Chapter 6: The Liberal-Conservative Split in Politics
It is difficult to imagine, when watching political television shows with screaming pundits, that at bottom most of us want similar things. We fight among ourselves precisely because we cherish common ideals, but differ dramatically in our understanding of how best to bring these ideals about. This chapter works to illuminate the deep differences that drive our political fights and argues that one of the key differences between Liberals and Conservatives is the role they envision for traditional institutions: Conservatives tend to support traditional institutions and expect them to preserve cultural values, while Liberals are more apt to question the role of institutions and expect them to be more flexible and tolerant of diversity. Moderates, on the other hand, are sympathetic to both arguments. We see the wisdom of having strong churches, strong schools, and strong political leaders and rightly worry about social entropy. However, as moderates, we also understand the Liberal fear that institutions with too much power, and too great of a reach might trample individual freedoms. Moderates seek a true middle way that cherishes and nurtures strong institutions, and at the same time circumscribes the role of those institutions so as to protect personal liberties.
Chapter 7: Relations between Religion and Society
In political discourse the rhetoric of “church and state” is so prevalent that we sometimes ignore other aspects of society and the ways in which religion may function privately and publicly. This chapter introduces the idea that there are at least three social sectors (governmental, religious, and economic) that interact with one another. Additionally, in each of these domains there is a spectrum of behaviors ranging from the most private to the very public. Many of our most contentious fights have to do with marking the boundaries between one sector and another: How much should government “interfere” in the economy? To what extent should business leaders influence the government? Ought public funds go to support the charitable work of religious institutions? Even as these questions occupy us, we also constantly strive to find the right balance between public and private actions: Religious faith is fine in a candidate, but should public pronouncements of religious belief play a role in campaigns? Does my employer have a right to know my political affiliations? Is voting a private matter, or should ministers examine candidates for office from the pulpit? Once again, moderates often find themselves torn between competing answers to these questions. A clearer understanding of the relevant issues can help us articulate a clearer moderate vision.
Chapter 8: Morality and the Liberal-Conservative Conflict
Not all fights between Liberals and Conservatives are about how best to achieve an agreed upon end. There may be a deeper source of conflict. This chapter introduces some cutting edge research that suggests that Conservative and Liberals may have differently textured styles of moral reasoning. At first glance this might seem like bad news for moderates hoping to find ways of bridging the Liberal-Conservative gap, but the chapter goes on to argue that understanding the real differences between the “thick morality” of Conservatives and the “thin morality” of Liberals is the key to finding ways of forging congregations that tolerate diverse styles of morality. With understanding and empathy we might find ways to prevent genuine differences from becoming outright conflicts.
Early in Lost Chapter 6 we read the following lines.
[W]e fight for what we need and believe. We fight with those who we think can provide what we need and with those who stand in our way of getting it. We fight on behalf of those we care about as well as ourselves. If we weren’t in a liberal versus conservative fight, then we would be fighting over something else. (page 82)
There are many different metaphors for life. Some people think of it as a journey from one point to another, while others conceive of life as a circle returning to itself. The idea that life is a fight, conflict, or battle is a surprisingly popular and flexible metaphor. From hymns (“Onward Christian Soldiers”) to favorite Bible passages (“Put on the Armor of Christ” from Ephesians 6:10-17), Christians have frequently interpreted their lives as a fight – a fight against personal temptation and sin, a fight against the devil, a fight against injustice, a fight against moral and institutional decay, a fight against nature, a fight against secular culture, even a fight against unbelief or unbelievers.
Political ideologies underlie the social and economic systems that help us and our families get the things we need to survive and thrive. In this arena of political ideology, it appears that there is room for sound and responsible opinions that conflict. That’s why there can be good and thoughtful people on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide. It is also why intentional moderates find it imprudent to side decisively and permanently with one side or the other. This chapter tries to identify what is most profound and compelling in the ideological stances of the left and the right. That helps moderates explain why they believe the wise place to be is in the middle, drawing wisdom from both sides.
Most of us are involved in a range of ongoing life struggles, many of which are not necessarily negative. Even political fights are not necessarily harmful. But it would be good to find more productive and less hurtful ways of fighting. We all fight, but most of us could learn to fight more fairly and with less collateral damage.
Where there are relationships there are fights, so take a few moments to become aware of some of the ongoing struggles in which you are involved. Are you and a spouse in the middle of a fight about where to go on vacation, what color to paint a room, or whether in-laws should visit for the holiday? Are you currently fighting with neighbors about property lines or the use of common spaces? Perhaps you are fighting with friends about other friends, or fighting with coworkers about future projects and responsibilities. Maybe you are fighting with a girlfriend or boyfriend about the future of your relationship, or fighting with your kids about their grades and activities. Think of one that you would not mind sharing with the group and consider the following questions and issues.
- Can you tell the group about the fight you are in without shaping and shading your story to reflect your belief that you are right? Try describing the fight you are having in completely neutral language.
- Is your fight serious? How does the seriousness of the fight and the issues involved affect the ways in which you fight?
- What strategies do you use to win fights? How does your relationship with your adversary affect the strategies that you deem appropriate?
- What kinds of fights are worth the effort? What fights might you consider losing, or avoiding, in order to avoid harmful consequences?
- Are there any ways of fighting that consistently yield “good results” regardless of who wins or loses?
Certainly some fights and issues are worth fighting hard for, perhaps even to the point of physically fighting to defend oneself, one’s family, or one’s nation. However, since fighting is so common in human life, most of us recognize that there are many situations in which it is more important to fight in a civil and respectful manner than it is to win. Most church fights (and these are common as well) fall into this latter category. But fighting fair in church is not easy. And refusing to fight or just letting one’s religious opponents win is not always wise.
One of the most powerful prophetic and political movements in American history has been the fight for and against slavery, racial segregation and oppression, and the corresponding fight for and against civil rights. If Christians had not been so successful in rationalizing first slavery and then segregation, framing it as a battle against their religious and secular opponents in the name of implementing God’s supposed will for African people, would these practices have lasted as long as they did? If other Christians had not been able to conceive of the abolition and civil rights movements as fights against evil, oppression, and injustice, would these prophetic movements have had the same power?
It seems that conceiving of a movement as a fight for an ideal and against a dastardly enemy tends to galvanize people for action. This galvanizing can be for good and bad ends, as the slavery and civil-rights example suggests; the churches have been on both sides of that issue. Galvanizing works because we are biologically primed for fighting; thinking we have to fight energizes us and makes us more determined and willing to sacrifice. Might it be possible to transcend personal, social, religious, and military fighting altogether? Could we somehow just leave it all behind?
In the section entitled “The Sociology of Political Fights” we encounter the notion that fighting itself may be unavoidable. It is not “as if we could just stop by putting our minds to it, like children fighting over toys: There really is something to fight over here.” As Chapter 6 argues, fighting is necessary because the world is complex and supports opposed value systems. But the chapter also argues that there are better and worse things to fight about, and better and worse ways of fighting. As Christians we are called to fight for and against certain things, but perhaps more importantly we are required to fight in the right way.
It is especially important for moderate Christians to understand the sociology of the basic fight between conservatives and liberals. Empathy – understanding the feelings and motivations of others – is essential to realize the moderate goal of fighting graciously and intelligently. Can we shelve the rhetoric, locate some of the deeper emotional and sociological motivations, and empathize with the basic liberal and conservative positions?
Throughout Part III of Lost, which is entitled “A Cultural Divide in American Christianity,” the emphasis is on key differences between liberals and conservatives: different institutional expectations (Chapter 6), different understandings of church-state relations (Chapter 7), and different styles of moral reasoning (Chapter 8). The reason for highlighting these differences is not to consolidate them, but rather to expose and explain them so that liberals, conservatives, and moderates might begin a process of empathizing with one another. This will not suddenly cause everyone to stop fighting; but we may hope that such empathy will lead to more productive fights that yield feasible solutions rather than merely prideful winners and resentful losers. We may hope too that understanding, even if it does not lead to agreement, might put an end to unhelpful caricatures and destructive rhetorical attacks.
What do you think are the political and institutional connotations of “liberal”
- among your colleagues?
- in your extended family?
- in your church?
What do you think are the political and institutional connotations of “conservative”
- among your colleagues?
- in your extended family?
- in your church?
Chapter 6 argues that one of most important differences between liberals and conservatives is their differing attitudes toward institutions, both church institutions and civic institutions. The political and institutional connotations of “liberal” and “conservative” change over the decades. At a deep level, however, the terms represent two relatively stable positions. Liberals and conservatives tend to agree that stable institutions are crucial for human flourishing and that individual freedoms should be preserved within the institutional frameworks of governments and churches. They differ on how to strike the proper balance between institutional stability and individual liberty. In general, conservatives value strong institutions as a means of preserving the stability, cohesion, and moral character of society and worry about the corrosive influence of chaotic individualism and moral license. Conversely, liberals, in general, worry about the oppressive and coercive potential of institutions and value individual liberties as the means of preserving creativity, free inquiry, and the moral character of society. Intentional moderates want to strike a deliberate balance between the two opposed emphases.
The characterizations of liberals and conservatives offered in Chapter 6 are ideals. In practice, political conservatives in the United States are rarely wholly conservative. Many politicians who characterize themselves as conservatives embody the conservative ideal insofar as they support a robust military, strong churches, and effective law enforcement, but they exemplify the liberal ideal of personal autonomy over against institutional control when they champion free markets. Conversely, political liberals who champion civil rights sometimes also embody conservative ideals as when they emphasize the need for strong educational institutions. In practice, the day to day realities in both civic and church institutions often produce political pragmatists who are neither strictly conservative nor strictly liberal. Intentional moderates make huge gains in empathy and self-understanding when they learn to recognize the ideological forces at work beneath political fashions and changing policies.
Get Caught Up
Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)
This week’s homework is closely linked to the study group’s scripture reading from Acts (see below). While you don’t need to read the Acts passage now, it is important that you do the homework in preparation for discussing the scripture reading.
Take some time this week to skim through several chapters of the book of Leviticus. As you skim pay special attention to verses that mention purity or impurity, cleanliness or uncleanliness. You may even want to consider working backward through the text, skimming only the even or odd numbered chapters, or picking several chapters at random to read more closely. Take notes of what you find and bring them with you to your discussion group.
Homework Discussion (during group meeting)
This week’s homework assignment asked you to skim the book of Leviticus and gather references to purity, impurity, cleanliness, and uncleanliness. Take some time now in the group to share your results with one another.
- Did any common themes emerge as to what constitutes impure or unclean things and behaviors?
- What possible remedies were offered?
- Do you share the assessment of Leviticus about all of these things and behaviors or do you find some of the characterizations puzzling? Which ones?
After sharing your findings with one another and discussing them, read together Acts 10.
Bible Reading: Acts 10
1 Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort,
2 a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually.
3 About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in and said to him, “Cornelius!”
4 And fixing his gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.
5 “Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter;
6 he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea.”
7 When the angel who was speaking to him had left, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were his personal attendants,
8 and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
9 On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray.
10 But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance;
11 and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground,
12 and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air.
13 A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!”
14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.”
15 Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.”
16 This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.
17 Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon’s house, appeared at the gate;
18 and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there.
19 While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you.
20 “But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself.”
21 Peter went down to the men and said, “Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?”
22 They said, “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you.”
23 So he invited them in and gave them lodging.
Peter at Caesarea
And on the next day he got up and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him.
24 On the following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them and had called together his relatives and close friends.
25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshiped him.
26 But Peter raised him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am just a man.”
27 As he talked with him, he entered and found many people assembled.
28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.
29 “That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. So I ask for what reason you have sent for me.”
30 Cornelius said, “Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments,
31 and he said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God.
32 ‘Therefore send to Joppa and invite Simon, who is also called Peter, to come to you; he is staying at the house of Simon the tanner by the sea.’
33 “So I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”
Gentiles Hear Good News
34 Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality,
35 but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.
36 “The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)–
37 you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed.
38 “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.
39 “We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross.
40 “God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible,
41 not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead.
42 “And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead.
43 “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.
45 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.
46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered,
47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?”
48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
Christian theologians have sometimes turned to this passage to explain why it is that Christians no longer follow many of the prohibitions of the Hebrew Bible. God does not show favoritism – at least not any longer – and thanks to the ministry of Jesus, God’s grace is now available to all people who honor God and do what is right. Thus Peter, a Jew, is permitted to eat previously unclean animals and to associate with Gentiles and to dine with them. In several places the Apostle Paul seems to suggest that Jews should keep the laws of the Torah if they desire, but that Gentiles are not subject to them. The net effect of this tendency in Christian history is for Christian doctrine and history generally to ignore biblical food prohibitions. Doctrinally then, all foods are clean.
One way of understanding this aspect of Christianity is to see it as a move toward liberalism, as the earliest Christians, who were all Jews, learned to deactivate their intuitive moral repulsion to eating certain foods, and allowed their intuition toward fairness to overcome their intuition towards purity and group loyalty. Think for a moment how you might feel if you were asked to dine with a family that was eating dog or guinea pig, two popular sources of protein in many parts of the world. Peter and other early Christians would likely have felt the same way as they dined with early Gentile Christians on shell fish or pork.
This culturally courageous and unlikely act of generosity may have been the most important development in Christian history. Had Paul, Peter and many other unnamed Jewish Christians of the time, not found ways of making the quintessential liberal decision to fight their initial reactions of revulsion and to allow their intuitive love of fairness and Gospel inclusiveness to win out, it is likely that Christianity would have lived and died as a provincial Jewish sect.
In Chapter 7 we read about a congregation that is facing some growing pains (97-99). As the town grows, more families are joining the church. However, while these families bring new energy to the church, they are also subtly (and unintentionally) changing the church’s dynamic and focus. The long-time members have come to expect sermons and programs that focus almost exclusively on social justice. They have noticed that the preachers and leaders, while not rejecting social justice, pay increasing attention to the spiritual growth and personal piety of the congregation. This new emphasis reflects the needs and interests of the new church members. The church’s staff and resources are finite, so as the ministers preach and teach more on personal spiritual discipline, they necessarily preach and teach less on traditional social justice issues.
One way of interpreting the situation in this church is by focusing on the issue of religious relevance. The long-time members of the church tend to see a significant overlap in issues of religious, economic and political concern. To them, it is obviously religiously relevant that we pay attention to the source of our coffee and the fuel efficiency of our vehicles. To them, it is religiously vital that the congregational statement of faith include language about third-world debt relief, the expansion of civil rights, and condemning the influence of the military-industrial complex on U.S. foreign policy. These same members are puzzled by sermons that focus on personal piety, prayer, Bible study, and the role of Jesus as supportive companion in times of stress. At best, they argue, these are means to the real religious end of social justice for all; at worst they are self-indulgent distractions from the task of realizing the Kingdom of God.
The newer members of the church tend to be younger, have young children, and are relatively more conservative than the older members. They value the social justice commitments of the church, and in fact some of them were drawn to the church because of these commitments. But they also bring with them a desire to cultivate personal piety and to develop a deeper relationship with God that makes a difference within their families. They have friends who attend more charismatic churches and they want to find ways of bringing some of this spiritual energy into the church’s worship. Perhaps most importantly, they have young children and teenagers, and they want to be sure that their kids receive strong religious and ethical training through the church’s educational and youth programs. To them, encountering God in prayer and song is obviously religiously significant. Of course strong bonds between family members are religiously important. Of course it is important that our statement of faith include strong language in support of families and regarding the central role of Jesus Christ and the Bible in a Christian lifestyle. These newer members would be puzzled by sermons that focus on technical issues of foreign policy and events in countries and boardrooms far away. The most pressing religious issues for them are the spiritual meaning of their lives, the moral and emotional growth of their families, and the safety of their community. Social justice is wonderful, but it is not their sole or central religious concern.
Is this congregation doomed? Must one side “win” or convert the other side to its cause if they are to go forward in unity? Might the church be better off splitting up?
Chapter 7 argues that complete unity of Christians across the ideological and theological spectrum is not practical. The far right edge of feasible Christian moderate togetherness cannot reach as far as authoritarian biblical literalism, while the far left edge cannot go so far as to decentralize Jesus Christ. Biblical literalists and Christians for whom Jesus Christ is peripheral are welcome in moderate congregations but should not be allowed to determine the identity of those congregations, or the ideal of radically inclusive Christ-centeredness will be lost.
Based on this delineation of a feasible moderate church community, many in our test case congregation push up against the left-most boundary, while a growing segment find themselves squarely in the middle. What strategies might the church’s minister use in order to hold together such a diverse group?
Based on the limited information provided in this test case, is this a liberal-evangelical or intentionally moderate congregation? If not, what would it take to become one? If so, how might articulating this identity serve the congregation?
For Further Thought
Part III of Lost argues that three of the most important differences between liberals and conservatives involve (1) their different expectations of institutions, (2) their different understanding of the ideal relationship between religious and governmental institutions, and (3) their differing strategies for balancing moral intuitions. These differences are real, and a frank expression of them may cause some moderates to despair of ever finding a compelling middle way. The far right and far left each have charismatic spokespeople and can articulate visions of how to shape a better world, while moderates may feel that we are left trying to cobble together a coherent position from the scraps that fall from the liberal and conservative tables.
Part III argues that this conclusion is a mistake. We should not see ourselves as occupying unstable territory between socially viable but warring powers. On the contrary, moderates are capable of recognizing what is good, true, and valuable in the extremes without having to deny the other end of the spectrum. We are well placed to take advantage of the embarrassment of riches that God’s good creation provides for us.
On the issue of institutional expectations the far left trumpets liberty while the right calls for respect for traditional values. The moderate need not decide between incompatible options but can recognize the value of both and the need for balance. Taking up the moderate stance, how would you articulate the value of institutions and the value of liberty? How would you suggest that we maintain a living balance between these two goods?
On the issue of the relationship between government and religion the right works to unify the two spheres while the left works to keep them sealed off from one another. Moderates, by contrast, can recognize that the boundary between these two is frequently permeable while affirming the importance of some degree of separation. Taking up the moderate stance, how would you articulate the proper relationship between religion and society?
On the issue of moral reasoning the right works to bring all of our moral intuitions to bear on every situation, while the left works to deactivate the concern for purity, in-group attachment, and hierarchical authority. Moderates are free to recognize (with liberals) the need to apply our moral intuitions with care, and (with conservatives) still find a place for in-group loyalty, ritual purity, and respect for traditional authorities. Taking up the moderate stance, how would you work to balance our moral intuitions in a way that does not simply discard some of our intuitive and emotional responses as necessarily outdated or evil?
For moderates, the worst case scenario is moral, organizational, and ideological paralysis. We cannot allow the cultural divide in American Christianity to define us as non-players or non-entities simply because we not fit the mold of far left crusaders or far right demagogues. Intentional moderation is a principled stance with a long and honorable tradition. As we work to extricate ourselves from the cultural dominance of the liberal-conservative conflict we can discover our heritage as moderate Christians and liberal-evangelicals.
Lord God, we thank you for your Holy Spirit who guides us through the maze of our powerful moral intuitions.
You have made us in your image, made us to know good from bad and right from wrong, but you have also given us reason, tradition, and the Holy Spirit as sources of guidance so that we might best exercise our gifts and not allow them to rule over us and corrupt us.
Help us to be good. Help us to recognize goodness when we see it.
Give us wisdom to know when our moral reactions should be turned into action for the Kingdom of God and when they should be curtailed for the sake of your creation and the love of your children, our sisters and brothers.
Help us, as moderates, to act with compassion for everyone, and to empathize with those on both sides who oppose one another.
Give us vision and wisdom to share.
In Jesus’ name we pray.