From the Dean’s Desk - Fall 2012

Gregory E. Sterling

The only person to be elected president of the United States by a unanimous electoral vote was George Washington – and he achieved the distinction twice. In his first term of office, the new president appointed one of the most talented cabinets in the history of our country, including Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. The secretaries of the Treasury and State differed sharply in their assessments of the role of the national government and foreign relations, but Washington managed to hold them together for four years. The president attempted to promote and embody national unity while avoiding platforms that represented less than the whole.

SterlingEventually even the military hero of the American Revolution could not hold his cabinet together. Their embroilments helped to create rival political parties and their resignations forced the president to appoint lesser talents to serve in his second-term cabinet.

It is important to remember that partisan politics are not new. However, for many of us it appears that the intensity of it today has reached a crescendo that has become a threat to the health of our democracy. We worry that partisanship has created a gridlock that places the national good behind the party good. I recently moved from a state where a senior U.S. senator resigned his seat largely because he had grown weary of the fighting on the Hill that had failed to advance the country.

One of the dimensions of the current partisanship that has not always been present is the use and misuse of values – often values that the partisans claim are grounded in religion – to reinforce ideological lines. It is, however, not always clear that those who appeal to these values have reflected thoughtfully on the tradition to which they appeal. We hear too many examples of simplistic conclusions that overlook the complexities of evidence, or single-issue stances that elevate one moral issue to an absolute while disregarding a series of others that are historically and theologically just as important, or ideological loyalties that draw on values when they are convenient and discard other values found within the same religious system.

Such moves fail to do justice to the values of a religion – I have Christianity in mind but recognize that individuals from other traditions could easily substitute their religion – and can create a schizophrenic tendency to push people who make an effort to practice the values of a religion in multiple directions at the same time.

This issue of Reflections is offered with the hope that it will provoke you to think about the place of values, especially religiously grounded values, in American politics. The contributors do not argue for a single perspective or solution. I am grateful that they do not. Such a reduction would not only betray the ecumenical nature of YDS and fail to do justice to the broader readership of this journal, but would itself become an unwitting partner in the partisanship that it seeks to question.

The contributors do have something in common: they share a spirit of openness and optimism. Their willingness to express their views openly and to publish them in a collection that contains different positions makes a statement that it is possible to hold a set of values and allow others with different vantage points to do the same. I hope that the thoughtfulness and civility of these essays will challenge you to reflect on your own values – your religious values, your political values, and the ways in which the two coincide or diverge.

Gregory E. Sterling