We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Incarnational Politics

Political commentator Steve Kornacki recently posted an interview he did with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich entitled, "In the real world we were kidding ourselves."  The focus of the interview, obviously, was the results of the 2012 election and what they mean for the Republican Party.  Unlike many Republicans who are not willing to contemplate more than a cosmetic touch-up of their party, Gingrich argues that it must undergo substantial change.  In the course of the interview, Kornacki asked Gingrich, "When you look at the Republican Party’s relationship with African Americans and Hispanics, what is the message you want to deliver to those voters?" Gingrich answered by calling for the Republican Party to undergo "a big rethinking," a "very large fundamental rethinking." He then stated,
The first thing you have to do with African Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans and Native Americans is go there. They don’t need to come to you; you need to go to them. And when you go there, listen. Phase one is not going there to tell about you. Why is it we can have entire cities that are disasters, that we can have 500 people getting killed in Chicago, we can have Detroit collapsing, we can have the highest black unemployment teenage in modern history, and no Republican politician can figure out that going there to say, “Gee, shouldn’t we do something to make this better”? And then talk about it jointly, so it becomes a joint product — that it’s not “Let me re-explain conservatism.” I don’t mean to walk away from conservatism, but we need to understand conservatism in the context of people who are talking with us.
This is almost stunning stuff.  In effect, Gingrich is proposing what in theological circles we can only call an incarnational approach to the practice of politics.  In order to become a party of all the people, the Republican Party has to go to the people and not talk at them about conservative principles but listen to them regarding their lives and needs.  Go to listen.  Then, Gingrich proposes, the party has to work collaboratively with the people to address real life problems, such as gun violence in Chicago or the collapse of Detroit.  Finally, he urges conservative Republicans to understand their conservatism in the context of "people who are talking with us."  In short, he is calling for a politics that is dialogical, collaborative, and contextual.  Theologically speaking, he is proposing a Christ-like, incarnational politics.

Two thoughts.  First, we would all benefit immensely if the Republican Party, by some miracle, embraced this path of political renewal.  Gingrich is proposing a set of attitudes and cognitive habits that would influence the whole way the party approached politics—including the way it related to Democrats, women, the LGBT community, and foreign nations.  Imagine a political culture in which both parties behaved according to the incarnational principles espoused by Gingrich!

Second, but back in the real world it is impossible to imagine that such a thing could come to pass as long as the tea party-ist radical right continues to dominate Republican discourse and behavior, such as it does today.  The recent flap over CPAC's failure to invite Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) to speak (see here) is but one reminder of where vocal American conservatism seems to be today.  The radical right's vocal indictment of less right wing Republicans as being RINO (see here) is another.  Only to the extent that the Republican Party can isolate and reduce the influence of its radical, dualistic, our way or the highway wing will it have the opportunity to become what Gingrich envisions for it.

Still, the vision is a noble one.