(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

When President Obama gives his State of the Union address tonight, the problem of congressional gridlock will likely be a major theme. Partisanship in Washington is, of course, nothing new, and President Obama is by no means the first chief executive to face a deadlocked Congress. Still, in recent years, politicians seem to have reached new depths of intransigence.

So it came as a welcome change last month when reporters covering Congress were able to resurrect a phrase that had long languished: bipartisan compromise. I’m referring, of course, to the budget deal hammered out by Sen. Patty Murray (D) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R). The two members of Congress were able to work across party lines to prevent another government shutdown and to roll back some of sequestration’s draconian cuts. But there wasn’t enough common ground to address two other looming problems for the legislature and country: unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless expired late last month, and the federal government will reach its borrowing limit in February.

The minimal scope of the compromise shows just how far apart the two sides continue to be. Increasingly, Washington has come to resemble a World War I battlefield. The opposing sides are deeply entrenched; there is much sound and fury, but very little movement. On one side of no man’s land are Republican firebrands like Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. These Tea Party favorites have managed to move the GOP in a libertarian direction (despite some pushback from less radical Republicans). The “GOP libertarians,” as I’ll call them, seek to shrink radically the size and reach of the federal government and to roll back much of the welfare state and regulatory structure. Opposing them are liberal Democrats, who seek to maintain the federal government’s social insurance and regulatory powers and, in some cases, to expand them.

American conservatives and liberals have compromised on major issues in the past—as recently as the federal bank bailout of 2008. And numerous polls indicate that most Americans have lost patience with their representatives’ stubbornness. Why, then, is the current impasse so intractable?

Pundits typically attribute the political deadlock to gerrymandering and the dynamics of party primaries. In the U.S. House, redistricting has decreased the number of truly competitive seats, reducing the incentive for House members to appeal to voters from the other party. Senators and House members willing to work across the aisle face the threat of being “primaried” by more partisan factions back in their home districts.

While I don’t discount those factors, I suggest that another important element is often overlooked. A few years ago, NPR’s Ron Elving gestured toward it when he noted that the conflict in Washington is “like a religious struggle, where there are two sides that have just fundamentally different beliefs.”

Elving almost nailed it. Today’s political struggle is not just like a religious struggle. Arguably, it is a religious struggle, at least in part. And that’s one reason why compromise is so elusive: cherished convictions and bedrock beliefs are at stake.

Admittedly, this may seem a surprising claim. Partisans on both sides have various religious affiliations or none at all, and they rarely frame their arguments in explicitly religious terms. However, as I argue in Dialectical Democracy through Christian Thought: Individualism, Relationalism, and American Politics, libertarianism and liberalism carry forward tensions present in the Christian tradition over the individuality-relationality question: whether humans are primarily separate and independent, or primarily relational and interconnected.

On most issues—including Obamacare, market regulation, and gun control—GOP libertarians argue that individuals should be left alone to make their own decisions, while liberals argue that the social benefits of government action outweigh the costs of restricting individual freedom. True, there are inconsistencies. On abortion, for example, liberals favor individual choice, while GOP libertarians allege damage to the social fabric. But in most other policy areas, liberals prioritize the social, GOP libertarians the individual. GOP libertarians argue that ensuring the greatest social benefit entails first freeing individuals to pursue their own self-interest. Liberals counter that ensuring individual welfare means first protecting the common interest.


IN THIS CONFLICT OVER the individual and the social, long-standing tensions in the Christian tradition may well be seeping into the political debate. Liberalism and libertarianism originated in a culture—that of premodern and early modern Western Europe—which was still dominated by Christian teachings and assumptions.  The Christian tradition offers no straightforward answer to the individuality-relationality question and this lack of clarity is traceable in turn to the Bible, which can support either individualism or relationalism—or both.

Admittedly, individualism gets off to a slow start in the Hebrew Bible. Early biblical texts tend to treat the Israelite as inseparable from her community (see, for example, the notion of collective punishment in the book of Joshua). However, later prophets such as Ezekiel and Jeremiah depict individuals as morally autonomous: each person is responsible for her own sins, not those of her ancestors. The New Testament stresses individuality by suggesting that the individual is worth at least as much as, and perhaps more than, the community. Jesus famously tells of a shepherd who leaves behind the flock in search of one lost sheep. Other texts (such as Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus in the book of Luke) suggest that the individuality we experience in this life persists after death.

Yet at other points, the Bible stresses community and interrelatedness. Hebrew prophets like Amos and Zechariah repeatedly remind Israelites that their personal righteousness depends on how they treat others, particularly the poor and marginalized. In John’s gospel, Jesus calls his disciples the branches of a single vine—himself; they cannot be fruitful except through their interrelationship with him. Elsewhere in the book of John, Jesus emphasizes that his followers’ identity depends on mutual love, an inherently relational concept.

One could say that the Bible gives mixed signals about individuality and relationality. I favor a more positive assessment: the Bible as a whole places individuality and relationality in a creative tension. If so, faithfulness to the biblical witness is not a matter of favoring individuality over relationality or vice versa, but of finding ways to balance them.

However, such balance has been rare in subsequent history in Western Europe and North America, where Christianity has dominated. In the Middle Ages relationalism was in the ascendant. Although not as pervasively collectivist as is sometimes claimed, medieval society saw itself as a single organism. As medieval author John of Salisbury put it, nobles, clergy, and peasants were “members one of another,” and each member “regards his own interest as best served by that which he knows to be most advantageous for the others.” In his words, we see shades of today’s American liberalism. The medieval Church likewise stressed the collective over the individual. While salvation was—at least technically—a matter of personal faith, the Church placed great emphasis on its members’ participation in what were essentially collective acts, through the sacramental and penitential systems. The Church also sought to ensure conformity with its teachings through the Inquisition and other tools for discouraging individual dissent in matters of faith.

The pendulum swung sharply back toward individualism with the advent of Protestantism. The Reformers’ doctrine of salvation by faith alone virtually mandated individualism, since it envisioned the individual human soul standing alone before a judging God, and tied salvation more to personal faith than to participation in the collective life of the Church. Further accelerating the swing toward individualism was the Protestant emphasis on the Bible as the prime authority for Christian faith and practice, which had the (likely unintended) effect of privileging individual interpretation over church teachings. This not only decentered doctrinal authority in the western Church; it also resulted in the splintering of Protestantism into innumerable denominations, each with its own take on what the Bible “really says.”


EARLY PROPHETS OF CAPITALISM like John Locke and Adam Smith—intellectual ancestors of today’s GOP libertarians—put Protestantism’s revivified individualism to work in the political and economic arenas. They asserted the priority of the self-interested, wealth-seeking individual and opposed the collectivism of medieval society, much as Luther had asserted the priority of the individual, Bible-reading Christian over against the institutional Church.

Yet even as capitalist individualism reached its apex in the laissez-faire nineteenth century, the relational ideals of love and justice in biblical teaching did not disappear. Thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and T. H. Green worried that laissez-faire individualism actually hindered personal well-being by bringing widespread poverty and misery. The rising reform liberal movement (today known simply as “liberalism”) reacted against the inequities of laissez-faire by returning to a more relational view of humans, stressing social responsibilities and collective action, and often appealing (at least early on) to biblical teaching.

By the end of the nineteenth century, then, the two positions that stare at each other across no man’s land in Washington today had taken shape: libertarians, who call for individuals and markets to be largely left alone by government; and more relationalist liberals, who advocate a stronger central government to protect the common interest against the vagaries of capitalism.

In their anti-government, pro-free-market approach, GOP libertarians echo the individualist strand of the Christian tradition. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah made this connection clear when he declared, in a recent speech against Obamacare: “[W]henever government acts, it does so at the expense of our own individual liberty. It does so at the expense of our ability to live our lives as we would live them.”

Liberals, on the other hand, echo Christianity’s relationalist strand when they shift the focus from individuals to the government’s role in ensuring that the economy functions for the benefit of all citizens. For example, in his book Tales of a New America, liberal economist Robert Reich speaks of society as a “network of mutually beneficial interdependencies.”

These GOP libertarians and liberal Democrats are not just fighting over policy, over the size and reach of the federal government. It seems possible, even likely, that they carry forward a long-running and religiously inflected struggle over who and what we are: autonomous individuals who are best left alone, or relational beings whose personal welfare depends on the welfare of the wider community.

Is there a way past the current impasse? I believe there is. It involves recognizing that these two dominant voices offer a false choice. Much as the Bible as a whole presents humans both as autonomous and as deeply interrelated, our task today is to find policies that honor both individual interests and social relations.

This, of course, is easier said than done. The much-maligned Affordable Care Act could be considered such a policy. Many liberals dislike it because they prefer a government-run single-payer system. GOP libertarians hate the idea of government requiring individuals to purchase health insurance. Yet in spite of its flawed implementation, Obamacare does maintain a creative tension between individual choice (through the exchanges) and government protection of the wider public interest (reducing the number and cost of uninsured Americans). Balancing individuality and relationality in policy requires compromise. Compromise requires all sides to give some ground on their most deeply held beliefs—a tall order in today’s obstinate Washington.

David Brockman currently teaches as an adjunct in the Department of Religious Studies, Southern Methodist University, and at Brite Divinity School. He is the author of Dialectical Democracy through Christian Thought: Individualism, Relationalism, and American Politics and No Longer the Same: Religious Others and the Liberation of Christian Theology.