If you’re a fan of George Will you probably don’t come to LiberalEvangelical.org expecting to find fellow sympathetic readers of your favorite Washington Times columnist. Will is one of the more respected conservative voices in Washington, a regular on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, as well as a famously curmudgeonly proponent of baseball purism. He has also long been one of my favorite columnists, not so much because of what he argues, but because of how he argues. His columns are some of the most historically nuanced pieces you will find because he strives to put contemporary issues in larger historical perspective, often going back centuries to build up a case.
With this in mind, I want to recommend a recent column of his. Actually, I’d really like to just call a single paragraph to your attention. This is the link. Take a moment and read the first paragraph: I’ll wait here for you to finish!
First off, I should apologize to conservatives for citing Will only now when he is supporting a more progressive view of immigration reform. However, I want to focus our attention on the larger fact that he points out. Conservatives who are worrying about sealing the border NOW, are desperately working to answer a question that nobody is asking. It’s like putting the broccoli in your refrigerator under lock and key so that your teenagers don’t eat it, but leaving the liquor cabinet wide open. We’re striving to solve a problem that no longer threatens us, spending billions to salve a wound that has already healed.
Years ago when we were looking for a Protestant church after we had just moved, one of the things that amazed me besides the rows and row of empty pews in the mainline denominations’ sanctuaries, was the degree to which the few parishioners we spoke with were eager to show off the achievements and accomplishments of their congregations. They would beam with pride as they described the history of the stained glass windows, or outlined the financial strength of the centuries old endowment that kept the lights on and the bills paid. These churches were running like perpetual motion machines, carrying on with the business of a congregation that had long ago died off, moved away, or left for more vibrant places. The people were gone, but the momentum lived on.
I saw the same thing in a church I worked in for a time. “An incident” that had happened years or even decades ago dictated what we could and couldn’t try. Old memories and ancient territorial claims hamstrung any new initiative as vested interests nursed old wounds and loyalties. I am of course being intentionally vague here to protect the guilty, but the larger point is the same. That congregation effectively had its wings clipped by the conservatives (though these rusty 60s era hippies would balk at hearing themselves so named) in the group who were still working to answer questions and critics who had long ago stopped speaking.
Moving on from old issues and battles is difficult, in personal relationships, in churches and in politics. My wife and I preserve a basic division of labor that dates back to our grad school days when money and time were both extremely tight. Now we are both well paid and are not constrained by dissertation deadlines, but the old momentum persists in our budgeting habits and division of chores. Some of this is just harmless habit and the marital equivalent of institutional memory, but occasionally we chafe as the tradition and struggle to alter our behaviors to accommodate our new family and work realities.
One of the most important differences between Liberal Evangelicals and Fundamentalists is that we are (or at least strive to be) Liberal in imaginative openness. OK, that’s a strange phrase, “imaginative openness.” But by it I simply mean our capacity to make ourselves open to new questions and to accept the closure of old issues. The later may actually be the harder of the two because everyone who has ever darkened the door of a new style E-free church knows how eager many Evangelical Christians are to come up with the next new thing, new song, new home fellowship model, new ministry. The harder task, as George Will pointed out, is to let the old fight go, not because we’ve won or lost, but because we now see that it was never as relevant, as important, as definitional as we thought it was.