The Spirit of Party and a Few Simple Rules of Political Discourse

Recently my wife and I spent three days at the epicenter of American political power, policy, and partisanship, Washington, D.C., which proved tremendously inspiring. Whether it was the Wright brothers exhibit in the Air & Space Museum, the hallowed words of the Gettysburg Address etched on a stone mural at the Lincoln Memorial, or the spot overlooking the Mall where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his fabled “I Have a Dream” speech, the sights and sounds of our nation’s capital provided a vivid reminder of the dignity and worth of persons and the inspiration furnished by lives dedicated to worthwhile causes.

Sitting on the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful for our country despite the severe challenges she faces. We have risen to the occasion before, overcoming a myriad of obstacles and enemies that threatened to divide or destroy us. A resounding, if chastened, subtext of soaring hope comes through in the words of both Lincoln and King; no matter how strong the temptation, they didn’t yield to despair. Of course both of them would soon pay the ultimate price for the noble battles they waged, and each knew that he might have to. Though they’re gone, they speak to us poignantly still, nearly three score years since King’s immortal speech.

What might tempt us to despair is that ours is another national moment of tortuous testing, featuring, once again—to quote Lincoln—ideological opponents “reading the same Bible,” each invoking His aid against the other. We find ourselves as a country ripping each other up, consumed in a zero-sum game, adopting a scorched earth policy. The culprit is not the progressives or the conservatives, the Democrats or the Republicans, not even the anarchists or socialists. Political difference is fine; indeed it’s inevitable and can be eminently healthy. The problem runs deeper, and it was anticipated with remarkable prescience at the very inception of the Union.


The Spirit of Party


The problem is not indigenous to either political party because it’s bigger than that. It’s a human problem. The problem isn’t partisanship per se, but what George Washington called “the spirit of party.” Washington repeatedly expressed his strong desire to return to private life, weary of the demands of office and disheartened by party rancor and a severely partisan press that had taken to calling him the American Caesar. His Farewell Address touched on the issue of such tendentious partisanship. He warned us “in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party…. The spirit…exists under different shapes in all governments…but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.”

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism…. The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” The party spirit distracts from public councils, enfeebles public administration, agitates with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles animosity, and even foments riot and insurrection, rendering a people more vulnerable to foreign enemies.

Within limits, Washington argued, parties can serve as useful checks on government and conduce to liberty, but in popular, elective governments, “it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And, there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be, by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”

John Adams similarly wrote, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” Some interpret Adams here to be lamenting the existence of only two parties; I rather think he was primarily averse to that same “spirit of party” of which Washington warned, which can operate in a system of three or more parties just as well as two.

After earlier in their careers when Adams had lauded Jefferson’s lack of infection with party passions, later, at the apex of their political conflict, Adams lamented Jefferson’s “blind spirit of party” and devotion to faction. As is well known, they would reconcile and resume writing to one another later in life over several years. In 1826 Attorney General William Wirt would address Congress in Washington, describing the friendly correspondence between the two old patriots like this: “it reads a lesson of wisdom on the bitterness of party spirit, by which the wise and the good will not fail to profit.”

Rabid partisanship has reared its head throughout its labyrinthine history, but the last several decades have ratcheted up the divisive rhetoric. The result constitutes a threat to the very cohesion of the country, the authority of the courts, the legitimacy of the presidency. I grant that none of these is sacrosanct, but neither is any to be discarded lightly either. These are not healthy trends, and rather than intellectuals and academics standing above the fray and offering needed perspective, highlighting strengths and weaknesses of opposing sides, modeling the art of civil discourse in a society that seems decreasingly capable of it, they instead often seem to fill the ranks of parochial firebrands, embracing one ideological horn or another and joining in the fight.

Around 9/11 we experienced a brief reprieve from acidulous partisanship. A team of Democratic strategists convened a series of focus groups to gauge the political import of the tragedy, concluding that 9/11 created a new period that was, in many ways, radically different. “Politicians would have to adopt a tone consistent with the seriousness of the moment and stay away from ‘partisan-sounding attacks,’” But what was as surprising as it was disappointing was that within a month the Washington Post’s front page flatly declared, “Partisan Politics Returns to Capital.” After a brief requisite lull, partisanship of the rabid kind returned in full force, and it’s been intensifying ever since.

Once more, what’s problematic is not political conviction alone, but something more rabid and strident and acidic than that: ethically bad and intellectually irresponsible partisanship that both reflects and deepens cultural divides, contributes to gridlock, steam rolling legislation through, piggybacking pet ideological measures on top of important bipartisan legislation, bolstering knee-jerk reactions to opposing views, encouraging winning at any cost, skewing news coverage, reducing political discourse to resounding zingers, memorable mic drops, and pithy sound bites.


An Example


Sadly, many Christians, rather than being countercultural in this regard, are happy parts of the trend, sporting their rabidly partisan credentials with pride. Believers on both the right and the left are tempted to wrap their political convictions in the cloak of religious authority while characterizing those who disagree as not just wrong, but evil. One recent example will have to suffice. Consider John Pavlovitz, who recently wrote a blog called “I Hate this President.” He acknowledges as a Christian a call to love, even to love one’s enemies, but he insists that hatred for Trump is actually a matter of the “deepest, truest love. It is a Jesus-emulating faith affirmation.” How?

Well, among Jesus’ directives to love is to love the least; to fiercely protect the marginalized, forgotten, and vulnerable. “My study, experience, and understanding of the Jesus of the Gospels, tells me that he would be fully sickened by Donald Trump and by those who partner with him—and that they would be directly in the crosshairs of his most furious righteous anger…. [This president and his supporters] are something of the gravest violence, something fully inhuman, something worthy of disdain…. I love and am for the hurting, the marginalized, the isolated, and the bullied—and I hate and stand against the wounders, the marginalizers, the isolaters, and the bullies. And because of the deep love that I have for this country, for its Constitution, and for its beautifully radiant diversity—yes, I hate this President…. Hatred of injustice is a redemptive way of loving people most threatened by it” (emphasis added).

            What stands out here for present purposes is the insufferable righteous indignation in the piece; and of course plenty of conservatives would be happy to return the favor by listing the litany of progressive sins: neglect of religious freedoms, indifference about persecution of Christians, the horrors of abortion, the resistance to protect abortion survivors, etc. Both sides use the imagery of warfare, both claim to be speaking for God, and both have grown inflamed in their causes. Both, in Lincoln’s words, pray to the same God. There’s little doubt in their minds who the good guys are and who the bad.

Pavlovitz isn’t unthoughtful; he has reflected quite a bit about the current social and political environment, but rather than such reflection tempering his judgments and enhancing his ability to build a bridge, show respect, and generate a conversation with interlocutors, he is only all the more adamant that his side of the debate has a corner on the market of the sacred truth. This is actually a general phenomenon that psychologists have noted: the stronger one’s political convictions, the more tempting it becomes to think those who disagree haven’t just veered from the path of truth, but are downright spawns of Satan.

            And this is why this particular example is a telling microcosm of what’s going on in the culture at large—and note that there’s nothing countercultural about his view in this sense; rather, he is fairly lock-in-step with the most tendentious factions of the reigning political parties. Indeed, in emphasizing the downright inhumanity of his ideological opponents and how worthy of disdain they are, Pavlovitz is, to my thinking, like many others on both sides of the aisle, crossing a line that simply should not be crossed: dehumanizing his opponents. At the least a Christian (and a minister at that) should know never to do that.


Crisis of Partisan Hate and Christian Capitulation


David French recently penned an article about the way partisan hate is becoming a national crisis, citing statistics such as these: 42% of the people in each party view the opposition as “downright evil.” 20% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans believe “we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died.” If the opposing party wins in 2020, 18% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans “feel violence would be justified.” A full fifth of Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human—they behave like animals.” Plenty of people, in the face of the divisive spirit of party, predict a looming tipping point. Whereas the crisis is usually attributed to the vices of political enemies, it may be the rabid partisanship itself that rips the Union apart and makes government by, for, and of the people perish from the earth.

Christians, at the very least, should genuinely strive to be countercultural here, rather than simply capitulating to the modus operandi of the most rabid ideologues. The work required to love one’s neighbor as oneself, whether political foe or ally, is real, worth it, and not something we can opt out of, and intentionality neither to exaggerate differences nor to be minimally charitable isn’t privileging being nice or likeable over being salt and light. It is simply what a modicum of decency and civility, not to mention any realistic prospect for productive discourse, ineliminably requires. It’s not always easy to know what love looks like, but we can know it doesn’t it doesn’t look like hate.

When I was at the Lincoln Monument, inspired by the powerful and persuasive words of hope of Lincoln and King, something dawned on me. I realized that to think of another as possibly persuadable is to retain hope of forging a meaningful connection with her, to think of her as amenable to reason, as not too far gone, as rational enough to sift through the evidence and feel the force of an argument. Something or someone less than human, however, is unlikely to fit the bill. Rhetoric about the inhumanity of one’s enemy is simply not meant for persuasion anymore; that agenda has been left behind.

Dehumanization is not about including opponents in the discussion but excluding them altogether and justifying treating them inhumanely. It’s to demean, diminish, demonize, and finally silence, ignore, relegate to irrelevance, perhaps even destroy them, if not their bodies then at least their reputations or livelihoods. Rather than recognizing their worth and dignity, their value and rationality, their humanity and contribution, these are all denigrated if not denied outright. There’s no point trying to persuade the incorrigible; no point treating someone like a person who no longer qualifies as one; no reasoning with an irrational brute; no redemption for the irremediably perverse. Denying the humanity or personhood of those whose voices we wish to silence, whose preferences we intend to vitiate, whose desires we want to thwart, has long been a favored tool of tyranny, and draping the cloak of religiosity over such treacherous treatment is no less tyrannous; arguably it’s more so.

William James once wrote, “Civilization is always in need of being saved. The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.”


A Taxonomy on Political Engagement and Moral Valuations


To wrap up this analysis, let’s delineate a taxonomy of sorts for political (dis)engagement, buttressed with some basic principles, biblical and otherwise, to bear in mind at each stage. Hopefully this can provide some practical guidance in concrete situations of insuperable political conflicts. Like temptations, political disagreements are sure to come. Sometimes political differences may prove to be fairly intractable. What should we do in such circumstances? This question has (at least) two dimensions: the dimension of engagement, and various moral valuations. Let’s consider each in turn.

First, on the issue of engagement, it may well be wise, if a discussion is going nowhere particularly good, to draw a line and simply agree to disagree once a point of diminishing returns has been arrived at. Set aside the disagreement and focus on other things; privilege the relationship over the hot topic that could, if allowed, function so divisively. Most all of us have experience with family members with whom we have deep religious or political disagreements, and most of us have learned to navigate those minefields in order to privilege and preserve the relationship. It would do us all great good as a culture to import this familiar, familial dynamic into our relationships more broadly. Bear in mind the brotherhood of mankind, and our mutual interdependence, and realize that relationships are usually more important to save than political positions are to push.

            We should also strive to cultivate enough epistemic humility to recognize that there are junctures in our arguments and analyses where there’s room for rational disagreement; we can agree that justice is imperative to seek, for example, but may disagree on what that entails in a particular messy, complex, difficult real-life example. That should present an opportunity not for a volley of ad hominems, but rather substantive conversation in which dialogical partners might each bring an important perspective to the table. Respect for the mental freedom of others and the time and space they need to think issues through on their own demands we ratchet down the dogmatism.

The more radical disengagement option is to stop talking altogether—not just about a political disagreement, but about anything at all. This is the “we’re through” option. Recently I heard that one of every five people did this to someone or had someone do it to them this past election, and most of us can probably think of examples. One of the more salient in my mind are two premier Christian philosophers and longtime friends who permanently parted ways over political differences. Usually this nuclear option should be assiduously avoided, but if the cherished values of people come to be diametrically opposed, or the relationship has become utterly toxic, it may be what’s best on certain rare occasions. Even when it’s necessary (and it usually isn’t), it remains tragic (even if it’s for the best), and Christians, at least, should continue to hope and pray for a day of ultimate reconciliation, if not in this world then in the next. Also, for Christians, it should go without saying, parting ways is no excuse for harboring resentment or cultivating unforgiveness.

Second, consider how morality, specifically, or value issues, more generally, figure into intractable disagreements, political or otherwise. Let’s begin with the most innocuous case. To express disagreement with another person is perfectly legitimate, invaluable even. Ideally it’s a crucial and healthy aspect of a culture. We should hold the positions we do for what we consider to be good reasons that we can articulate and defend. To disagree with others doesn’t necessarily mean we reject them as people or question their worth; it actually, at its best, shows the person and her views respect. To agree with everyone is to agree with no one; to disagree shows we respect the other person’s position enough to subject it to critical scrutiny; this shows we take it seriously rather than simply trivialize it.

Of course disagreements should be expressed respectfully and with kindness, in such a way as to encourage further dialogue rather than shut it down. Speak the truth in love. Since we’re liable to be imperfect in this regard, grace all around is eminently appropriate and should be freely extended. There’s also wisdom, even when we disagree with others, to listen to their perspectives; they may have something important to teach us, even if we end up disagreeing with them more than agreeing. The bottom line, though, is that it’s perfectly within bounds to think another person’s position to be wrong, unwise, or impracticable, and to share our perspective to this effect. 

A sterner critique than calling another’s position wrong is that it’s morally bad, unvirtuous, or even evil. This, too, is potentially well within bounds, but it characterizes the opposing view as morally flawed in some important respect, and in this way goes beyond garden variety disagreement. In limiting cases like the Nazis, moral denunciation in the strongest terms is appropriate, of course, but not every political enemy is a Hitler or Pol Pot. Thinking so doesn’t show a high view of morality, but a low one, and it’s hardly consistent with loving your neighbor as yourself—or with removing the log from our own eye before helping our neighbor remove the speck from his own.

Once we broach the topic of moral badness, the line between the position under consideration and the person holding it can easily begin to blur. Thinkers like William Sorley and A. E. Taylor have, with some merit, argued that the category of moral badness applies most specifically to people. A state of affairs, for example, may produce misery and be tragic, but what’s morally bad are the culpable choices of human beings that intentionally brought such a state of affairs about. So insisting that a political position is morally bad is already to approach the suggestion that its adherent himself is morally bad, at least insofar as endorsing the position.

Rather than showing a genuine aversion or hesitancy to broach such suggestions, many today seem to relish the chance to lodge just such charges. Indeed, some extreme political positions or practices likely deserve the accusation, but if we find ourselves relishing the chance to think of a wide range of political positions and officials with which we disagree as unspeakably evil, we are likely falling into a delusional trap of selective sanctimony that’s ultimately self-defeating.

C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, once warned against this tendency: “Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”  

We simply must vigorously resist the poor counterfeit for statesmanship and diplomacy we find in today’s deflationary, desiccated politics-as-bar-fight mentality where the language of morality is exploited and bastardized to bludgeon opponents and cast them as filth. It may make us feel better to do so, and we may think we’re doing good, but we’re not. It’s indulgent, damaging to society, and its ubiquity is sure to tear asunder the fragile bonds that tie us together. And it’s not in the least consistent with loving our enemies.    

Good and evil can be found within each of our hearts; some people, it’s true, can wholly give themselves over to evil. When Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels saw video of suffering Poles and was “tempted” to feel compassion, he uttered, “Be hard, my heart, be hard.” His settled higher-order desire was to renounce compassion and empathy; his was clearly a personal trajectory toward endorsing evil through and through, and it’s fitting to acknowledge as much, and dishonest to deny it.

Still, some lines should simply not be crossed, and the denial of the humanity of our opponents is one of them. This goes beyond disagreeing, beyond thinking their positions immoral, or even calling them evil. Indeed, calling evil someone less than human likely implicates one in a category mistake. To deny the very humanity of others, counting them as worthy of nothing but contempt, is a further step and a line we simply should not cross, and yet it’s one we see casually crossed daily, even by Christians. In fact, when they do it, they tend to wrap their rhetoric in language of not just morality, but religion. Recall Pascal’s prescient, prophetic words on this score: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”   

Of all people, Christians shouldn’t fall prey to the depiction of those for whom Christ died as less than human. This should be a nonnegotiable rule of political discourse. Partisanship has become rabid when it violates such a rule. The power of moral rhetoric shouldn’t be exploited to demonize those with whom we have legitimate differences on vexed questions. There’s such a thing as moral atrocities, admittedly, but not every political disagreement qualifies, and we show a pitiably low view of morality when we leap at every chance to employ hyperbole and exaggerate differences, constantly going for the jugular and relegating ideological opponents to the trash bin of history. Hate-filled political rhetoric in the name of Christ should simply never be done, and to the extent we at all reasonably can, we need to retain the vital distinction between sin and sinner, retaining love for the latter. Figuring out what that looks like isn’t always easy, but all the more reason to get to work on it.

In a Washington Post Opinion piece from March 21, 2019, Joseph Lieberman talks about John McCain coming back to Washington in July 2017 after his first operation to remove cancer from his brain and surprising everyone by voting against the repeal of Obamacare, a move many roundly criticized. People who heard his speech on the Senate floor that day or have read it since, Lieberman writes, know that McCain cast that vote squarely against the partisanship that had taken over the Senate and made it into a “feckless, gridlocked, divided place.”

As McCain said in his speech in the Senate: “Our deliberations . . . are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember. . . . We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.” McCain continued: “The times when I was involved even in a modest way with working out a bipartisan response to a national problem or threat are the proudest moments of my career, and by far the most satisfying.”

McCain viscerally recognized the way strident partisanship was deleterious to the country, undermining our collective capacity to find the bipartisan solutions vital to solve the immense, otherwise intractable problems we face. And he also experienced first-hand the power of collaboration, bipartisan cooperation, constructive collegiality, integrating statesmanship.

Following his lead, resisting the spirit of party, elevating our discourse, respecting the mental freedom of others, living worthy of our callings, daring to hope and resist despair, let’s do the hard work of learning to live, love, and labor with one another. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let’s strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds” and “do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”




With his co-author, Jerry Walls, Dr. Baggett authored Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. The book won Christianity Today’s 2012 apologetics book of the year of the award. He is working on a sequel with Walls that critiques naturalistic ethics, a book to be called God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. They are under contract with Oxford University Press for a third book in the series, a book that will chronicle the history of moral arguments for God’s existence. Dr. Baggett has also co-edited a collection of essays exploring the philosophy of C.S. Lewis, and edited the third debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew on the resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Baggett currently is a professor at the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, VA.