And When is Partisan Really Partisan?

Have you been called partisan recently? I think it happens to me about five times a day. Either in an e-mail, or a comment, or, worse, in an e-mail about my alleged partisanship which is sent to my boss… or to just random people at my work with important-sounding titles, people who could probably get me in trouble. I get called “partisan” a lot.

Though I don’t like being labeled that way, I don’t mind as much as I used to. You see, the word “partisan” actually has a definition, one that precludes people from using it the way most of them do. Let me explain.

According to Merriam-Webster, “partisan” refers to

“a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause or person; especially one exhibiting blind, prejudiced and unreasoning allegiance.”

The word can also refer to a soldier on a particular side in a war, but since I’m not in the habit of being seen publicly wearing fatigues and toting semi-automatic weapons whilst dangling a machete from my belt and chomping on a half-smoked cigar, I’m guessing that my critics are referring to the above definition.

So let’s be clear. Based on that definition, one’s not partisan just because they are a card-carrying member of this or that group. And it’s not just that one is taking a stand, or defending their beliefs. If it were, then arguing in favor of the right to life would be considered partisan, and…well… I suppose it is to some, which is just my point. People don’t use the word correctly.

But if just standing up for what you believed in were partisan then everyone is partisan and the word is meaningless.  Rather, according to the definition above, it’s the “blind, prejudiced and unreasoning” aspect of the thing that makes the word a suitable epithet. It’s the fact that one adheres to a group or idea with such unreasonable zeal or without even bothering to consider the opposing view that makes one partisan.

So here’s the first important point: What makes one partisan is the interior mechanism by which one stays loyal to a group or idea or person. It is not, I repeat NOT, about the effects that one’s position or statement or action might have on another group.

I’ve been called partisan for my criticism of the HHS Mandate. To what am I adhering with such blind unreasonableness? Well, there’s the rub. The critics can’t believe that it’s the faith to which I’m holding fast. It cannot possibly be the teaching of Vatican II which tells us that

“all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”Dignitatis humanae #2

No no. My critics have to presume that my speech at our local Fortnight for Freedom Rally or my articles on the subject here at and the rest is actually motivated by a blind, unthinking prejudice against President Obama the candidate or for the Republican Party. Yes, that has to be it. It can’t be about what I actually say and write.

Now how do my critics have this prescient understanding of my inner thoughts, wants and desires? Well they figure that because the effect of my efforts could be negative for the Obama campaign …well then, ipso facto, it is partisan activity.

That some of the things I and other have said and written might have a negative effect for the White House is probably true. This is why the mainstream media didn’t report on the Fortnight. But again, that there is a negative effect doesn’t make something partisan. Please see the definition above.

Look, the struggle for civil rights was a human issue that had obvious political ramifications, but would anyone claim that the Rev. Martin Luther King was being partisan because one party was for segregation and the other was not?

This is not to compare the abuses against African-Americans to what is happening to Catholics here and now, but that’s neither here nor there. The principle to which the bishops are appealing through the Fortnight and other venues is the same one used by Rev. King and the very same one to which I appeal when criticizing the HHS Mandate. The principle is the freedom of conscience. So it doesn’t matter which party adheres to what. What matters is that we human beings have a dignity that demands our standing up for the truth.

This is no good for the critics. I’m still a partisan because my principled stand negatively affects one party over another. Indeed, this has been a common claim against the bishops and many pro-life Catholics over the years. Doug Kmiec referred to Catholic Answers as “Republican Faith Partisans” because their “non-negotiable” issues lined up with the Republican Party platform.

Now, I personally believe that Catholic Answers should have included torture in that list of non-negotiables, but calling Catholic Answers partisan ignores the possibility that those issues are IN FACT non-negotiable. Who cares how it affects a political party? It’s not our job as Catholics to prop up the Republican Party or to defend the Democratic Party. Our job is to stay true to the teaching of the Church for the sake of the common good, and if the common good demands that we defend unborn life, marriage, embryonic life, the elderly and the ill, as well as the integrity of humanity against cloning… well then… that’s what the common good demands.

What if there were a political party that were against allowing, oh… I don’t know… against allowing Jews to vote for instance, and the other party had no problem with Jewish suffrage, would it be partisan to defend the Jew’s right to self determination through the political process? Is it the defender’s fault that one political party has defined itself as being anti-Semitic? Why is one side partisan because the other side choses issues that stand diametrically opposed to the Church’s teaching?

See, I get nervous when Catholic pundits start making the argument that we should all just keep our traps shut lest something we say might look bad for one particular party.

The fact of the matter is that it is the Obama administration and the Democratic Party that has chosen these issues at this time. To say that the bishops are at fault for defending our basic human right is to blame the victim and then to accuse them of slander for daring to point out the abuse. Or it’s like this: it would be like accusing Pope John Paul II of partisanship for decrying war before and after the U.S. started to attack Iraq. It may be a lot of things, but it ain’t partisan.

Now some other of my critics say that 501(c)3’s like the Catholic Church are barred from lobbying. Decrying the HHS Mandate at an event sponsored by the Church as I did is lobbying and verboten – as the Germans would say. And to this one just has to say, “Phooey.”

The truth is that non-profits are allowed to lobby for or against particular legislative issues. The IRS says that (c)3’s are not allowed to devote “a substantial part” of their activities to lobbying, and they are not allowed to support or attack a particular candidate. But non-profits like the Church can indeed lobby through grassroots efforts for or against laws, and this is what the Church is doing now.

To claim that the Church is being partisan for lobbying is to ignore the rules of the IRS and it is limiting the Church’s free speech… and of course it is still using the word incorrectly.

Another argument I’ve heard goes something like this: well I agree with you Omar – if that’s your real name – but we critics are more worried with the practical effect of your choices here. You might be defending the faith. But the point is that you appear to be partisan, and that perception is hurting the Church and driving Catholics away.

Yes…well… here’s another truism for you: perception is NOT reality. Reality is reality. This is sacrilege in a media-driven world, I know, but I don’t care. I understand that no one wants bravado when it comes to defending a position. When more measured and accurate language will suffice, extreme rhetoric can lead people to conclude that one is partisan. It is true that we should try to be measured. But the idea that our fear for how our society thinks of us should keep us quiet about a fundamental injustice is asinine. What happened to speaking truth to power, after all?

As for the notion that I and others are driving Catholics away, I just have to ask, “Which Catholics?” About only a third of American, self-described Catholics attend Mass with weekly regularity… and that’s being optimistic. It seems there are a lot of Catholics who aren’t practicing already, that is before I even bothered to have my first cup of coffee this morning, much less started spouting partisan rhetoric… as is apparently my wont, if you believe me critics.

Interestingly, many of the same critics had no problem with the bishops lobbying for the reduction of nuclear arms. Yesterday’s bishops were being prophetic but today’s bishops are partisan. Frankly, that smacks of partisanship itself.

No, I say it is the critics that are partisan. The defining characteristic of being partisan is not that you stand up for something. It is not just being firm about a cause or a movement or faction that happens to have political ramifications. It is certainly not vying against a law you consider unjust. It’s the “blind, prejudiced and unreasoning allegiance” to something.

With that perspective in mind, notice that these critics tend to have been vocal supporters of the Obama administration, men and women who often do not agree with the Church’s teaching on contraception or even that it is the bishops’ responsibility to guard that teaching. I think it is either an unreasoning allegiance to the Democratic Party or against the Republican that has caused these critics to be blind to the strictures on religion in our culture and increasingly in the law?

I see non-Catholics, and Democrats, and people of nearly every political and religious stripe say publicly that the Obama administration is violating religious freedom. Yet there are still Catholics out there who cry “partisanship.” How so? Even William Galston thinks the HHS Mandate violates the bipartisan Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993, and he used to work for the Clinton Administration. Does anyone recall the Hosanna-Tabor case which the administration lost 9-0? What can it be but partisanship that keeps these critics from seeing a pattern of attack against our religious freedom?

Sorry, but that kind of “unreasoning allegiance” to the Democratic Party or against the Republican Party is the very definition of partisanship, and it should be abandoned. I’d say the same to those who similarly defend the Republican Party over the Democratic as well, by the way… which is probably why I’m so often called a liberal, leftist nut too. At any rate, when it is these folks that call me “partisan” several times over, before I’ve even had a chance to check the box scores that day, I don’t mind so much…not anymore.

Now, if the matter were about the unassailable fact of the evil that is the New York Yankees, well then… that makes more sense, I’m waaaaay partisan there. Go Tribe.



  • John

    Omar, for all that you attempt to make some good points about the errors of partisanship, I think your viewpoint falls rather flat.

    Simply put, I think it rather foolish to insist that you or other Catholics, bishops in particular, have avoided partisanship. I think an honest examination of the record of the past 30 or 40 years demonstrates otherwise rather clearly. Though you, bishops, and other Catholics will (often) argue firmly against abortion, “safe” sex education, same-sex marriage, and contraception, the official view of the Catholic Church, at least here in America, tends toward stubborn contempt for any view that’s not darn near in lock-step with the Democratic Party agenda.

    If the Church had even publicly considered any idea that a Republican might offer, especially those ideas dealing with economics, She might have a chance.

    As things stand, I typically assume that I may as well keep my mouth shut with regard to almost anything important in this country. Our active Catholic hierarchy will almost certainly dismiss it as the typical conservative rubbish that’s bound for infamy anyway.



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