Moderate United Methodists are having a tough time right now. People on both the left and the right are digging in their heels for different reasons. While I’m obviously more sympathetic to the left side of things, I think moderates have a crucial role to play in helping us move forward. The key question is whether they’re going to be moderate in a helpful or unhelpful way.
One way to be moderate is to heap equal opportunity scorn on conservatives and progressives alike. Scornful moderates are most focused on defining themselves against either extreme. Whenever scornful moderates have criticized conservatives enough, they switch gears and balance things out by pointing out something stupid that the progressives have done. I’m not sure why, but it seems like scornful moderates attack progressives more than conservatives perhaps because they’re more afraid of being called liberal than conservative. Of course, this could be my bias.
Scornful moderates are a greater disaster for church unity than either extreme. People don’t respond well to scorn. Very rarely does anyone change their mind after having been ridiculed into it. Instead, scorn breeds resentment. When moderates are scornful, it pushes the right further to the right and the left further to the left. What’s inherently unfair to most moderates is that the scornful ones tend to draw the most attention. Scorn viralizes a lot better than equanimity. Telling the other side off energizes people who agree with you in a way that being measured and nuanced just doesn’t. When scornful moderates go after the left, the right retweets them, and vice-versa. I can sympathize with the temptation of scorn. I’ve fallen victim to this sin on many occasions when I wanted to get something off my chest or score a viral blog post.
Bridge-building moderates understand their moderate identity as more than an ideological position on a spectrum that is preserved through posturing in both directions. They understand moderation as a way of life in the sense of temperance. To be moderate in this sense is to refuse to be easily riled up. The bridge-building moderate seeks a contemplative posture instead of a reactionary posture. Bridge-building moderates seek above all to create a non-anxious presence. Before the age of social media, bridge-building moderates had a lot more influence. Now that volatility is the catalyst for platform-building, bridge-building moderates are mostly sidelined by the scornful ones.
I had two conversations at General Conference with bridge-building moderates who are candidates for bishop: Sky McCracken and Tom Berlin. Both of them have won my trust because they don’t treat me like an idiot. They respond to my ideas thoughtfully. They don’t agree with everything I say, but they’re more focused on encouraging the parts that seem legitimate than ridiculing the parts that seem off.
I was able to interview Tom for our Crackers and Grape Juice podcast. If you want to be encouraged by a wise, level-headed moderate who refuses to give up hope for United Methodism, listen to this interview. At the time of writing this, I have no idea what the Council of Bishops have proposed for our church today, but I really want to believe that it’s a group of bridge-building moderates who will help us find some kind of compromise.