Covenantal Politics vs the Politics of Power
I often think about my heroes, especially in tough times, about the moral compass that guided them and the courage that sustained and fortified them. I have a long list. Many, though not all, were religious figures who challenged prevailing public sentiment and entrenched political power that were obstacles in the way of justice and human rights.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written about what he calls “Covenantal Politics” as opposed to the “Politics of Power” (The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, New York: Schocken, 2011). His discussion shines a light on what has been happening in the extreme right-wing of American politics these past few years.
“Politics is about power, and at the heart of the Abrahamic vision is a critique of power. Power is a fundamental assault on human dignity. When I exercise power over you, I deny your freedom, and that is dangerous for both of us.” (p. 132)
The Judeo-Christian tradition, he explains, is not about political power. “Covenantal politics” is a means towards creating an ideal society based upon human rights and dignity, equality and opportunity, justice and respect, accountability and responsibility, forgiveness and reconciliation, personal growth and freedom.
“Covenantal politics is a politics of new beginnings, of a people pledging themselves to one another and to the common good, a politics of ‘we, the people.’ It is a politics of moral principle and collective responsibility. Unlike hierarchical societies where rulers rule, a covenant society is always based on the mutual responsibility of citizens as a whole. The fate of the nation lies with the people, not with the rulers of the people.” (p. 134)
This past week on Fox’s “Hannity,” Senator Lindsey Graham gave Senator Mitch McConnell some unsolicited advice following McConnell’s surprisingly harsh condemnation of Donald Trump charging Trump with direct responsibility in the incitement of the January 6 mayhem and insurrection against the nation’s Capitol and American democracy. McConnell’s condemnation came immediately on the heels of his politically calculated vote to acquit Trump of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Graham said:
“What I would say to Senator McConnell, I know Trump can be a handful, but he is the most dominant figure in the Republican Party. We don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of taking back the majority without Donald Trump. If you don’t get that, you’re just not looking.”
The question Republicans led by McConnell and Graham ought to be asking isn’t how to win back the House and Senate in 2022 and the presidency in 2024, but rather what is political power for? Is it a way to sate personal ambition and preserve an unjust status quo, or is it to nurture a covenantal America in which politics is the means to a more just and inclusive nation? If politics is only about ambition and power, then power becomes the door through which morality is irrelevant, conscience is suppressed, and anything is possible including sedition, insurrection, violence, and murder.