The recent dustup between Nancy Pelosi and the four liberal firebrands—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley—in the House’s freshman class, as well as the confrontation between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden in the recent Democratic debate, reveals something troubling about the state of our politics in the US in 2019. The demand for ideological purity bodes ill for the prospects of bipartisan agreements of any kind. Not that those prospects were all that bright to begin with—the Tea Party dealt a serious blow to bipartisanship when it took the GOP through its own ideological purge during the Obama administration. But two wrongs don’t make a right, and these “purity monitors” on the left are demonstrating a lack of flexibility and a misunderstanding of the legislative process that may doom their dreams of a progressive revolution before it gets off the ground.
Take the interchange between Biden and Harris. Biden had been trying to make a point in the days leading up to the debate about his record of “reaching across the aisle.” He picked a couple of lawmakers who were around when he got started in the House who were staunch segregationists, but with whom he had been able to work to pass important legislation. He did not condone their views—in fact, he made a point of saying how much he disagreed with them—but he held his nose and tried to find common ground.
This was unacceptable to Harris and to the many other purity monitors in the Democratic party. How could Biden have stooped to the level of these white supremacists to work with them on making laws? Didn’t he know that if he touched political tar, he would never get it off his hands? This may not have been true in 1974, but it certainly is in 2019. Biden is just tone-deaf enough to have thought that what he considered a virtue would be seen as such in the hyperpartisan world of today, and Harris was savvy enough to score political points by attacking him for it and to press her advantage by then moving on to Biden’s complicated record on busing. The consensus in Punditville was that she had made a strong showing in the debate, and Biden was left to apologize for the egregious error of talking about how things get done in the real world.
The same phenomenon appeared in the Pelosi/Four Freshmen kerfuffle. It’s kind of funny when you think about it: these twenty- and thirty-something first-time lawmakers tried to school Nancy Pelosi on what it means to be a liberal. The Speaker has long been conservatives’ go-to boogeywoman in their warnings about the dangers of liberalism. She has been through the wars, and she knows what she is doing. But she registers too low on the ideological purity meters of AOC, Tlaib, Pressley, and Omar, so they thought they could take her to the woodshed. Turns out she was already there and had picked out a switch.
Now, lest you misunderstand me, I greatly admire the idealism, energy, and spunk of AOC and the others, I agree with many of their arguments and proposals, and I think they are more of a credit to the House than a detriment. But in this conflict they were wrong. Just as Senator Harris, who is in many ways an admirable figure herself, was wrong to misconstrue Biden’s message and use it against him as a blunt instrument. Sometimes the sandpaper of experience has to smooth off the rough edges of idealism for it to be effective in the real world that exists outside the ideologically pure ivory tower.
In the end, however, I’m not terribly worried about these petty conflicts in the Democratic party; it’s the implications for the Christian church that have me concerned. We have our own purity monitors on both sides of the conservative/progressive divide—those who will not countenance fraternization with “the enemy” and who keep a sharp lookout for others’ trespassing the bounds of what they deem the true faith. They are like the apostle John, who complains to Jesus in Mark 9:38, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Jesus rebukes him and says, among other things, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). John wants to draw lines and circles to define who’s in and who’s out, whose theology and practice are pure enough and whose does not measure up. But Jesus takes his big pink eraser to those lines and says, in effect, "You need to stop looking for reasons to exclude people and start finding ways to work with them for the broader goal of the advance of the reign of God.”
That’s what we are about, after all, or have we forgotten? Have we gotten so caught up in our quest for purity that it has become a detriment to our mission? Can we learn to lighten up, put down the measuring sticks, and determine to work shoulder-to-shoulder with even those (gasp!) who don’t measure up to our theological or ideological standards? Or will we be content to look down on the work of the reign of God from the dizzying height of our lonely towers, or in the ever-more sparsely populated islands of our own making, pure in our thinking but of little use to Jesus in the rough-and-tumble of the real world?