I haven’t had much empathy for the Republican Party in recent years, but I’m finding myself identifying with Sen. Olympia Snowe these days.
“We have not made any dramatic changes as a party that would suggest there has been any kind of reforming, refining of who we are and what we stand for,” the Maine Republican said. “It’s not inclusive. I saw a lot of negative responses after the election about moderate Republicans from a lot of conservative groups. Maybe this is the fallout,” she added, referring to Sen. Arlen Specter’s recent switch from Republican to Democrat.
While tempted to cheer, I feel sadness about the escalating demise of the GOP. Specter’s electoral pragmatics and the increasing likelihood of a Sen. Al Franken will dismantle the last ounce of the GOP’s power, foreclosing the options of filibuster and obstructionism.
I grew up in a home where the names of Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller and Gerald Ford were respected. We even liked Richard Nixon, prior to his paranoid excesses. The family was suspicious of Barry Goldwater, and appropriately embarrassed by the likes of Joe McCarthy, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms.
During the 1980 election, I liked much about Jimmy Carter, but it was difficult to view his term in office as anything but a “failed presidency.” I remember watching Republican primaries and hoping for George H. Bush victories over Ronald Reagan. Reagan scared me; his “government is the problem” platform made no sense to me. Why would anyone give the reins of government to someone who didn’t believe in government? His economics from day one aimed to prosper the wealthy and lacked sympathy for the poor. There was no way I could reconcile my faith and Ronald Reagan, despite my moderate GOP upbringing. In the fall of 1980, weary of ugly partisanship and realizing the general futility of my act, I voted contrarily to my family with the 7 percent of Americans supporting John Anderson.
The 1980s marked an era in which both my faith denomination (Southern Baptist) and my political party from birth (the GOP) developed the scent of decay. The SBC and the GOP died as I had known them. Over the years, I’ve found myself searching for a bipartisan, pragmatic Republican for whom I might vote. The search grew more difficult with each passing year, even in city council elections.
This said, I should be a happy camper: We have a Democratic president who articulates faith in reasonable ways and can wear the adjective “good” on most days. The pirates who stole my political ship have run aground and are taking on water in fathoms. There are even rumors about the death of the Religious Right. How much better can life be?
However, absolute political power historically trumps the power of faith. Modern history tells us that the increase of political power by one party predictably leads to the increase of its manipulating the powers of the office. As political power increases, the evidence of faith and its subsequent moral virtues diminish. This sad truth knows no political partisanship. From Tonkin to Watergate, from Iran-Contra to Monica Lewinsky, this is our history.
Our last president professed that his favorite political and moral philosopher was Jesus Christ. By the conclusion of eight years in power (six with unbridled power), he vested in an unjustifiable war, massively abused the power of office by virtually eliminating accountability, and perpetuated gaps between the rich and the poor. Increased political power didn’t lend much evidence of a deep love of Jesus.
Our nation is at its best when we have leadership that appreciates the value of bipartisan power and the presence of an opposing party that can call for accountability. Whenever one party becomes so powerful that it is no longer accountable, disaster looms. We need leaders that respect and dialogue with people of different ideologies. We need leaders who listen, learn and reason to reach consensus.
The devolved GOP can’t differentiate Rush Limbaugh from Jesus Christ. Our nation is not strengthened by the self-imposed destruction we now witness in the Republican Party. This obliteration of credibility by one of our two primary political parties in the long run is unlikely to benefit our nation. Olympia Snowe has every reason to be saddened, and so do we.
So, beneath our smiles over the fate of shipwrecked political pirates, be vigilant in prayer. Perhaps now is the best time for smiling prophets to practice the disciplines of our calling. Instead of shrouding ourselves in the garments of victory, this is the moment when we need to be most open to the prophetic sensibilities of spiritual forbearers Amos, Micah and Hosea, who addressed the party in power. If those of us given the task of prophetic speaking aren’t faithful, the legitimately critical landscape may disappear.
Larry Coleman is senior pastor of Churchland Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va.