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United, Undivided

 

Early on, Catholic Christianity made a decision with enduring consequences.  It decided there are no “classes of Christians”.  There are no folks who are any closer to God, no people more “saved” than others in the church – not even priests or bishops.  Some branches of the larger Gnostic Christian tradition, which might have represented half of the early church, taught that there were levels of “gnosis” or knowledge into which only the initiated could enter – sophisticates distinct from simpletons.  By the time of the Roman adoption of the Christian faith as the state religion, when emerging Catholic doctrine could be enforced at the point of the spear, the Church cast the Gnostics out as heretics.  (It tossed the baby of rich Gnostic spirituality out with the bathwater of its elitist structure, unfortunately.  But that’s another story.)

This decision has been upheld by most Protestant Christians, including the progressive branch where I am perched.  And it crossed over from religion to political life as an important but sometimes forgotten foundation stone of democracy.

It’s a building block slammed with sledgehammers now by populist demagogues and right-wing politicians in America and around the world.  The former American president keeps repeating his Big Lie that he won the last election, denying the legitimacy not just of the votes but of the voters who elected Joe Biden by a wide margin.  He, his followers, and his sycophants repeat the trope that the voters and politicians who opposed him “hate America”.  The German historian and political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller says that “populists are going to claim that all other contenders for power are fundamentally illegitimate… populists always immediately make it personal… This tendency to simply dismiss everybody else from the get-go as corrupt, as not working for the people, that’s always the pattern… that with all these citizens you can basically call into question whether they truly belong to the people in the first place…”

That’s been the message of the political right wing in this country for a very long time.  There are the “good people” (and all too often that has meant “white people”) and there are the “bad people”.  The “makers” and the “takers”.  The “real patriots” and the “America-haters”.  The “silent majority” and the “radical fringe”.  The “deserving” and the “undeserving”.  These false distinctions have been used as an excuse to disenfranchise minorities from voting, to lock up poor people for nonviolent crimes and throw away the keys, and to deny access for low-income folks to taxpayer-supported social safety-net programs and universal health insurance.

Republicans are passing outrageous voter suppression laws, weakening the independence of election officials, and worst of all, parroting the poisonous propaganda that there are two classes of Americans – the “real” and the “fake”.  One of their oft-repeated lines lately is that “America is a republic, not a democracy”…  implying that there are those “worthy” and those “unworthy” of directing the affairs of the republic, which should be set up to minimize the influence of the latter by whatever means possible.  It is a false premise dismissing the will of the majority of voters, which Republicans have lost seven times in the last eight presidential elections.  They know they can’t win the popular vote fair and square anymore, so they are determined to game the system so that their version of “good” people can be in control.  Every time you see or hear them say America is not a democracy, please respond that “America is a democratic republic governed by representatives chosen by the majority of voters in free and fair elections.”

We’re contending with a political party devoted to dividing the American people.  Yes, that’s evil.  But if we declare individual Republicans to be evil, all we do is reinforce the divisive Republican message.

We must not fall into this trap.  Instead, we must call it out when we hear it.  We must publicly reinforce the principle that all of us are real Americans, and that we refuse to be divided.  Again, we’re a democratic republic – a term that unites the names of both major political parties!

That’s why I, as a political progressive, wave the US flag at every opportunity and urge others to do the same.  It’s everybody’s flag, and by not waving it, we let it be used by right-wingers and populists as a cudgel to reinforce their message that it is not.

The Republican Party has devolved into what St. Paul called a “power and principality”.  It is a nefarious organization devoted to the systematic dismantling of democracy. There really is such a thing as systemic racism.  It isn’t just a sin of individuals that St Paul called “flesh and blood”, but is a complex of economic and political structures that perpetuate injustice.  Likewise there is such a thing as systemic corruption, evidenced by the cowardly refusal of almost all Republican leaders to denounce Trump’s Big Lie about the election.  Their complicity is the personal failure of each of them, but it is driven by a powerful entity transcending any individual within it.  I condemn the Republican Party but I refuse to demonize the people who lead it and vote with it.  They are flesh-and-blood folks like the rest of us.  They are legitimate participants in our democracy that all of us must strive to preserve.

There is only one class of Americans.  Q-Anon believers, Democrats, AOC followers, Republicans, independents, socialists, Trumpers – we are one, big, sometimes weird and always wonderful concatenation of folks who are each as red-white-and-blue as the others.

We must vigorously resist the actions of Americans who are undermining our freedom, but we must do so without de-legitimizing them.  For those of us who follow Jesus, we must take seriously his admonition to love our enemies, even as we work to undo their damage.  For they are no less real Americans than the rest of us.

We are all Americans – of all ethnicities, cultures, and political persuasions.  We won’t allow ourselves to be divided.  We stand up, speak out, and we vote for preserving our democracy through free and fair elections to express the will of our majority, so that we can secure liberty and justice for all.

 

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California.  An ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of seven  published books on progressive Christianity, with a new one coming out soon:  Tenderly Calling: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus (St Johann Press, 2021).  His weekly blog, “Musings”, has a global readership.  He serves on the board of ProgressiveChristiansUniting.org and is an honorary advisor and frequent content contributor for ProgressiveChristianity.org.

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