups.

Soon after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the Quad Cities Progressive Clergy group held one of its regular monthly meetings.  At that meeting, we discussed the possibility of putting together some unified faith community program of support for the earthquake’s victims.  Since each of our national and international faith umbrella organizations had set up their own programs of response, we agreed that whatever we did, we should be encouraging congregations to support their own denominational relief efforts.  In the end, we decided that our best course of action was to pool not dollars but figures; to compile and make public a record of all those congregations that have been active in promoting Haitian relief, and how much money had been collected through the various faith communities in this cause.  In so doing, our goal was to place before the public a message of how universally caring faith communities are, and how significant an impact they can have in making this world a better place for all people.  What we wanted to show our fellow Quad Citians was an image of the world of religion at its best, rather than at its bickering worst.

As I write this, the congregational responses are still coming in.  As of now, we have some 30 congregations and faith organizations which have reported to us, with the funds raised totally over $116,000.00.

As I review the list of participating congregations, I cannot help but feel a certain uplift in reading the names of conservatives congregations right there beside liberal ones.  Names that would never appear next to each other on so many other lists, stand side by side on this list; on the list of those whose hearts have gone out to the people of Haiti; on the list of those who wish to do something to ease the plight of their suffering fellow human beings.

I read that list and I am filled with hope; hope that someday we may actually achieve a post partisan world.  I read that list and I see in it a remarkable testimony to the fact that no matter how sharp we choose to draw the lines which divide us, there are still those things – those very important things – which unite us; those significant values which we share in common.  As much as we, in our blinding partisan perspectives, resist facing that truth, it is there and it is undeniable.  Perhaps someday – and I pray that someday will come soon – we will open our eyes, and more importantly our hearts, to acknowledge such truth.  Having acknowledged it, we might even summon up the courage to act upon it by reaching out to each other in hopes of building a relationship based upon the foundations of that which we share rather than fueling our animosity with that which keeps us apart.

My mother of blessed memory was fond of saying, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”  Whether it has been in the realm of American politics or the realm of American religion, we have yet to learn that lesson.  But perhaps one day…

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4 Comments on “Hints of a Post-Partisan Universe”

  1. Anne-Marie Hislop Says:

    Thanks, Henry. For me one of the difficulties is the confusions and doubts I have on subjects. Too often there is no room for that – just ‘sides’ sure they are right and sure they have the facts and sure that any questioning is unacceptable. A couple of cases in point for me:

    Israel-Palestine: I generally keep silent on this issue in recent years. To some extent that has to do with valuing my interfaith relationships enough to want to preserve them more than I need to voice opinions. But that is not all of it. I am not as avid a supporter of Israel’s actions as you are, Henry. That said, I am also not a blind supporter of the Palestinian actions (especially the violence or the failures to stop it by the leaders) as are many liberals. To some extent it all comes under the heading of ‘I don’t know what to think.’ I have read widely thoughts from both sides – dating back 20 years – and see valid arguments on both sides – some that counterbalance each other – an Israeli child should not be terrified or injured or killed any more than should a Palestinian child. I see the need for check points from the Israeli perspective, but also see the hardship the whole system places on ordinary Palestinians who live in the territories… I will stop there and say just that for now.

    A second area is abortion: I have long been pro-choice and still am. Still, I am very uncomfortable with abortion, probably could never have had one myself, had I been confronted with a problem pregnancy, and think we could do far more to prevent many that happen now (services to help women and families; better child care; better access to contraception etc). I feel morally torn by my position, but am very, very put off by the viciousness of those who call themselves “pro-life.” I am too much of a feminist to want abortion to be illegal in all cirucmstances, but then ask myself whether I really believe that a healthy fetus should die because its mother does not want a child just yet or feels she cannot afford a child etc.

    I did not mean to run on, but to say that the current climate makes it virtually impossible to honestly and openly wrestle with uncertainty, doubt, and moral/ethical questions… Makes me wonder how many in our congregations struggle in silence…

    Congrats to Progressive Clergy – great group – I wish I had something like it here… I’m having a hard time connecting with any fellow cleryg other than a few presbyterians I already knew.

    • ravkarp Says:

      Anne-Marie, your comments reflect so well exactly the point I was making. None of these issues are easy, nor are they black-&-white. The issues over which we struggle are complex and filled with shades of gray. However, in addressing these issues, we, in our partisan perspectives, draw our lines and refuse to consider even peeking over them. We dig our heels in and gird ourselves to do battle. Our attentions are focused on how we can best the other guy, blinding ourselves to any possibility of seeking out that other guy so as to strive to resolve our differences; if not wholly, then at least in part, with the ultimate effect of bringing us closer together in a cooperative spirit.

      Your example of the abortion issue is an excellent case in point. When Planned Parenthood was laboring to open their women’s health center in the Quad Cities, the abortion battle lines were most certainly drawn. Either you were “Pro Life” or “Pro Choice” and there was no acceptable territory in between. In the midst of all that conflict and tension, there was a number of us, coming from both sides of the issue, who organized a chapter of a national group called “Common Ground.” The purpose of “Common Ground” was to bring together representatives of both sides of the abortion issue in order to engage in extensive and respectful dialogue, in hopes that we each could learn to better appreciate where the other side was coming from. And it worked. We were not out to change each others minds but rather each others attitudes. And that is exactly what happened. Our “adversaries” became our “friends” with whom we could hold significant differences of opinions. Once we could respectfully explore those differences, we also could consider the points on which we agreed, and could work cooperatively to constructively address the issue and close the gap between us.

      Yet even as we of Common Ground struggled with this more enlightened approach to conflict resolution, there were those on both sides of the issues that condemned and attacked us as if we were traitors to our causes. These people could in no way tolerate even the possibility that there could be anything over which representatives of the two sides of this issue could peacefully discuss, nevertheless agree upon. They were so busy demonizing the other guy that they destroyed any possibility of ever approaching the slightest hint of a resolution.

      Yet resolutions, or at least partial resolutions, are most certainly out there, if only folks were not so entrenched in their ideologies and open enough to consider sitting down and talking with their opponents. In the case of the abortion conflict, we found ourselves talking about the possibility of cooperating on promoting viable alternatives to abortion, such as making adoption more accessible, both for the birth mother and for the adoptive parents. With conversations like that we realized that while we would never agree on doing away with any and all abortions, we could work together to strive to significantly decrease their numbers. Such is a venture into the gray areas which partisanism refuses to acknowledge.

      So, Anne-Marie, I think that you are right on in your comments. Thank you for sharing them.

  2. Allan Ross Says:

    Excellent article Rabbi. I hope that we can also “disagree without being disagreeable” within our own Jewish community and work for “a post partisan world.”

    • ravkarp Says:

      Thank you, Allan.
      I, too, hope that can be the case in our Jewish community. Indeed, I think that is precisely why there were so many of us who supported the idea of the Chabadniks having a representative on the Federation board, while at the same time rejecting the idea of granting Rabbi Cadaner a seat. That action demonstrated the desire of many to reach across partisan lines, agreeing to disagree without being disagreeable, while at the same time holding Rabbi Cadaner accountable, not for his being a member of Chabad, but rather for his inappropriate actions, both in the past and in the present. We have always said that if Rabbi Cadaner were to abide by our Jewish community’s rules of proper inter-institutional conduct, we would be more than happy to welcome and include him fully into the life of our community. This is how one interacts in a post-partisan world. You seriously and cooperatively address the issues which divide you from others, seeking some sort of mutually acceptable resolution. And if no such resolution is to be found, then you attribute the difficulty to the problem issue, and not to the “identity” of the other. You then remain open to working together in those areas in which you can agree. Unfortunately, so far Rabbi Cadaner and Chabad have not stepped forward to offer their cooperation in working on any such issues. Ironically, while the members of Chabad in our community are claiming that it is the community which is shutting them out, it is actually they who are operating is a disturbingly partisan way, only seeking to advance their interests and not looking to reach out in a sharing manner with the rest of us.


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