Down for the Count

I have on my desk a map of the United States that shows how every county voted in this year's presidential election. Counties in red voted for Bush, counties in blue for Gore. The red and blue appear in different gradations of color, so that according to the intensity of the color one can tell by what margin the favored candidate won.

When considered by counties and regions, it is clear that different people see truth in seriously divergent ways.

The color of George Bush’s red covers great geographical expanses — much of the Midwest, the West and certain areas of the South. Significantly less physical territory is covered by Al Gore’s blue, but where it is blue it is often very, very blue, with concentrations in the Northeast and the great urban population centers on both coasts.

But here’s the interesting thing about the breakdown for Presbyterians. As I examine it, this geographical division of color tends to match roughly the divisions of the presbyteries in the recent votes on homosexuality. The power politicians in the church may be able to provide you with more detail and nuance than I, but it seems to me that our presbytery votes on homosexuality have generally split along two lines. The first is a North-South division, with the South being on average more conservative and the North more liberal in viewing homosexuality. The second division is one of urban versus non-urban. Urban areas vote fairly consistently for greater latitude in the church’s thinking toward gays and lesbians, while non-urban areas typically opt to remain with a more traditional stance.

Now this analysis should give us pause. Is it really a “right theology” versus a “wrong theology” that explains the church’s divided mind on homosexuality? Or are we really being driven by other factors? I happen to know professional church demographers who, using virtually the same techniques as political pollsters, can look at our zip codes and household incomes and predict with uncanny accuracy who we are and what we will stand for on a given issue. They can tell you what type of church will thrive in our neighborhood and what it will take for it to grow. We say that theology matters, but we must ask ourselves what really drives our theology.

Not only do church politics and presidential politics divide along similar lines demographically, but the margin of difference is often just as close. If a group of voters in Palm Beach County, Florida, can decide a presidential election by a razor-thin margin, it is also true that a mere 17-vote margin (268-251, or 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent) in the most recent General Assembly was enough to send another homosexuality amendment to the presbyteries for yet another round of constitutional bickering this year. There are good pastoral reasons to wonder about all this, and even better pastoral reasons to ask ourselves this: Can a church govern itself effectively when it finds no obvious way to respect the integrity and heartfelt convictions of its minority vote?

At least in this year’s presidential election, the closeness of the vote occurred in the context of a Constitution that remains stable. Not in more than 100 years has there been a presidential vote quite like this one. In the Presbyterian Church, however, we opt to place our Constitution and polity themselves at stake with each passing year, and to do so with a partisanship that is as unyielding to the Other as it is unrelenting for its own cause.

It is time for the church to wake up and to recognize in the ecclesial sphere what everyone from my barber to my banker, from my friends who are liberal to those who are conservative, knows about the secular political sphere. It is simply this: each side needs the other, and neither can govern effectively without the other. Cooperation and bipartisanship are the only virtues that can lead us forward.

Zealots and purists will doubtless want to go on letting the ecclesiastical equivalent of Naderism or Buchananism guide the ship of state in the church, while everyone else knows deep down what the real stuff of politics requires. A true politics is not the art of winning, it is the art of living together. It is the art of finding a way to embrace the one who is Other.

During Advent we are reminded that we still await God’s coming in justice and in peace. That we embrace this coming reign is God’s will for us, despite our sinful desire for division. In the meantime of our waiting, for reasons God only knows, God’s way unfolds in the church slowly, divergently and often conflictually. Long ago the great theologian, Augustine of Hippo, got it right when he observed that the church is a “mixed” body. You need not take my word or Augustine’s word for it, however. You can see the proof of it unfolding before your very eyes.


William Stacy Johnson is the Arthur M. Adams Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary.

Earlier viewpoints in this Advent series include The Promie of Advent and Advent and Apocalypse.