A few weeks back, former President Bill Clinton said that the present political environment is poisonous. The Republicans and the Democrats have gone beyond ideology into a kind of political theology.Clinton said, “If we can break out of theology and get back to evidence and experience and the aspirations of ordinary people, I think we can have bipartisan cooperation.”
I appreciate Clinton’s naming of “theology” and his introducing of the concept into public discourse. However, his understanding of “theology” is incorrect. He understands “theology” as those beliefs and commitments for which there is no evidence. And he thinks that “theology” is a more extreme position beyond “ideology,” a relentless commitment to one’s own position. Contrary to Clinton’s view, each ideology is also based on beliefs and commitments for which there is no complete ground of evidence. Thus, some faith commitment is necessary for every ideology. Moreover, each ideology is itself a particular theology, addressing perspectives on justice, power and life. Each ideology flows from a particular understanding of “god,” and each ideology legitimizes and sanctions itself by appealing to its “god.”
Clinton’s observations and recommendations are themselves based on Clinton’s own theology.Clinton insists that we “look at the job numbers, look at the vested numbers, look at the growth numbers, look at the productivity numbers, look at the numbers.” Using these numbers requires a certain selection and a certain interpretation, and it portrays and sustains a certain theology. Clinton says, “It cannot be possible that either the Democrats or the Republicans are always wrong. It cannot be possible that a hundred percent of us are proceeding in bad faith.” Notice the bald theological language that Clinton uses: “faith.” The basis for discerning and determining what is right implies a “faith.”
Clinton urges us to move away from our theologies. This really is impossible. Politicians promote a certain view of society that reflects a particular view of “god” – even when the promoters claim to be secular or a-theistic. People cannot become less theological. Political views (just like social, economic, health policies, etc.) are always begging the question: which “god?” or whose “theology?” In a realm of lies, doublespeak and demagoguery, we should be calling for politicians and public personalities to be more theological. If theologies (i.e. ideologies, social visions, economic polices, etc) are clarified, policy objectives can be affirmed or disapproved in relation to the declared theologies. Deriving policy objectives from theology also creates space for negotiation, where policy objectives may be compromised without having to compromise one’s theology. And in democratic societies that include many diverse and contradicting theologies, compromise is essential.
In trying to have a gracious reading of Clinton’s view, I think that he is not really calling us to be less theological. Rather, he is inviting each party to become less entrenched in their own particular ideologies and to have the courage and willingness to consider the view of the other. Unfortunately, most political “gods” are jealous of their adherents and don’t allow them to consider others. As Christians, however, we can offer a unique perspective based on our theology that claims to know truth and to love those completely other than ourselves. In the sphere of larger society, we can call for candid speech and truth-telling, while naming and condemning discourse that is deceptive. And we can attempt to understand the perspectives of others and to build society together, even where there is disagreement. At this point, we can appropriate Clinton’s suggestion to identify what is right in those different than ourselves.