Strange bedfellows

Posted: Dec 04, 2003 12:00 AM

Two much-discussed recent news developments: Democratic second-tier presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich is talking about finding a wife (dozens have applied), and liberals are talking about setting up a new television network (as though they don't have plenty already). Why not combine the two desires by producing a show, "Joe President," in which cuties would compete for the hand of the next president, only to find out later that he's a political loser?

I should add a parental advisory, of course: Kucinich must have kinky tastes, since he only wants a wife who demands "universal single-payer health care" -- but that's his choice. And that's the subject of a more important debate: How will liberty be preserved when many liberals favor socialistic approaches and some small but ardent religious groups demand theocratic approaches of various kinds?

Part of the answer comes from James Madison and other fathers of the Constitution: maintain political and social pluralism. Madison in The Federalist Papers predicted accurately that American society "will be broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens that the rights of individuals or of the minority will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority."

Another part comes for our growing theological diversity. America over the past two centuries has become pluralistic by God's providence, as tired and poor immigrants from all over the world came to our shores, often bearing religious beliefs far different from those typical in 18th century America. George Washington, instead of urging equal treatment of Jewish citizens, could have pushed for a "Christians Only" plank. Irish Catholics in the 1840s could have been told, "Go home and starve." Immigrants at Ellis Island a century ago could have been checked for not only tuberculosis but spiritual problems. I'm glad that none of those events occurred.

In recent years, the trend has escalated. Immigration reform in the 1960s opened the doors to more Buddhists and Hindus. Crucially, many evangelicals have not explained well their faith to their children, and some have not taught about God's grace by showing mercy to others. That's why those who blame immigrants for American spiritual and moral decline are wrong: Descendants of the Founders have often been the worst offenders. Many have treated the Christianity that animated their ancestors as a vestigial organ, and have made at best a nominal show of reverence. Some lead anti-Christian parades.

(So as not to be misunderstood, let me nuance a position on immigration. When others want to come here to enjoy the essentials of what makes America so attractive in the first place, fine -- but we need to shape and steer the immigrant experience so those essentials aren't lost. For example, a common language and a common commitment to work have been great strengths of America. Multilingualism and welfare availability for immigrants could help to destroy precisely what has made America attractive.)

But back to the main point: Like it or not, today we have pluralism by providence, an abundance of Madisonian factions, religious and temporal. Christianity (in terms of more than nominal identification) is a minority religion in America, a faction powerless to dominate others. That realization should free non-Christians from fear of religious domination, and it should push Christians to work alongside other groups that also oppose the truly aggressive force of our age, secular liberalism.

Author-theologian Francis Schaeffer emphasized the importance of falling neither into separatism nor into easy alliance. Instead, he urged Christians to think through co-belligerency, working in coalition with other groups against a common enemy, while retaining independence. Sometimes we may find strange bedfellows. And that's my advice to Dennis Kucinich: You can find lots of backers for your single-payer schemes, but if your future wife is not one of them, you can still get along.