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An Erroneous Assumption about Political Parties

Today's political parties are so malleable, it might actually make little difference with whom Christians choose to align themselves.

As a member of the local riding association for the Conservatives, I was involved in strategy and policy discussions for our candidate during a provincial election in our province a couple years ago. She is a white, well-heeled lawyer in her mid-fifties who lives in the upscale, old-money end of our electoral district. Her husband is in banking. She is a good woman who genuinely cares about social change and about certain key issues in our area. There are parts of the riding where who she is and what she appears to represent would play well, but not in my particular neighbourhood.

The New Democratic Party candidate was a Latina woman who worked with the Toronto Community Housing Corporation and was personally connected with many of the people and places in my neighbourhood. Though younger and more attractive than the Progressive Conservative candidate, she was not warm or personable, and struggled as a public speaker. In my community, she was quite popular. However, in other areas of the riding, people wouldn't even open the door when she came knocking.

One Tuesday evening, I made my way to the Conservative campaign launch. It was held at a nice restaurant on Yonge Street. Several well-known political figures were in attendance. There was an open bar. Expensive (and inedible) finger food was served and shoals of bright young things, recently graduated from political science university courses via Upper Canada College, were working the crowd and tapping on their Blackberrys. I made sure my attendance had been noted, then left. This was not really my scene nor my crowd.

The following Saturday, I was in my backyard putting up a shed with help from a guy who recently started attending our church after coming through drug rehab. Around noon, I remembered that the NDP candidate was holding her campaign launch that afternoon in a rented space just around the corner from my house. Though dressed in paint-splattered jeans and a torn T-shirt, with a disreputable baseball hat crammed onto my head, I decided to wander over. As I rolled up to the office, I was met by the campaign manager, a woman with a crew cut who was chain-smoking out front. Looking into the office I saw a small group of immigrant women, sitting in a circle, chatting and eating home-baked goodies. The "staffers" in the office were young, bearded men with backpacks and wan smiles, and thin girls wearing badges in support of alternative bands and various left-wing causes. I schmoozed for a bit, and then went back to my shed.

The problem that niggled at me for the rest of the weekend, the duration of the campaign and, frankly, ever since, is that the NDP crowd was pretty much what my church looks like on any given Sunday. These were my people and this was the milieu in which I have lived most of my life. And the Conservative party (pun intended) wasn't.

Certain things are important to me—small government, fiscal responsibility, entrepreneurship, individual initiative and self-reliance, plus a deep conviction of the limitations and shortcomings of the welfare state. Having lived in a post-Socialist state for almost a decade (Russia), I am quite clear-eyed about the retro-socialism that the NDP is trying to sell. Yet, there are things that come with the label "Tory" that I struggle with and don't particularly want to own. But this is where I have landed. It's the same with the "evangelical" label that I, at times, reluctantly wear.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, two-term President of Brazil, sociologist, professor, politician and, according to some, one of the world's top public intellectuals, wrote a piece entitled "Political Parties" in Foreign Policy magazine in 2005:

We take it for granted that political parties are vital to modern political life. They have shaped representative democracies since the late 19th century. Yet, their prospects are not bright in today's large democracies. In fact, these powerful political machines may soon disappear. The ground is already shifting underneath their feet. Political parties have based their platforms on ideological and class divides that are becoming less important, especially in more advanced societies. Although class consciousness still matters, ethnic, religious, and sexual identities now trump class, and these affiliations cut across traditional political party lines. Today, the labels left and right have less and less meaning. Citizens have developed multiple interests, diverse senses of belonging, and overlapping identities…. Political dislocation exists alongside a growing fatigue with traditional forms of political representation. People no longer trust the political establishment. They want a greater say in public matters and usually prefer to voice their interests directly or through interest groups and nongovernmental organizations.... And thanks to modern communication, citizens' groups can bypass political parties in shaping public policy. Political parties no longer have a lock on legitimacy.

When I first read this, I thought: That's me. I shopped the idea around to some friends and acquaintances and felt like I was moving from room to room in a large house flicking on all the lights.

Though disillusionment with established political structures might be very real, political disengagement is not the answer. This is not the place to make the case for Christians to be involved in politics, but a short quote by Glenn Tinder, writing some years ago in The Atlantic Monthly, says it well enough:

We are so used to thinking of spirituality as withdrawal from the world and human affairs that it is hard to think of it as political. Spirituality is personal and private, we assume, while politics is public. But such a dichotomy drastically diminishes spirituality construing it as a relationship to God without implications for one's relationship to the surrounding world. The God of Christian faith … created the world and is deeply engaged in the affairs of the world. The notion that we can be related to God and not to the world—that we can practice a spirituality that is not political—is in conflict with the Christian understanding of God.

If Cardoso is right, then it might actually make little difference with whom Christians choose to align themselves politically (here in the West). Parties rise to power and fall from power in cyclical patterns, and when they are in power, their influences on the policies and laws that impact "our people" are neither consistently good, nor consistently bad, regardless of political stripe. It is a misguided course of action, based on an erroneous assumption, to associate one party in particular with particular concerns or with any consistent approach to things that matter most to us.

For instance, one might associate the concerns and needs of the poor with Labour (UK), Democrats (US) and Liberals (Canada). Or, to mention another example, one might associate the religious right, along with its concerns and positions, with Conservatives (UK), Republicans (US) and Conservatives (Canada).

I have socially conservative Pentecostal friends who tell their congregants to vote Conservative, hoping they will overturn the same-sex marriage bill—an erroneous assumption. The rhetoric and policies of the NDP include care for the poor and working class, but they aim to do this by an endless expansion of government programs, strengthening the welfare state, yet thereby perpetuating generational dependence and dysfunction—another erroneous assumption. The Conservatives, reputedly cold-hearted when it comes to the down and out, actually believe deeply in the tenets of community development over service provision (whether they know it or not) and so might, in the long run, be a better bet for the poor—yet another erroneous assumption. It gets complicated.

I have a friend in Germany, Frank Heinrich, who, like myself, is a Salvation Army officer. He pastored a 614 church in Chemnitz, a city in former Eastern Germany. His church is situated in a vast and bleak micro-city of Soviet-era apartment buildings, home to thousands and thousands of people. Frank decided to run for political office in hopes of improving life in his parish. The Salvation Army (in an unusual move) granted him a leave of absence to run. This past September, he won in a landslide and is now in the Federal Parliament representing Chemnitz. Frank is a flamboyantly left-wing kind of guy with a huge heart for the poor and marginalized. But he ran his campaign as part of the Christian Democratic Union Party and was elected as a member of that party—one seen as representing the conservative right wing of the German political landscape, analogous to the Republicans in the U.S. or the Conservatives here in Canada.

His reasoning? They were going to win anyway, and he really wanted to achieve something in Chemnitz. So he threw his lot in with them, planning to work from "the inside" to effect change. A triumph of pragmatism over principle, some might say. The words of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, if true, suggest that today's political parties are quite malleable. My German friend, then, may find himself with some significant room to do some things he might not have had room to do before.

So what's a reluctant Tory like me to do? Short of starting my own party, I figure that picking a party to get involved with is kind of like picking a church. As a Christian, you have to be in community, and so you pick a church of some sort to belong to. The same thing goes politically. You pick a party. There's no such thing as the perfect church, or perfect political party. Settle on one that you can live with and go from there.

Just don't make assumptions.

Help us spread the word:
Geoff Ryan Geoff Ryan
Geoff Ryan is a Major in The Salvation Army, continuing a family tradition that goes back four generations. ... read more »

Posted in Culture, Politics.

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