I talked with Congressman Geoff Davis in two conversations over a weekend- firstly by phone, and then, with his wife Pat at a coffee shop on Sunday morning. And we also spoke when we met in his office in Washington DC and he took myself and my family on a tour of the Capitol.
Geoff Davis is happy to acknowledge that he is a person of faith. He became a Christian during Army service. He and his wife are members of a large evangelical church, and he has served numerous churches and ministries as a lay preacher and counsellor. Our discussions centred on the relations of faith and politics, and, more widely, culture.
For Davis, Christians are not called to do something, but are called to be more conformed to Christ. Yet the beatitudes are a programme not just for personal, but corporate transformation. In politics, it’s still possible to meet the people Jesus had to contend with. When the church is not in balance, Conservatives, he suggested, were like the Pharisees, and Liberals like the Zealots- but both are needed in a healthy society! Yet the Conservative church in America focuses almost exclusively on the spiritual transformation of the individual, neglecting the transformation of the community, while liberals in the church are too often unconcerned with the formation of Christ-like character.
Davis spoke of his understanding of how Christianity stands over and against political and cultural life. Davis thinks that God- the Christian Gospel- challenges all culture. However, all too often we use God to prop up our all-too-human traditions, so that Christianity becomes a wrapping for ‘worldly’ ideas. Of course there are believing Christians in both the big US parties (perhaps more in Republican party, he thinks). However, politicians are too often waylaid by philosophies and ideas which are less than Christian- this is their temptation of putting the ‘flesh’ before the ‘Spirit’. They will create policy to suit ‘Christian’ presuppositions, presupposition which are perhaps not rooted in the Gospel at all. It doesn’t help that the churches often mislead policy-makers with their lobbying, which may be based on false theological assumptions. The Christian community, says Davis, often worries about conspiracies which are quite irrelevant. And they will claim to have special knowledge which is often misleading.
He spoke of the way his Christian faith motivated his political engagement. He feels blessed by God, he said, to have been able to give thirty years of service to his country, in the military and in politics. Following his election to Congress, he was able to experience the diversity of life in Washington DC, since his fellow Congressmen and Women come from across the country and across the political spectrum.
Davis shared with me some of his approach to politics. He’s an experienced party politician, having been involved in fierce election contests in which a lot of money was spent. Yet he told me he values pragmatism. He’s been happy to build alliances, across political and party divides, in order to achieve good policy- what he describes as ‘putting policy before politics’. As chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Resources on the powerful Committee on Ways and Means, he worked on making practical changes in the administration of and reform welfare programmes, using friendships with Congress members of very different political and persuasions to make real reforms in welfare programmes which command assent across the ideological barriers. But progress can be made through pragmatism: ‘You should change position because of what you have come to know’ he told me.
There is an impasse in politics in the US at the moment- perhaps inevitable in the months leading up to a General Election, and when there is Republican majority in Congress and a Democratic presidency. During my trip I heard a great deal about the impatience which many ordinary people in the US feel towards the Washington politicians who seem to doing nothing but blocking each other, even in the midst of a severe recession (one opinion poll suggested that the approval rating for Congress was lower than that of President Richard Nixon just before he resigned!). Davis’s reply to that was that Washington divided because the country is divided. The processes seem broken. He suggested that there was a need to change the dialogue. He felt that there were possibilities of bringing together conservative and liberal members of Congress, as he had found when he had been able to do to enact new measures with cross-party support.
Davis’s political interests included poverty and national security. He worries that welfare programmes- often known in the US as entitlement programs- are not well administered by government, with a lot of waste built into them. He wonders if looking after the poor is something which the Church ought to be responsible for. What if Christians tithed and gave more of their money to the Church? Then, if Church did it’s job of caring for the poor, the government’s role in welfare wouldn’t be needed! He was taking an interest in current attempts to reform the benefits system in this country, and was involved in dialogue with people from the UK; he had invited Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to testify before the committee on the UK government’s welfare reforms (he did so on 27 June: see http://www.dwp.gov.uk/newsroom/ministers-speeches/2012/27-06-12.shtml).
On national security, he pondered some of Jesus’ words. Christ calls on his followers to avoid violence: we are to turn the other cheek. But on the other hands, he also said he came not bringing peace, but a sword. Is there a contradiction here, in having an interest in military matters? Davis has had people call him a ‘baby killer’ because he was once a US Army Ranger. He concluded that an answer to these difficult contradictions must be found in a belief in God’s sovereignty and grace.
Davis is on record as supporting the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq. However, he told me that he now believed that the Iraq war was not necessary- it based on false presuppositions. He’d been disappointed to discover just how little planning had been done for post-war reconstruction in Iraq, and as a military man had strong words for those around Bush who had planned and carried out the war.
As mentioned in my earlier post, I had got to know Davis through having met his wife, Pat, at a meeting to organise a trip to the US by a Palestinian Christian. Both of them are passionate about telling people the truth about the broader human dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Davis shared that only one narrative of the situation in the region is presented to political leaders and the majority of ordinary Americans (see note below).
As a conservative- both politically and religiously- Davis nonetheless thought that this dominant narrative needed to be challenged. As someone who had served in military in the Middle East, and who had studied the Palestine/Israel conflict, he believed that it was time more attention was paid to the situation of the Palestinian people. The conservative Churches were offering policy-makers theologically unsound advice on the issue- always pleading for support for Israel, and showing little interest in- or even hostility- to Palestinians. Davis told me that he had tried to look anew at the Israel and Palestine from point of view of Word of God. He suggested that the Holy Land today is not so very different from Jesus’ day- it’s a land under occupation and riddled with conflicts. Davis told me he had given radio interviews on the subject to combined audiences of nearly 1 million people I his local area (which prompted few calls of complaint).
Davis pleaded for Churches not to offer politicians policies based on unrealistic theologies; instead they should speak the truth, and begin with what is actually happening on the ground. If more American properly understood these facts, perhaps, the tone of the debate would shift, to the advantage of all parties concerned. It will be interesting to see how Davis continues to engage with this controversy now that he is no longer in front-line politics.
Davis’s plea for truth-telling by the Churches helped to crystallize for me a key issue for the Churches’ engagement with politics. Instead of offering abstract theological or ethical theories, the best kind of truth-telling would be when the Churches are able to use what specialized knowledge they have about the effects of public policy and bring that to the table. Often this will be the voices of persons often marginalised by standard political discourse. In the case of Israel/Palestine, Christians on the ground in the area are well-placed to speak of the reality of the situation. This is what is being attempted by the tour of Midwestern Churches by the Palestinian Christian, Sami Awad. Another source which occurs to me is the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme of the World Council of Churches, which monitors the situation in Israel.
On domestic policy, I’d just been meeting with people who had been trying to bring the voices of the poor to bear in Washington. In Scotland, the Poverty Truth Commission has been sponsored by the Churches in order to bring policy-makers and those who live with poverty. perhaps it is a sign of the value which our media think important that this Commission has had so little publicity. Davis spoke passionately of the problems which result when politicians try to make decisions based on false or incomplete information. The Church, he was suggesting, should not add to the fog of misinformation, often inspired by bad theology, or from sources which profit from a one-sided view of the matter, but should speak the truth to politicians, rooted in Scriptural truth and in Christ’s love.
I had hoped that I might have an opportunity to hear how a working politicians feels about the churches’ advocacy work, so I was fortunate indeed to meet Pat and Geoff Davis. It was fascinating and challenging to make the acquaintance of a politician whose own politics are quite different from my own. It has added a great deal to my study leave, and left me reflecting on the ways I interact with politicians on a personal level. So I’m very grateful to Congressman Davis for giving so generously of this time and taking an interest in my work.
My own understanding of the ‘dominant narrative’ mentioned above is as follows: most Americans are largely favourable to Israel and had little understanding of the plight of the Palestinian people. In Washington, this narrative ‘crosses the aisle’ to dominate thinking in both parties. On the Republican side, it is pushed by the Christian right, who assert that Israel ought to be supported by the US in almost any circumstance. The Democratic party, on the other hand, is the traditional home of the Jewish community, who also find it hard to countenance any criticism of the State of Israel.