Thursday, October 23, 2008

We the Purple -- Review reposted

With the election coming down to the wire, I thought I'd re-post my review of Marcia Ford's We the Purple. It's an argument for third parties/non-partisan voting -- a middle way of sorts. I disagree with parts, agree with others. I'm concerned that we've become increasingly polarized, and this election, which had the possibility of being different has proven to be just as polarizing as earlier ones. So, take a read, see what you think!

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WE THE PURPLE: Faith, Politics, and the Independent Voter. By Marcia Ford. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008.

I must confess that my politics are thoroughly partisan. For better or worse, America is a two-party system. Recognizing this to be true, I’ve cast my lot with the party that best represents my values – even if it doesn’t do so perfectly. I do believe, however, that our politics has become unnecessarily polarized, so polarized that little gets done in Washington, in our state capitols, and even in our local communities. I also don’t think states are either red or blue, but that in reality they are quite purple. And while our religious communities might have a predominance of one party or the other, they too are rather purple.


When Marcia Ford’s new book We the Purple arrived in the mail, sent to me by her publicist Kelly Hughes, I took a quick look at the cover and made a few judgments. The cover is purple, which goes well with the title. Underneath the title is a fairly long manifesto encouraging political independence.

We are independent voters, neither Republican red nor Democratic blue. Many of us are people of faith who are tired of partisanship in the church. We believe that together we can bring about radical reform by avoiding partisan politics and finding creative solutions to our nation’s many problems. Starting now.



With a statement like that right on the cover, the reader should have a good sense of the author’s perspective. Then I looked at the name of the publisher – Tyndale House – and since this is normally a conservative Christian publisher that got me to wondering about the author’s perspective as well. How really independent is she?

Marcia Ford is a journalist, author, and evangelical Christian, who by her own admission had not been particularly interested in politics until it started cropping up in church. She describes herself as the kind of voter who votes for the candidate and not the party, but she also declares herself to be politically independent – by registration. In doing that she represents a growing trend among voters, as much as one third of voters, especially among the young. It is part of a broader trend in society, which in religious circles is seen in the demise of the denomination. Ford’s book is first of all an extended argument for giving more space to independents and third parties in our political realm. She doesn’t leave things there, however, for she believes that political independence is superior to partisanship. She wants to open things up, so that those who feel left out can have a voice. In doing so, she wants to make it clear that being politically independent isn’t the same thing as being undecided, nor does it means she is declining to state. She isn’t undecided, nor is she declining to state. She is an independent who will vote her conscience.

While this is very serious book, this is also a witty and even satirical look at politics. You can almost hear echoes of the Wittenberg Door throughout the book. This use of wit is not only useful in carrying along the discussion, it also reminds us that as serious as politics is, we can't take ourselves too seriously!

When it comes to politics, I consider myself to be a realist. Because the current system favors having two dominant parties -- if you want to get something done you have to have a working majority, or sometimes a super-majority – it has seemed to me that if you want to be politically involved you’ll have to make a choice. Besides, very rarely has a third party candidate broken through to win a statewide or congressional election, let alone the presidency. There have been exceptions – Bernard Sanders, a socialist, won the senate seat in Vermont, but Vermont is a very small state. Reading the book from the perspective of a politically aware and committed partisan, my first reaction to the book wasn’t positive. Even though I was in agreement with some of her criticisms, I found many of her solutions to be naïve and unworkable. For instance, her calls for reform of the primary and caucus system seem unrealistic, since ultimately these are party affairs administered by the governments. Indeed, the call for open primaries seems to defeat their purpose – allowing parties to select their candidate for the general election. To do otherwise would require a change in the way we do business. Of course, as you read on you discover that’s the point. She wants to do away with party. Open things up, put everyone who wants to run on the ballot, and the one who comes out on top should win – she suggests things like instant run-offs as a way of determining a final winner.

While I may disagree with her at a number of points, I am in agreement that the current system isn’t working very well and many voters have become turned off. Rather than choosing not to vote, maybe we should begin to look at real reform – which might start by making it easier first for candidates to get access to the ballot, and more important to make it easier to register to vote. She is right in chastising those who seek to suppress the vote by raising the specter of voter fraud or by requiring means of identification that are either expensive or difficult to obtain.

I understand all the arguments for requiring identification – I really do. I can hear some of them in my head right now. But the insistence on these requirements certainly does point to a pattern of voter suppression rather than voter fraud. I mean, come on. I think if someone wants to overthrow the government and undermine our democracy they’re probably not going to do it by voting. However, if “certain elements” of our government have figured out that encouraging minorities, the poor, and the elderly to vote would give the opposition party an advantage, they’re probably going to engage in some pretty underhanded efforts to suppress the vote. (pp.
65-66).


The lists of voter restrictions included in the book are worth the price of the book! She also notes that some of the efforts at requiring special ID’s are reminiscent of the poll taxes of yesteryear – by making it overly expensive to vote you discourage voters from registering. That, she says, isn’t the American way, and she’s correct.

While Ford’s book is a manifesto for election reform and for empowering voters in general, and in particular the independent voter who is disgusted with the current state of partisan politics, that’s not her only agenda. As concerned as she is about the political landscape, she’s even more concerned about the effect that politics has on the church. If the body politic is polarized, then what effect does that polarization have on the church? At times, Ford appears to endorse a vision that would make any real political engagement in the church difficult – she commends Greg Boyd’s efforts to remove politics from the church – but she is again correct in reminding us that our churches are full of people who cross political lines. Our first priority isn’t politics but proclamation of the gospel. She notes that people are leaving the church because they feel pressured to conform to a political position.

What’s driving them away is that the focal point of many worship services has shifted from God to government. Even if members are in complete agreement with the leadership of the church on the cultural and moral issues of the day, they’re forced to sit through sermon after sermon on reclaiming America for Jesus. Any pastor worth his salt will, of course, provide a biblical basis for h is political views. But that’s not enough; every Sunday morning too many people across the country leave their churches without truly worshiping God. (pp. 128-129).


While she directs her critique at fellow evangelicals, especially those who are part of the Religious Right, she doesn’t let Mainliners off the hook. There is, she notes, overt partisanship in these churches as well, it’s just that it tends to go the other way.

Mainline denominational churches go on the partisan bandwagon much later and much more slowly. Once they realized how much political ground they had ceded to the Religious Right, though they began making up for lost time. (p. 131).


If truth be told mainline pastors have been dealing with politically sensitive issues for a long time, but many stepped back from dealing with anything controversial in fear of offending people.

The question that needs to be raised here is where do we draw the line? Active partisan politicking from the pulpit or using church resources is supposedly beyond the pale, but churches and their leaders are often unsure what is allowed. Some churches don’t deal with anything socially relevant, while others push the barriers.

Ford isn’t in favor of eliminating conversation about social issues; she just wants to broaden the conversation. She notes the danger of getting stuck on two issues – abortion and gay rights. Both are important to her, but they’re not the end all of issues. As for gay marriage, she reads the polls of younger Christians, even evangelicals, and sees that this is quickly becoming a non-issue. It is no longer a religiously defined issue, but is rather a generational one. While there will always be those who stand in opposition it will be, in her estimation (I think rightly) that it won’t be a driving issue. What we need then, is an opportunity for open discussion of an issue that still rankles many in our society and especially in our churches.

Marcia Ford hasn’t convinced me that I should abandon my commitment to a party, become an independent, or even eliminate the political from my preaching. She has, however, made a good case for electoral reform, the end to efforts at voter suppression, and the importance of alternative forms of networking. Even if I don’t think our nation is close to abandoning the parties, resources like the Internet allow for the kind of networking that was never possible in earlier decades. She is also right in reminding us to be careful about how deal with politically sensitive issues. If church looks little different from a political party rally then something is wrong.

I maybe blue, but as I read I realized that I’m also quite a bit purple. Marcia Ford is to be commended for writing this book and Tyndale for publishing it.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree with your commentary.. its an interesting, yet naive view. Can you imagine picking up a ballot with every name on it? Didn't California have over 100 candidates for governor? How would you even find your person?

Even with the two parties.. how I long for a candidate to actually take a stand contrary to their party. As soon are you say you are blus.. I automatically think.. Bob is for abortion, against any war, wants to tax the rich to pay for gov't programs, is for gay marriage, and maybe even ok with legalized prostitution. (I threw the last one in b/c it could happen in San Fran) You may.. yes, I agree with all of those or only part.. but as blue, its assumed. If I say I am repub.. then its drill baby drill, fight Irag, Afghan, N.Korea.. heck anyone, fry the criminals but save the babies, etc. Its a little tongue in cheek.. but it seems thats where we are.
The sad reality is we leave in a sound bite world... and the world moves so fast that sound positions quickly fade. Oil is a GREAT example.. remember how panicked everyone was a month ago.. the price has dropped in HALF.. no thanks to politicians, but to the market. Drilling more looks silly now and what windfalls will there be next quarter to tax?
Sorry to go on.. thankfully this will be over in a few weeks!

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

You're right, we make assumptions -- some of which might be correct, but others not.

Pragmatism has a bad name for a lot of people, but it's a quality I value in leaders. Although I'm a strong Democrat, I don't want a one party state. There is value in the checks and balances of the two parties.

Unless we move to a European style parliamentarian system I don't think we'll see multiple parties. Our system is simply not set up this way. Ross Perot got a decent number of votes, but had he won, he could not have governed. He would have had no natural congressional allies.

Arnold Schwarzenegger discovered this in California. He got elected in large part due to not having to run in a primary. As a moderate, pro-choice Republican he could never have survived a primary. He first tried to govern against the Democrats (calling them girly-men). Then he tried to go over the heads of the legislature to the people. The people said, we're tired of elections, go back and do the work. So, the Governator got pragmatic, sat down with the Democrats and worked out deals.

I'm no longer in California and the problems have gotten bigger and Arnold has realized that taxes will have to be raised to make up the short fall. He wanted to cut spending, but finding the "fat" to trim ended up being more difficult than he thought -- a warning to John McCain should he win.