Perhaps you have seen or experienced the fights that occur when two people stop actively loving each other, and instead justify themselves above any other priority. It happens like this. She comments on her day and asks a simple question. He gives a well-intentioned but thoughtlessly hurtful answer. It’s not the first time. She responds in anger. He becomes indignant over her anger. She can’t believe he is indignant. He can’t stand how she ignores his explanations. Neither one can believe they ever married the other. Soon they are in separate bedrooms. Anger fills their hearts, and they do not know their own guilt. Those are not good days.

When they can’t be slowed, controlled, or healed, relationships characterized by this sort of fighting are simply called dysfunctional. The relationship is not doing its job: it is not encouraging the betterment of the participants, it is not moving the unit forward, it is not on a pathway to a better place, and it forces attention inward when it ought to support its members in the outward challenges they face.

It is appropriate, then, that the other place we often use the word dysfunctional is in reference to our government.

Antagonism between the parties is nothing new. George Washington was our first and likely last president for whom the taking of sides was not a necessity. However, it may be difficult to find another period in American history during which the very basics of governance weren’t such a constant strain, where failure loomed so often, and where simple responsibilities were sacrificed so foolishly on the altar of political aggrandizement.

Today we are shut down. Large, valuable portions of the American government are closed for business because we could not agree on a basic spending bill. It is a national embarrassment that begins with leaders who cannot compromise.

To call the political climate dysfunctional is a cliche by this point, but I think it’s an instructive exercise to consider the parallels between our government and an unhealthy relationship.

First, consider how our leaders have exacerbated small problems. They have chosen, time and time again, to take strong stances that matter less than the larger issues of the day. They have held the business of governance hostage so they can argue about positions in areas they know will never be resolved.

Second, our leaders have refused to accept any blame for their part. Far more time is spent attempting to explain why the other side is wrong than is spent actually talking about workable solutions. Each side assumes that the only viable solution is their own, and that the opposition cannot have anything of value to offer.

Third, we have become more focused on petty problems than the larger needs of the country and the world. A government shutdown is an expensive thing, but it does not carry the same weight as questions of extreme poverty, civil war, or repression of minorities. Yet all those problems are happening in our world, and we relegate them to secondary status while we navel gaze a simple spending bill.

Fourth, we have lost the idea of trust in the other. Our extreme inter-connectedness presents us with more options for information and relationship intake than we can possibly pursue. As a result, we tend to pursue those who share views similar to our own. When groups of people self-reinforce their preconceived ideas and have endless support for their view of the world, they close themselves off to new thoughts and wisdom. They become less able to see the truth from any perspective but their own.

Like a husband and wife constantly on the lookout for signs of offense in the other, our leaders have stopped viewing each other as neighbors. Instead, they see each other as enemies to be defeated. This lack of trust invades conversations about legitimate political issues, descriptions of opponents intent, and public discourse on philosophical directions. It is a poison that prevents and restricts the ability to build anew.

I confess that I do not have great hope for our long-term health as a country. Our diversity of opinion and technology’s power to reinforce the borders around individual beliefs and opinions are blocking compromise and the ability to focus on problem solving, which are the traditional solutions to dysfunction. If we cannot easily ride out the small things, we will likely not be prepared to handle the truly great ones.

And yet the hope remains. It is part of the common grace of God that some relationships do come back from dysfunction, do move forward into brighter days. When they do, it is usually because someone decides to act with self-giving love. They decide to forgive. They choose to forbear. They prioritize self-questioning virtue. They display a willingness to grow.

Perhaps you have seen or experienced what happens when two people actively love each other, and seek each other’s good above all else. The relationship is characterized by self-sacrifice and forgiveness. Small annoyances pass without a second thought. Conversations progress toward joy. The participants are refreshed, and prepared, and changed. Love is offered and received. Those are good days.

If those days are our desired goal as citizens, then the great need of our time is to reconsider our own part in creating that kind of a relationship.


  1. Here’s the thing. The Senate passed this unanimously (because Ted Cruz is apparently a coward who can’t be bothered to vote “No” on the very measure he was trying to “filibust”), across both parties. So we know it’s possible for *some* politicians to do their job right.

    And right now, the Democrats and even some Republicans in the House tried to get the funding bill (which I think is good for a few weeks and not even an entire year, and is fairly bare-bones) passed. The President urged it to pass. This wasn’t an Obamacare bill. This wasn’t a 10-year spending plan. This was “let’s keep the lights on for the next few weeks”.

    Everyone except the House Republicans agreed on it. So that kind of *does* plant the fault for the government shutting down straight at their feet. I normally like to blame both parties, but right now, there’s only one group to blame for what happened last night.

    1. I think that’s probably fair, Jon. But like any relationship, often the issue is not the issue. The Republican Party is in a chaotic and extreme place right now, and even as we (rightly) name them as the obstructionist party in this case, I think it’s fair to ask how the party came to this place. I would argue that much of their extremism is a reaction, not merely an independent choice. For all his talk of hope and change, President Obama has proven to be no better than President Bush at choosing positive categories to foster agreement and compromise at the highest level. Indeed, his signature accomplishments all came when Democrats controlled both legislative houses. I suspect that much of the extremism in the Republican party starts with the sense of alienation many conservative Americans feel, and so they elect uncompromising fighters to represent them rather than statesmanly deal-makers. This isn’t to vindicate them, it’s merely to point out that the dysfunction feeds on itself, and likely won’t be solved by spending our time parsing the blame quotient for each individual crisis.

    2. “For all his talk of hope and change, President Obama has proven to be no better than President Bush at choosing positive categories to foster agreement and compromise at the highest level.”

      You’ve got to be kidding me! He is the first black president of the United States because he knows how to bring the nation together. Sadly we have this thing called racism that causes many on the right to unjustly accuse him of things that other presidents would never hear of. Before he was even sworn in Rush L. said he hoped he failed, McDonnell wanted to make him a one term president. Those are tactics of abusive people. They are the ones that need to change not the president.

    3. Well, the opposing party ALWAYS wants to make the President a one-term president. Are you going to suggest the Democrats didn’t want President Bush to be a one-termer?
      And President Obama isn’t the first black president because he knows how to bring the nation together… he’s the first black president becuase he’s a brilliant man, an excellent politician, and the leader of the party currently supported by more Americans. I happen to think quite highly of him. But to suggest that he has managed to unite the parties or factions is quite silly, that hasn’t happened at all (regardless of blame).
      Again, the issue here is that too many people are trying to assign and weigh blame. But no marriage counselor ever achieved succes by saying, “Ok, let’s sit down and figure out EXACTLY which of you two is more to blame, and then we’ll punish that person accordingly, and from then on you’ll have an excellent relationship.” Instead, the focus for both sides needs to be on how they can be more self-giving while still being protective of their constituencies. And if they cannot, Christians can at least model right behaviors by working and worshipping together in ways that look past differences and overcome obstacles.

    4. Funny, all the people I know who are losing their health insurance or having their hours cut because of the Affordable Care Act (can you say Worst-Named Law of All Time?) don’t seem to think quite so highly of President Obama.

      Can’t think why.

    5. It’s probably because people tend to vote with their pocketbook. Unfortunately, there really is no way to govern 315 million people without experiencing negative unintended consequences. Hopefully leaders on both sides of the aisle will realize that their best chance of improved success in governance lies in fostering a more collaborative and less blame-focused atmosphere.

    6. Yes, they do. Especially when having something in their pocketbook means, oh, silly things like having food to eat, and a way to pay the doctor bills.

      Which, oddly enough, is the very thing President Obama once claimed to be all in favor of — the very reason that he pushed this law in the first place.

      Oh well, I suppose he forgot. He’s a busy man.

    7. Yes, and ready to go off on a tour of Asia with his entourage (cha-ching, cha-ching, more tens of millions spent) while Congress is in gridlock. Typical.

    8. I don’t think the President forgot that it is important for people to have food to eat or the ability to pay their medical bills.

    9. Yeah – that “vote with the pocketbook” thing is really a fallacy. Driven by social politics, large groups vote contrary to their financial self-interests.

    10. Even if your assessment of Obama’s leadership capabilities were true, I’m at a loss to understand how you could think so highly of a man who was recently recorded as saying the words “God bless Planned Parenthood” and is even now intending to force through the further expansion of abortion coverage, paid for by your tax dollars and mine, overriding an amendment forbidding that very thing. Even if you knew nothing else about the man, that alone should be enough to give you serious pause (and in fact we do know quite a bit more than that, but I’m just giving it as the single worst illustration of his character).

    11. If the goal of Christian participation in politics is to only support people who live godly lives and agree with all our positions, I’m at a loss how you could support or vote for ANYONE. Trust me, I’ve met them… they’re not anything special.

    12. I’m sorry, I truly don’t mean this to come off sounding rude, but I think you really just don’t get it. There IS a difference between the good guys and the bad guys. Yes, of course all have sinned and fallen short, etc. But at the end of the day, I think it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between someone who values life and someone who doesn’t—someone who has integrity and someone who doesn’t. And I think you know that, in your heart. But because you’re a fan of Obama, for some reason, you’d rather say something glib than admit the truth about him. And that’s too bad. I’m genuinely sorry to see that, because I don’t think YOU’RE a bad guy. You’re just really confused.

    13. I won’t take your comments as rudeness, Esther, just as the statements of someone who is young and passionate. That’s fine. I’m not too worried about your perspective on my understanding of the world. I do feel like if you had the chance to see how my thoughts play out in real life over time, you might speak differently about me. You would also realize that I am not even remotely confused. But even if not I hope you can appreciate that my first intention (despite constant failure!) is always to be God-honoring in my life.

      I certainly do understand the difference between right and wrong. I see sin for what it is, and I have taken significant and drastic measures at various points in my life to name it as such. I am an elder in a conservative, gospel-centered church and I know well what it is to stand for truth without regard for the cost. At the same time, there is room in my world for appreciating people of intelligence and competence and good intention even if I disagree with them on some very important issues, just as I am capable of being very unimpressed with other people whom I agree with completely.

      When I read Scripture, I don’t see Christ agreeing with Caesar’s policies. But I do see him giving unto Caesar what is Caesars, and I do see him calling on his followers to love their enemies, and to pray for even their persecutors. So when I take a step back and encourage two secular political parties (don’t kid yourself about either side being entirely in line with Biblical principles) to take a more forbearing and forgiving approach to conflict resolution, I merely am saying that if there is any hope, it is found in basic Christian principles which Christ articulated 2000 years ago.

    14. What about basic economic good sense? I have friends who think the Bible is a book of myths, yet have enough of that to realize this administration is taking America over a cliff. One of my best friends said to me just the other week, “Whether you’re Democrat or Republican, I hope we can all agree that Obama is terrible.” He makes his living as an economist. He’s also an atheist and a liberal.

      You yourself are very young, and very foolish in a peculiarly youthful sort of way. Look back at this long post you wrote in 2008 to explain why you voted for Obama:

      Are you willing to smack yourself over some, if not most of the logic in that post, even without Obama’s 4-year track record behind us? Half of it was about how McCain was no great shakes and how disappointed you were with the Republican party for not being truly passionate about conservative issues. And you used all that as an argument… for voting Obama? That’s an argument for NOT voting Republican.

      I’m not a registered Republican. I didn’t vote for McCain. I didn’t even vote for Romney. I don’t anticipate casting a vote for either party in the upcoming election. But as someone who shares many of your frustrations with the Republicans, let me tell you something: You don’t go vote for Obama just to stick it to the Republicans, especially when a large part of your complaint with them is that they don’t really care about things like the life issue! What were you thinking? That was a foolish thing to do. Can you not see that by casting your pebble into that well, you helped to elect a man who not only is devoted to blessing and expanding abortion, but uses the Bible to justify sin and has shown complete disregard for Americans’ religious liberty? What “good intentions” do you see in his pursuit of these goals? What integrity do you see in a man who could utter words like these with no trace of shame or irony: “Well, I won, so I’m going to overrule you on that.”

      We could find flattering things to say about Obama if we really tried, but what is the point if the man has no moral compass to speak of? I am not questioning your intention to be God-honoring. But if you can’t see that you were suckered into voting for Obama by empty promises and charisma, you truly are confused.

    15. Esther, there is no expansion of abortion coverage paid for by tax dollars. Where did you get than mistaken information?

    16. Except if you’re using the marriage counselor analogy, at this point we’ve escalated to one partner being, at *minimum*, verbally abusive to the other, if not physically abusive. There *are* situations were “passing blame” is important, because then you know who needs more work to correct their actions (hint, it’s not the spouse who’s getting beaten like a ragdoll).

    17. Jon, in my experience, neither political party is being abused any more or less than the other, though both sides continually view themselves as the victims. So far as I can tell, the millions of people running around the Internet trying to convince people that they are more abused than the other side aren’t very convincing to anyone but themselves and those who already supported them.

    18. In this case the analogy is somewhat flawed, though I’d say at this point the people of the nation are a bit battered by the ridiculous stunts of the government…

    19. You are correct that the opposing party always wants to make the president a one-termer. However, I don’t recall such blatant, over-the-top hateful nastiness when either Ronald Regan, George HW or George W Bush were elected. You didn’t see people waving signs with nazi icons, bones in their noses or ugly “birther” style nonsense. This has gone to a whole new level. If you don’t consider race to be the reason, what do you think it is?

    20. The skinheads and birther loons make up a tiny fraction of the population who disagrees with Obama’s policies and believes he is a poor leader. I would vote for Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas or any number of sane, honest, black candidates with integrity. For the vast majority of us, this isn’t about race at all.

    21. I’m African American and a Republican. I do think my party is being obstructionist in this case, but I think what’s going on in DC is the sign of a larger problem, one that goes beyond left and right. Megan McArdle wrote something yesterday about how we in society no longer have empathy for each other and I think that’s true. We no longer see the other (and in this case the other tends to be someone with a different ideology) as human being, but as something evil, something that can’t be reasoned with. So we assume the worse calling them racists or socialists or what have you instead of trying to understand them. I’m not looking for a kum-bah-yah moment here, but we do need to at least understand where the other is coming from. In the end, we may not agree with them, but we will at least see the humanity in each other.

    22. Dennis – Very well said. I couldn’t agree more. We build up ideological calluses that keep us from truly knowing and understanding others. We should be using technology to seek out a diversity of opinion that was not available to us twenty years ago. Instead, we use it to find our comfortable echo chambers distance us from those who believe differently that we do. Shame on us all.

    23. Obama’s signature accomplishment is a re-hashing of Republican healthcare ideas from the 1990s. The fact that no Republican voted for the Republican healthcare proposal after a black president offered it up is hardly Obama’s fault.

      It is pretty clear what the problem is. And it is not two sides not listening to each other, it is one side digging in and saying “no” to anything Obama offers.

    24. Jon, I totally agree. They are not equally to blame. It’s the Republicans that need a change of heart.

  2. This article is weak and vague, for a number of reasons. Most glaringly, it implies that both sides are acting petty, foolish and blameworthy. This is far from the case. The Republicans are bending over backwards to be as fair and above-board as possible. John Baynor has repeatedly attempted to open conversations with Reid and the Senate, and the Senate has repeatedly rejected them. Contrary to popular myth, it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who are keeping the government closed! Meanwhile, the Obama administration has no intention of abiding by the rule of law, as they’re completely brushing aside the Chris Smith amendment that supposedly prevented federal employees from paying for abortions. The next time I hear a liberal tossing around the phrase “rule of law,” I would like to point at this, smile politely, and simply ask, “Really?”

    Obamacare is an unmitigated disaster for Americans across the country. The harsh realities of what it will mean are already staring us in the face. But Obama’s administration frankly doesn’t care. This battle is fundamentally about whether they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. If the Republicans win this fight and somehow manage to halt this monstrosity, they will ultimately receive the praise that is their due. I just pray that Baynor won’t waver, because Reid sure isn’t going to waver. As I heard somebody put it aptly today, Baynor has a winning hand if only he will play it, while Reid is holding a pair of twos.

    Now, when is S.L. Whitesell going to write something sensible about all this? I’m looking forward to that.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Esther. I do appreciate your correct description of what my article says, though you’ll forgive me for disagreeing with your analysis of its quality. I’m sure Congressman Boehner would appreciate your view of his situation.
      My question to you would be this; even if it were the case that one side is to blame and the other were considerably less so, has arguing about whose blame is greater advanced the conversation or improved the state of the country? When is the right time to advance forgiveness and move toward productivity?

    2. The pursuit of truth will always advance the conversation because it clarifies what the problem truly is. And as long as one side insists on barreling forward with no room for disagreement and no respect for the rule of law, there will be no chance to forgive or move forward towards true productivity.

      When one side is clearly wrong and trying to do something that will harm millions of people, the natural and right course of action is to try to stop that from happening. I don’t really think that general concept should be too controversial, even if you have a different opinion about who’s in the wrong.

    3. Placing blame lets us know who *not* to vote for next year. And who to send angry letters to, if we’re in their constituency.

    4. The problem with saying it’s all the Democrat’s fault misses that a.)Obamacare is only just now rolling out (so saying it’s already an unmitigated disaster is false, it hasn’t had time to be one), b.) many of its provisions (beyond the “you can’t ditch people with pre-existing conditions” and “kids can stay on parents’ insurance until 26”, I believe) don’t fully take effect until January 1, c.) Obamacare was passed in an entirely Constitutional process that follows the proscribed pattern from our founders (Congress makes a law, President passes it, Supreme Court verifies constitutional nature of law), and d.) the budget bill the Senate passed unanimously (including Republicans like John McCain!) doesn’t specifically address the ACA and is solely about keeping the country running for the next few months.

      This whole showdown is because the Republican majority in the House is demanding that a one-year delay be tacked onto the budget bill before they pass it. That’s what this whole fight is about.

      You seem like the sort of person who would pitch a fit about extraneous pork-barrel spending on a bill that, say, helps veterans (as you rightly should, I say!). How is this different? It’s not “repealing” the ACA, it’s not negating it, it’s just a desperate grasp to try and delay it.

      I’m sorry, but this is entirely on the House Republicans. They’re the ones who need to receive angry communications from their constituents, they’re the ones who need to be voted out next year, and if we’re praying for wisdom and guidance from God, maybe we can pray they can stop being so destructively foolish while good men and women are stuck at home unable to work and having little prospect of back pay all while these fat-cats continue to get paid.

    5. Jon, I have more agreement with you on your thoughts here than you might expect… with regard to this one issue. But my larger point is that like a dysfunctional marriage, the problems are not defined by any one issue. For example, I might ask why Republicans are so extreme in this case… and it’s because the people elected some fairly extreme candidates. But why did they do so? Well, one of the major reasons is that when the Democrats held power, they excercised it in a fairly domineering and non-collaborative way (no different than Bush and the Republicans, but they certainly wasted an opportunity to be conciliatory nonetheless). Further, they pursued policy initiatives in a way that completely ignored singificant and valuable contributions from multiple portions of the electorate. This isn’t to excuse or blame anyone, it’s merely to point out that most things are in reaction to something else, and the negative outcomes we are seeing now are a result of a string of negative behaviors on both sides extending back quite a ways. The solution isn’t determining who is more to blame, because neither side has handled unchecked authority well. Instead, the solution is look for qualities of statesmenship, self-giving, and discernment rather than those of victimhood and contentment with unhealthy escalation.

    6. Ben, just wanted to say that you know how to moderate and control a comments section on a website like no other. Great article and excellent discussion. I think your broader view of the issues is a much needed perspective. Problems are not defined by any one issue, but I do think this one deserves a closer look. It did shut down the government after all.

      I do want to challenge your analogy a little on this specific issue. Though I completely agree with your assessment on how we got here, I see the dysfunctional behavior of the House in this particular instance as a temper tantrum.

      As was pointed out by Jon, this is a law that was passed through completely Constitutional methods and has been defended by The Supreme Court.

      You yourself express a hope that eventually we can address issues with greater weight such as extreme poverty, but how successful can any of these attempts be when no matter how democratic the process, there is always a looming threat of defunding? We’re lucky Emancipation wasn’t tied to a budget.

      Temper tantrums do not allow room for discussion. For this particular situation we’re beyond the blame game. Its irrelevant. The discerning person in this type of situation is the one who says, “I know you don’t like this, and I’m sorry, but we’re moving on.”

    7. Thank you for the kind words, Nate. If you and I were to chat in person, I think you would quickly see that I mostly agree with you in this case. But again, the point of the article is to try to get people to see beyond that. Truth be told, this shutdown is not an isolated incident, it’s merely one symptom of an ongoing problem. My desire is to cast some light on the larger contextual problem and the thing that would have to happen to change that larger contextual problem.

      Your point about budget problems driving us away from key priorities is an excellent one. I don’t have a great solution. However, again I feel a climate of greater trust and forbearance would be an important first step.

      As far as the value of deconstructing this particular issue… well, the simple fact is that Republicans are very likely going to pay the price for this one at the polls. The unpopularity of Obamacare, right or wrong, was a massive opportunity for them to shore up their popularity, but instead they have found ways to make themselves less popular than the taxes they hate paying.

      Anyway, thanks for the feedback and helpful points.

    8. Nate, any action taken by the House, the democratically elected representatives of the people, is, by definition, democratic. Up to and including repealing or defunding a law that was democratically passed.

      That doesn’t make it right or wrong – lots of both have been done democratically in our country’s history. And the Republicans might be in the wrong here. But trying to make their actions seem anti-democratic is a nonsensical red herring.

    9. Wrong—we can judge Obamacare based on what the bill itself contains, the new mandates/dictates that are going to be handed down. We can see already that it’s unconstitutional (fining people for not buying insurance—are you kidding?) and economically irresponsible. Economists, doctors, and ordinary American citizens alike are coming together in recognition that this is going to harm the economy, health care, and businesses. Everyone from my atheist liberal friend who makes his living as an economist to the young student who won’t be allowed to put in a 40-hour work week any more. And for all that, Harry Reid had the gall to go on national television and say “It’s going to be great, it’s going to work, and everybody’s going to love it more than they already love it.” Perhaps that’s logically true in the sense that it would hardly be possible for the American people to love it less. Meanwhile, the administration is SPENDING money to shut down the parks, memorials, etc. we’re seeing now. Take Mt. Vernon for example—the parking lot is half privately and half publicly owned. The private owners put on their website that they were leaving Mt. Vernon open to the public, but the government swooped in and blocked off the parking lot to incoming customers, thereby effectively closing the memorial. Do you realize how much it’s costing to pay folks for erecting those signs and building those walls? But Reid and the Senate consider the cost worth it for the political theater.

      The Republicans have repeatedly passed resolutions that would fund these things, among many others. It’s the SENATE who is holding this country hostage while they obsess over Obamacare, not the other way around.

  3. I think you are overreacting. This has always been a part of budget negotiation. There have been 18 shutdowns in the past 35 years. It would certainly be better to pass a budget (something the House has done while the Senate has not even attempted the past four years despite the law that requires them to do so) rather than yet another continuing budget resolution.

    This is not a “tiff” between spouses but between political parties with deep philosophical differences. We have had two other times in our history (maybe three) that this has been the case. Shortly after the founding and the Civil War era. In both cases, one side prevailed. The Jeffersonians (Democrats) prevailed the first time and the antislavery forces (Republicans) prevailed the second time. While I do desire a more polite discourse, I think God might prefer one philosophy to another. I suppose that I will hear about how God does not take sides, but it seems that God may be on one side or another in many of our disagreements. While God is neither Democrat nor Republican, He certainly might have an opinion beyond “can’t we all just get along”.

    1. Well put Brian. I too found that analogy to be trite, and wholly inapplicable. At the end of the day, both parties can’t be right.

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