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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Great Impeachment Divide
distributed 12/13/19 - ©2019

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Mick and Renee Henry of Flagstaff, Arizona. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

I have spent painful hours this week listening to the House Judiciary Committee debate the proposed articles of impeachment for President Donald Trump. I have tried, and generally failed, to keep an open mind.

From my perspective -- and one's perspective in this seems to make all the difference -- the majority party is making a reasonable and well-documented case for why "the current occupant" has violated clear constitutional principles, and should be removed from office. The minority party at times raises legitimate questions about process and evidence, but most often (to my ears) is engaged in distraction, distortion, and deep anger about years of investigations.

Impeachment is a political act, not a judicial one. It is, almost by definition, divisive and partisan. It can, as with the dramatic evidence of Nixon's corruption in 1974, break through the walls of party loyalty. But what I've seen of extreme partisan divides in recent months make me fear for my country, and for democracy.

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An article this week on fivethirtyeight.com explores in detail "which Senators are likely to vote for Trump's removal." The author says,

My guess is that lots of Republicans privately disapprove of Trump's Ukraine moves. But GOP senators face significant pressure not to publically break with Trump if they want to maintain their standing within the party and not annoy GOP voters who they need to win primaries and general elections.

He comes to the conclusion that none of the Republicans will vote for removal, and that a few of the Democrats might join them to vote against a conviction.

The reality of that private disapproval was expressed in a Politico story a month ago.

GOP strategist Mike Murphy said recently that a sitting Republican senator had told him 30 of his colleagues would vote to convict Trump if the ballot were secret. Former Senator Jeff Flake topped that, saying he thought 35 Republican senators would vote that way.

But the ballot is not going to be secret. Votes will be determined primarily by party loyalties, not by conscientious judgment about ethics and evidence.

There's an apparently solid wall of opposition from the Republicans. An opinion piece in the Guardian yesterday by Geoffrey Kabaservice spelled it out.

The Republican strategy, clearly, is to undermine and delegitimize the impeachment inquiry. Republicans are portraying the inquiry as a hoax and an attempted coup by Democrats desperate to reverse the results of the 2016 election, unrelated to any actual presidential wrongdoing.

As I listen this week to the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, I hear them downplay evidence and impugn the motives of the Democrats. In the presence of what appears to me to be grave offenses committed by the President, and his actions to "obstruct Congress" which unbalance the constitutional separation of powers, I hear nothing (publically) from the minority party which indicates either concern or disapproval. Maybe I haven't been listening at the right times, but I have been astounded and horrified by the absence of principled conversation or debate.

The partisan divide is so sharp, and so deeply entrenched, that impeachment -- the most consequential action that can ever be taken by Congress -- has become a circus. The moral and legal concerns which, apparently, are held privately by many of the Republican senators are not being expressed. The real threats to our nation, its foreign policy, and its constitutional principles are not receiving an open and honest hearing.

Mr. Trump and his divisive politics have not created this toxic partisan situation -- although he has inflamed and normalized it. The intersection of Trump and party was expressed in a CNN commentary on Thursday. It condemned Mr. Trump's bullying tweet that attacked Greta Thunberg when she was named Time's Person of the Year.

What's truly troubling -- and what makes me genuinely mad -- about all of this is that we won't hear condemnation from supporters of Trump (in elected office and out) for this absolutely appalling behavior. Why? Because, at this moment in American political history, the party you identify with trumps -- ahem -- everything else including common decency.

For 25 years, there has been a gradually growing polarization in congress, fueled by many factors. There have been members of congress who have intentionally and strategically worked to fuel those splits -- starting, I'd say, in 1994 with the "Contract with America" and the so-called "Republican Revolution." More broadly, the partisan divide also has been deepened on both sides by cable news networks, social media, and the flood of "dark money" that so profoundly shape electoral politics these days.

This week's proceedings of the Judiciary Committee show the dangerous and damaged state of US politics. It makes me fear that our institutions are unable to function, to provide leadership, or to embody justice when there is no ground left for shared beliefs and genuine debate. The same point was made in a Christian Century editorial a month ago. The editors look back to the political consensus that triggered Nixon's resignation in the face of clear evidence of his obstruction of justice. Then they wrote about this year's impeachment actions:

Will the revelation of the facts sway people's minds, as happened in the Watergate era? The more sobering question in the age of Trump is: Do facts even matter? ... Trump's response to critics is not that the facts will prove him innocent; it's that facts really don't matter, because as president he can do what he wants.

The Christian Century editorial concludes:

... democracy depends on a rough agreement on some facts and a recognition that the rule of law and constitutional order have some definite meaning. Without a horizon of shared truth, politics becomes simply the exercise of brute force, a world in which the only relevant question is who has the muscle to impose their will. This is the world Trump wants us all to inhabit. It is not a world in which democracy can survive.

I fear for our nation when sincere charges about impeachable actions by our president are ignored and trivialized by the president's party, seeking to maintain its political power. To some extent, there are Republican senators who are acting out their own version of Mr. Trump's Ukraine misdeeds: they, and their party, are placing their own political self-interest above the welfare of the country.

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Let me end on a more positive note. Earlier this week, I attended a delightful program sponsored by the Center for the American West, at the University of Colorado. For 90 minutes, two former members of congress from Colorado Republican Bob Beauprez and Democrat Mark Udall -- told stories and shared reflections about their long and deep friendship. Through often contentious differences on legislation, they still worked closely and collegially on many issues. They do seem to have maintained that "horizon of shared truth" which is necessary for functional politics and genuine friendship.

In our churches and our communities, we must foster those values and we must be vocal in decrying the brutal divisions of today's political world. Ministers, for example, can send a pastoral letter to their congregations (maybe a safer approach than a sermon!). Congregations can schedule sessions with politicians, individually or a pair of mixed parties, to talk about common ground and essential facts.

Individuals can write letters to the editor, rejecting the current political tone, and affirming essential values and principles. In conversations with friends and neighbors, we can call a stop to excessive partisan talking points. We can embody genuine care and respect for people with whom we disagree. Individuals (not congregations) can support politicians of conscience if they are "primaried" for breaking with the party line.

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Finally, two brief footnotes:

I've looked at IRS regulations to check on the ability of non-profit organizations to speak about impeachment. I find the statement that "all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office." Impeachment, and the trial which will follow in the senate, are not "elections" and there are no "candidates." Non-profits should be on safe legal ground if they take strong stances. You can follow your pastoral and ethical mandates.

Also, at this contentious time for the US, you may want to take a fresh look at my thoughts from two months ago, "Considering Impeachment with Clear Values." I think the general principles of faith and ethics that I outlined then are still appropriate.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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