Preaching to the Crowd or Preaching to the Choir?

preach to the choir (preach to the converted): Fig. to make one’s case primarily to one’s supporters; to make one’s case only to those people who are present or who are already friendly to the issues.”

Every Sunday morning when I get up to preach, I know that there are at least two different audiences who I am speaking to. The first audience is made up of the converted, those who generally agree with the content — if not the delivery — of the message. I like “preaching to the choir.” I feel affirmed by the hearty “amens” and “preach that Word, Pastor” acclamations that come from time-to-time throughout the sermon. I know that I am on track because of the feedback that I get from those in the congregation. It is much easier to craft a message that will be heard by your supporters than to craft a message that will be heard by your opponents. After all, who wants to step into the lions’ den in the first place?

Politicians are like preachers. And, some preachers are like politicians, but that is a post for another day. In the ongoing battle over the government shutdown, it is tempting for those on both sides of the political aisle to speak only to their most ardent supporters. In today’s gerrymandered districts, most of the “people’s representatives” in the House end up representing those who think like them. The blue districts are getting bluer and the red districts are getting redder. The conservative Democrat and the moderate Republican are virtually extinct.

With the Republican Party tilting further to the right because of the growing influence of the Tea Party, those elected leaders who have identified and voted as “Reagan Conservatives” are now viewed as RINOs by some Tea Party purists, including some right-wing talk show hosts. However, to claim that Charles Krauthammer, a solid conservative, is somehow a liberal — as many commentators on a recent Politico blog post did — or that Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn or Texas Senator John Cornyn, are somehow liberal turncoats because they didn’t agree with the political strategy of freshman Senator Ted Cruz and his Tea Party allies, is insanity. Of course, we are living in crazy (and perilous) times.

When it comes to the government shutdown, the echo chamber has been expanded for both Democrats and Republicans. Negotiation and compromise are both signs of weakness at best, and treason at worst. I never thought I would hear this — much less agree with it — but a solidly conservative businessman, who actually owns and operates successful businesses (as opposed to blowhard politicians who have never held a “real” job or run a business), told me the other day that he missed Teddy Kennedy. Or, at least Ted Kennedy’s ability to bring together opposing factions to craft a bill.

Now, for some, the name of Ted Kennedy is anathema. He was certainly not one of my favorite politicians, but he knew how to get things done in Washington. So did Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan. Anytime you have divided government — like in the 1980s and today — leaders have one of two options:  work until the job gets done and there is acceptable (not perfect) legislation that can be enacted into law OR obstruct at every opportunity because your ideological purity test can never be met.

How can our legislators, whom 60% of the American public (including 67% of those in Republican-held districts) think should be run out-of-town on a rail, turn the tide of public opinion? How can those who have been elected to govern — not pontificate or run for President in 2016 — do the people’s business? According to Chris Matthews, in his new book, “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked,” today’s “leaders” could learn a thing or two about governing from two of the best. It might not cure-all that ails us, but it wouldn’t be a bad place to start:

Why won’t our leaders work to accommodate each other, employing civility as they cooperate to accomplish goals in the country’s best interests? Why must we continue to suffer their relentless gumming up of the works? What in our national character, in the ways we choose to deal with one another and respect different viewpoints, has changed so since the days of Reagan and O’Neill? How can we win back the faith that our republic is working?

Today we have government by tantrum. Rather than true debate, we get the daily threat of filibuster. Shutdowns are engineered as standard procedure. In place of hard-earned statecraft we witness new tricks of the trade. Presidents make “recess” appointments to end-run Senate consent. Tea Partyers in the House of Representatives act as if voting “Nay” constitutes twenty-first-century governance. Democrats in the Senate, for a while, refused to approve the annual budget—withholding consent to skip the embarrassment of admitting dire fiscal reality. Brinkmanship grabs today’s headlines even as public faith dies a little with each disappointing eleventh-hour deal.

What’s to be done? I truly believe it doesn’t have to be this way. And the story I’m about to tell of these two extraordinary figures will show you why. My goal is to bring you the true account of what took place. Our country is less in need of a myth than a real-life account of one imperfect leader dealing with another. It serves no purpose in this time of habitual conflict to spin a tale of happy harmony; far better to illustrate how two very different figures managed to make politics work.

Ronald Reagan was dismissed by his enemies as a Hollywood lightweight, Tip O’Neill as a Tammany-style ward heeler. I refuse to add a third cartoon to those two. The credit for their civility goes not to their off-duty socializing and shared Irish stories: it was their joint loyalty to American self-government. Tip’s oldest son, an elected politician himself, put it best in a 2012 New York Times column: “What both men deplored more than each other’s political philosophy was stalemate, and a country that was so polarized by ideology and party politics that it could not move forward. There were tough words and important disagreements. . . yet a stronger commitment to getting things done.” They respected elections, accepted who had won, knew that duty came with office. It’s all true. I was there. (An excerpt from Chris Matthews’ ‘Tip and The Gipper’)

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