If only we would heed George Washington’s advice, this country wouldn’t be so divided along partisan lines. He warned of “the baneful effects of the spirit of party” in his farewell address.
The passage of time has shown how right he was: Rabid devotion to political parties has become the bane of our democracy. Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on the most basic facts—like the winner of the last presidential election—let alone their vision for America.
The Founding Fathers wanted to avoid such warring factions, and partisan hostility is certainly not biblical. Yet it has become so intense that observers have had to search for new words to describe it.
Harvard historian James Hankins noted the increasing popularity of the word hyperpartisanship in an article in the Claremont Review of Books, although he couldn’t find it in a dictionary.
“Opponents are demonized, their reputations destroyed by all means possible,” he wrote. “Democratic deliberation becomes impossible and political deal-making—the normal business of interest-group politics in pluralist societies—is despised as an intolerable violation of principle. Politics turns into a battle between non-negotiable demands. Compromise is impossible; the enemy must be crushed.”
Many of these battles have been fought in Congress. Pew Research shows that Democrats and Republicans in Congress are farther apart ideologically than they have been in the past fifty years.
Interestingly, almost fifty years ago, the Senate voted 77–0 to set up a select committee to investigate the Watergate scandal.
“Now the country could not vote 77–0 to keep the American flag,” Watergate reporter Bob Woodward told CNN. “There would be some opposition.”
That’s how much things have changed.
Heading into the midterm elections, the political divide seems wider than the Framers of the Constitution ever could have imagined when they met in Philadelphia in 1787.
Political parties were “necessary evils”
The idea of political parties, or “factions” as the colonists liked to call them, evoked unpleasant memories of the English Civil Wars in the seventeenth century. Washington’s family had included prominent Royalists, and one of his ancestors immigrated to America after the Parliamentarians’ victory.
So the Framers feared “the violence of faction,” as James Madison described it in the Federalist Papers, and the Constitution doesn’t mention political parties.
“Formal parties hadn’t existed in colonial America, and none of the Framers regretted that,” historian Robert Tracy McKenzie wrote in We the Fallen People. “As a whole, our Founding Fathers were keenly suspicious of parties. In the best case, they hoped to do without them entirely. Barring that, they would accept them as necessary evils, institutions to be tolerated, not encouraged.”
Thomas Jefferson, for one, said, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” Yet despite the colonists’ reluctance to embrace parties, they inevitably developed over different visions for America. Near the end of Jefferson’s life, he admitted, “Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties.”
Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention before his two terms as president, had a front-row seat to observe their rise.
The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, favored a strong central government. The other party, the Anti-Federalists or Democratic-Republicans, believed in states’ rights. Jefferson, serving as ambassador to France during the Constitutional Convention, became its leader.
Jefferson, a Virginia planter, extolled the virtues of an agrarian society and the ideals of the French Revolution. Hamilton, considered “the founder and chief architect of the American financial system,” admired the British form of government.
Washington picked both men for his cabinet, with Jefferson serving as Secretary of State and Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. As you might imagine, they mixed like oil and water.
“A litmus test for Christian faithfulness”
The partisan conflict only intensified after Washington left office, and political parties have remained a central part of our democracy, leaving Christians to make choices, sometimes difficult ones.
“Most of the political questions citizens face today are biblically unscripted,” Jonathan Leeman wrote in How the Nations Rage.
Theologians and Bible teachers like Tim Keller and Tony Evans warn against aligning too closely with a political party. Keller wrote an op-ed in The New York Times with the headline “How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t.”
Evans teaches that your primary allegiance should be to the kingdom of God because neither party perfectly reflects biblical values. “Every Christian should be a Kingdom independent,” he said.
Evans noted that Christians tend to prioritize different issues because of their varying backgrounds. For example, a Black Christian might emphasize social justice and vote Democratic, while a White Christian might be most concerned about homosexuality and abortion and vote Republican. Both approaches have their roots in the Bible.
Historian Daniel Williams, author of The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship, touched on similar themes in an interview with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Christians need to avoid making either party a source of their identity or a litmus test for Christian faithfulness,” he said. “That does not mean that the two parties are equal, and that it does not matter which option we choose. But it does mean that Christians should seek to transcend both parties in their thinking, and they should be understanding of their brothers and sisters in Christ who make different political choices.”
Find your identity in Christ, and your political party will be an afterthought.