Monday, January 28, 2008
Throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, a certain style of politics has been perfected in our national discourse. It’s sometimes referred to as building a “50-plus-one coalition.” I was surprised to discover that it actually has a technical name–“minimum winning coalition theory”–and has been studied by political scientists Peter Nannestad and Martin Paldam.
Basically, it works like this: if a political party or alliance wants to pass some particular piece of legislation, they don’t need to win 100% of the votes; they usually need only 50%, plus one–a simple majority. This method has been used very effectively by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress over the past 18 years or so to push through various partisan bills. Effective, yes, but at what cost?
This partisan politicking has accentuated our divisions as a nation and has helped to polarize people according to stances on particular issues. It has worked to weaken our unity by focusing on petty concerns and has amplified the acrimony tossed back and forth between our two major parties. So although 50-plus-one coalitions in our government have been effective at pushing through the affairs of various factions, it has come at the cost of our national unity and civility.
And unfortunately, this provincial style of politicking has nested itself in the church. Over roughly the past dozen years, various affinity groups in my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), have sought to cobble together 50-plus-one coalitions, not for the unity of the Christian church and not for the glory of Jesus Christ, but merely for their own partisan gain. This “us-against-them” mentality has been unnecessarily parochial, focused exclusively on winning one vote or another with little or no consideration for the long-term or ecumenical implications.
And, much like in our government, that self-serving impluse has accentuated our divisions as Presbyterians, helped to polarize us according to our particular stances on the issues du jour, and has ratcheted up the acrimony in our ecclesiastical conversations. The 50-plus-one coalition building has served to weaken our denomination, which is merely one manifestation of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, found in all times and places. So while some transitory, issue-fixated groups have used this method effectively to further their own interests, it has come at the cost of our unity and civility.
This is why I am very uneasy about some recent actions in my denomination. Last week, the Presbytery of San Francisco, by a narrow margin, cleared the way (link) for a non-celibate lesbian to be ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Also, a couple of days ago, the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area voted (link) to reinstate a non-celibate gay man who has refused to abide by the polity of our church, which affirms only fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness for its ordained leaders. This is in addition to two controversial overtures that have been submitted to our General Assembly–one to delete the afore-mentioned rule about sexual activity for church officers and the other to redefine marriage as an arrangement between two people (not necessarily a man and a woman).
From the 50-plus-one-coalition mentality, it’s possible that these measures may pass and hold up against scrutiny. But at what cost? One faction may get its way, but what will be the fallout? Whenever church councils act, they must think very carefully about how their decisions will affect their relationships with the larger church, not to mention their relationship with Scripture and their relationship with God himself. Too often we suffer from ecclesial tunnel vision (aptly called “presbyopia” in my tradition) where we lose sight of the forest because of all the trees.
I am convinced that our denomination (let alone the rest of Christendom) is not nearly ready for such radical changes regarding sexuality and biblical application. If we persist in our 50-plus-one mentality, we will obliterate the fragile trust that holds our denomination together and marginalize ourselves from the larger body of Christ.
I entreat all of us to let go of our pet projects and the desire to pass them by any means necessary. Let us instead honestly seek God’s will for us, rather than our will for the church.