Ideology is More Than Skin Deep: Why I Can’t Get Along To Go Along

That sly fox Digby put her finger on it the other day, as usual. Challenging a certain lack of confrontation among the inside-the-beltway set, she said:

I suppose this all depends upon whether or not you think that politics is a matter of smart people getting together and agreeing on how the world should be run or whether you think it’s a system designed to organize society and government by testing and challenging varying ideologies and worldviews against competing interests and values. The first is a very nice, clean way of doing things and the second is somewhat messy and difficult. But the truth is that I’ve never seen the first kind of politics work.

It has been my experience and reading of history generally that politics is rarely a gentlemanly debate about the public good but is rather a struggle between competing interests. And ideology is usually what binds these interests together through common values and worldviews. In our system those interests have historically formed coalitions within the two political parties which fight it out before the public. I’m sorry that’s unpleasant, but it’s usually the best humans can do short of killing each other.

To put it another way, we have ideological divides in our politics for a very simple and very good reason: ideology delineates real differences in the needs and ethics of citizens.

Or again, and not to put too fine a point on it, calls for Christian unity are all well and good, but we live in a constitutional republic, not a church.

This, as it is said, is not exactly rocket science. But it is apparently a useful reminder these days.

To wit, Robert P. Jones, author of Progressive & Religious, responds to critics of the “Come, Let Us Reason Together Governing Agenda” by citing 1 Corinthians to the effect that ears and eyes and hands should live and let live. He then goes on to chastise his doubters, including myself, for divisiveness and failing to appreciate points of commonality with their social and political opponents. (Excuse me, social and political potential partners.)

You could almost cut with a knife the desire for reconciliation here. It’s commendable, actually, but also facile. American politics would be much better if opponents could all get along and work together to solve the nation’s problems—they really would. Things would be so simple and so easy, except for all the nasty complications of, you know, different perspectives and different needs.

Any kind of rational politics has got to start with the understanding that the American polity is not a single body. Not in the Christian sense, and truth be told, not in the secular sense either.

True, about 75% of Americans call themselves Christians, but only half or so of those are regular practitioners, and the numbers continue to decline. Meanwhile, the nation as a whole has seen a significant shift to the left by party affiliation if not by ideological descriptor. Only a determined minority of social conservatives continues to move to the right.

It’s easy to get lost in the fog of math, but the underlying point here should be clear: not everyone is a Christian, and nowhere near everyone is a social conservative. Why, then, are those perspectives to be privileged in our political discourse?

The answer, according to Jones, is that because some social conservatives are willing to make a tentative step toward reconciliation in the interest of advancing other worthy causes, progressives ought to reciprocate. As the strong in the congregation at Corinth deferred to the weak, apparently progressives ought to defer to conservatives in order to bring them into the fold gently.

This tantalizing idea fails on any number of levels. For example, a quick scan of history finds Pope Clement scolding the Corinthians for their argumentativeness 50 years or so after Paul wrote to them. So much for the ideal of unity.

It also misrepresents the scriptural witness on conflict. On issue after issue throughout the Old and New Testaments, conflicts are not synthesized, not transformed, often not even resolved peacefully. Instead, they are recorded for posterity, sometimes in the most direct terms. Just to name one example, the same Paul who urged the Corinthians to be reconciled to one another said of “Judaizers” advocating for circumcision in Galatia, “How I wish they would finish the job!” Meaning of course that they should go ahead and castrate themselves.

Now, we don’t all have to be like Paul. But that this imprecation is recorded in scripture ought to suggest that the boundaries of allowable discourse are set fairly wide. By contrast, laughing at a grandiose claim hardly seems so bad.

It’s also true that the controversy over circumcision in the early church was settled by a conference which brokered a compromise. But the emphasis in that narrative is not on a human willingness to wheel and deal to a mutually satisfactory outcome, but on the grace of God working to reveal a path forward within a small, relatively homogenous and closed community.

The differences between this situation and our own are not beside the point. What works on the scale of several dozen or a few hundred does not work in a nation of hundreds of millions of people. And while I’d never want to deny the power of God’s grace, the fact is that it does not always settle on a single option. Some conflicts never do get resolved, at least not in the lifetimes of their participants.

Most important, however, is that we have nothing like the sameness of the early church, even acknowledging that its diversity has been historically underestimated. When citizens step into the public square of modern America, they are confronted with responsibilities not to a small and discrete community, but to millions of others who hold views that are different from, if not antithetical to, their own.

That’s not to say that Christians should leave their beliefs at home. In fact, quite the opposite. Be a Christian in the public square! Use God talk! But understand, first of all, that there are many others speaking their own language who will not defer to your own. In fact, they might be quite hostile to it. More to the point—and this is what never seems to sink in with the “Come, Let Us Reason Together” crowd—their interests may diverge from your own.

Put differently, ideological differences are more than skin deep. The competing interests they manifest are real divisions of money and power and security. To think that they can be resolved in due time around the kitchen table not only underestimates their importance, it underestimates the people behind them.

I am not the first to make this point. A young hothead from Birmingham once had this to say to his fellow pastors:

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides—and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Now, it will be said that I am no Martin Luther King. But that is exactly the point! The story of liberation does not belong to those moderates who so generously and glacially grant it, a piece at a time. It belongs to the people being freed, and on their timetable—not mine or Third Way’s or that of centrist evangelicals.

Moreover, as I have been trying to say, the story of liberation is responsible to the needs and interests of the oppressed, not those willing to surrender a bit of their privilege. I include myself in the latter category, by the way.

At heart the problem with the Governing Agenda isn’t who participated in its construction or the less-than-enthusiastic response it has received. It’s that it does nothing—nothing—to change the power structures in our political system. Without any appreciable sacrifice on the part of those who present it, this deal has nothing to offer those whose interests do not already align with it. By supermajorities, Americans favor legalized abortion with some restrictions and workplace protections for gays and lesbians, and have for years. Proposing a deal on those points in order to “end the culture war” is bound to be about as effective as Germany or Japan putting forth a new peace treaty to settle World War II. The battle is done, and the country has moved on.

I am very sorry to hear that Mr. Jones thinks my position on such matters is counterproductive. But it is not mine to offer reconciliation or bridge-building to social conservatives on behalf of women seeking reproductive rights or the GLBT community. Those people can assert themselves more ably than I can. Nor can I take away the competition of interests and values that drives conflict around these issues. Like Digby, I know that’s unpleasant, but it really is the best we can do.