new Mennonite Life logo    June 2005     vol. 60 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

A Call For More Partisan Politics

by Karl S. Shelly

Karl Shelly is or has recently been a Mennonite pastor, Capitol Hill lobbyist, mediator, adjunct professor, lawyer, stay-at-home dad of 3 boys, and husband.

John D. Roth, a gifted writer and thinker in Mennonite academia, has offered his description and prescription for an old but currently hot American conundrum: faith and politics. In a recent speech, Roth cites what he claims to be new levels of antagonism and fundamentalism among Christians of all political stripes, and calls on Mennonites to respond by taking a five-year sabbatical from partisan politics. As a result of the messy and oftentimes ugly engagement of democracy that Roth sees, he would have us leave the political arena, shaking the dust off our shoes, and devote ourselves to prayer and Christian charity for the next half decade.

In contrast to Roth's suggestion, I think the wiser call is in the opposite direction. What is needed is not less, but more, partisan politics by Mennonites.


While few, if any, would celebrate contemporary political discourse in the United States as particularly enlightened, many historians would deny that current levels of political rancor are unprecedented. Yet Roth accepts the conventional wisdom that things are worse than ever and offers a few personal anecdotes as proof.

Roth's primary concern, however, is the political debate within the U.S. Mennonite community, and perhaps here he is right to suggest that political divisions are alarmingly wide. That's true in part because there are no other eras of U.S. Mennonite political activity with which to compare. American Mennonites are political novices when compared to other faith groups. Historically, Mennonites have rested on their literal understanding of Matthew 5:39 ("resist not evil") as pretext to leave the machinery of governance and societal decision-making to others (with the notable exception of when Mennonite boys are threatened with military conscription; then Mennonites become quite political).

As a result, when one reads of the roles faith groups played in the liberation of blacks from slavery, or women from patriarchy, or people of color from overt racism in the 50s and 60s — all definitely political struggles — Mennonites are largely absent. Even on witnessing against war — a natural extension for a peace church — it has been the Quakers, not the Mennonites, who have been most active in raising this concern to the state.

It was not until late in the Civil Rights movement that Mennonites concerned about war, racism, poverty, and global injustice began to move beyond acts of Christian charity and address the structural violence that undergirds these evils. Notably, it was at this time that Mennonite Central Committee, which had accumulated nearly 50 years of experience in Christian relief and development work, recognized the necessity of speaking to government and established its office in Washington, D. C.

Of course, these changes in the Mennonite church have not come without considerable dissent, both from the waning "nonresistant" wing of the church and by those whose political sympathies lay more with the powerful than with the victims (many Mennonites were becoming an ever wealthier and established part of society). Additionally, the burgeoning influence of religious fundamentalism and its accompanying nationalism has also gained a foothold in the Mennonite church in recent decades, contributing to the intra-denominational polarization.

Against this backdrop Roth uses the current societal uproar over faith and politics to call for Mennonite disengagement from partisan politics. Those who have heard Roth on this subject in the past know that this is not a new theme for him. For many years Roth has been offering his witness of not voting or engaging in nearly any political witness (except the most local) as the most appropriate Anabaptist response.

As a neo-nonresistant Mennonite, Roth seemingly longs to put the political genie back in the bottle. In his zeal to do so he sometimes overstates his case, as he does when furthering the perception that the church leadership is increasingly out of touch with the more conservative "'heartland' congregations." Roth describes the most recent church-wide convention in Atlanta where conference leadership "called on Mennonites to lobby elected officials against U.S. foreign policy in Colombia," but "explicitly rejected lobbying government [on the issue of abortion] on the grounds that such legislation is 'using the government to force others to comply with our Christian standards.'"

As Roth paints it, there appears to be a blatant double-standard: a hierarchy beholden to the left finds it acceptable to witness to government on liberal issues but not on concerns of the right. However, had Roth's analysis scratched a bit deeper he would have noted the distinction between calling on government to refrain from military intervention (or on issues concerning poverty, to use its resources to provide relief) versus calling on government to criminalize particular behavior; i.e. abortion procedures. Those are not equivalent appeals to government and the latter, as far as I'm aware, is unprecedented in the Mennonite Church.

Additionally, Roth suggests in his speech, as he has elsewhere, that those he calls "pacifist activists" simply line up "predictably with the policies and platform of the Democratic Party." This insinuation is simply inaccurate (one could begin by comparing the positions of "pacifist activists" with the largely pro-war, pro death penalty positions of the Democratic Party). By building this straw person, Roth contributes to the inability of the contemporary church to grapple with the biblical notion of justice. Raise concerns about justice for the poor or marginalized in the church today and be prepared to be pejoratively labeled a "Democratic activist."


As suggested above, my prescription, contrary to Roth's, is for more partisan politics by disciples of Jesus. However, that does not mean I approve of political party mudslinging.

Rather, I wish to claim the best of politics and understand it as concerning the welfare of the community (derived from the Greek word "polis" which means community). Politics is about how a given entity (city, state, nation) makes decisions about its common life. Through politics, the community decides if its resources are to be utilized for the common good or for the powerful few. Through politics, the community makes decisions about whether to pursue life or pursue death. Therefore, it is no surprise that there is near consensus among most progressive and conservative Christians that politics is rightly a Christian concern.

In this sense, to be political is to engage the communal conversation of how we live together, of who is our neighbor, and of how all of our needs are met. There are, of course, many ways to do this, including giving support to a person offering to represent us in political decision-making. But elections are only one aspect of politics.

To be partisan, in the best sense of the word, is to take sides. Given more space, I would develop the argument that the Bible calls Christians to take sides — the side of the poor, the disenfranchised, the widow, etc. Of course, one takes sides with the knowledge that there will be those standing in opposition on the other side. But discipleship is not about avoiding conflict or maintaining a false unity. It involves taking sides and advocating nonviolently.

Therefore, the problem is not partisan politics; rather it is how we engage in partisan politics. Here Roth offers much that is helpful. Being grounded in prayer, compassion, and love; distancing our Christian hope from the hope of any particular party or politician; and reflecting on the political witness of other Christians (in Paraguay and elsewhere) are all vital.

The evidence of Christians engaging in partisan politics badly is widespread, but there are alternatives to engaging badly other than taking a 5-year time-out. More helpful would be guidelines to suggest how we can engage faithfully. I will begin with four:

1. Don't over-emphasize elections. Recognize that taking sides in matters of communal concern (a.k.a. partisan politics) is much more than voting every two or four years. Naturally, elections have a way of focusing the community's conversation about issues (which provides an important opportunity to engage the conversation), but participating solely in electoral politics is relatively ineffective and puts too much hope in a given politician to rectify injustice.

2. Keep your distance from the empire. I'm embarrassed by Christians who feel so aligned to a particular party or elected official that they are incapable of critiquing them. The praise heaped by conservative Christians these days on President Bush and the Republican Party leads me to wonder in whom they truly put their hope.

3. Be biblical in focusing your political concern. Is justice for the poor a primary issue for you or are you more concerned with what the system can give you? The issues one champions say much about one's faith.

4. Turn down the heat. Enmity and hostility have become the hallmark of political discourse thanks in part to the examples of talk radio and cable television. Especially here, let us not be conformed to this world.


Despite my different approach, I am indebted to Roth for his clear and consistent call to keep our witness — political and otherwise — grounded in our Christian convictions and discipleship. Our allegiance is to Jesus as Lord and to God's kingdom, not to any imperfect politician or political party. That is the source of our unity.

As citizens of God's kingdom, living in a world God so loves and cares about, let us proclaim, whisper, shout, pray, agitate, and vote for the ways of justice to roll down like waters and righteousness to flow like an ever-flowing stream. And let us do this work, bearing witness to our faith, in the church, in the marketplace, and in the precinct halls.