By Jean Scoon
From the Winter 2007 edition of Saint John's Magazine
Controversial conversations don’t intimidate Gabe Schlabach ’07. He gets right in the middle of them.
When he served on a recent student panel on Family Values, A Political Issue? sponsored by CSB/SJU’s Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement, “I ended up moderating between the extremes of political right and left represented by the other panel members,” he says. “I respect the ends of the political spectrum, but we all have common ground, too. We won’t be eff ective unless we find it and work together from there.”
Schlabach’s religious tradition—he is Mennonite—makes him an unusual candidate for the political fray. Mennonites are pacifist, evangelical Christians, one of several Protestant groups persecuted for their religion during the Reformation. “As a result,” he explains, “Mennonite theology has traditionally rejected politics as a means of pursuing the common good. Mennonites work actively to achieve social justice through mission outreach instead.”
But by the time Schlabach, originally from St. Paul, entered Saint John’s, he had embraced political action as a way to work for justice and was deeply interested in the relationship between religion and politics.
“I understand the Mennonite distrust of politics, but I wasn’t comfortable turning away from politics myself. When I came to Saint John’s, I was looking for a way to bridge politics and religion. Saint John’s helped me find that bridge. I felt like I had been carrying around all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle inside me, and when I came here, they fell into place,” he said.
Schlabach, a political science major, describes himself now as a “Catholic-influenced Mennonite,” and claims he has become both “more Catholic and a better Mennonite” as a result of his experiences here.
“By exploring politics in this Catholic, Christian environment—having discussions on the morality of politics in theology classes, for example—I’ve come to understand more clearly my agreements and disagreements with the Mennonite faith. Catholic social teaching has given me a new framework in which to bridge politics and religion.”
He’s explored these issues beyond the classroom through experiences like the student panel discussion as well as a trip to the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, also sponsored by the Center for Public Policy.
“I was amazed by how different life is for people up there. The economy on the Iron Range is nothing like the rest of Minnesota. Their issues are diff erent. Politics affects people in very diff erent ways depending on their backgrounds,” he said.
Schlabach continues to explore the nexus between religion and politics as he develops his senior honors thesis. His topic is the influence of the Christian Right on politics in the United States, which he is researching by comparing the rhetoric of the Republican Party to its policies. His research so far indicates that, while the rhetoric of the party has echoed the issues of the Christian Right, the party has not actually invested much political capital in these issues.
He hypothesizes that voters who respond to the rhetoric of the Christian Right are being used by the party simply to get votes. “In general, the evangelical tradition’s aversion to politics has often caused evangelicals to be politically naïve and more open to manipulation by political groups. Evangelicals tend to identify more with the Christian Right, so they are more likely to respond positively to that rhetoric. But my evidence so far shows that they are being misled.
“As we go into the next election, I’m concerned that the Democratic Party may try the same approach—using the rhetoric of the Christian Progressive movement to get votes without a sincere commitment to the issues behind the rhetoric. Both parties may end up misusing religion for political purposes.”
After graduation and a year of volunteer service, Schlabach is considering going to law school to prepare for a career in restorative justice. This is a program that works with convicted offenders and their victims following sentencing, providing them an optional mediated process to help reach understanding and forgiveness. “It’s a way to rebuild community,” Schlabach says. Wherever he goes from here, it seems likely that this member of the Sesquicentennial class of Saint John’s University will always be getting in the middle of things, helping us find our common ground.