The “Disappearing Middle” in American Political and Religious Life
Now, to head off objections—of course I know there still IS a “middle” in American political and religious life. My point here will be that it is not as strong or populated as it once was—during my lifetime.
It seems to me, and many of my conversation partners agree, that gradually during the last several decades Americans have become increasingly polarized in their political and religious opinions.
This process has ruined many otherwise strong relationships and especially friendships. Social media, of course, has played a large role in that. For whatever reasons people do not seem to think about how their social media posts about politics and religion will affect their friends. Ridicule, for example, is common, as are charges of heresy and apostasy (even if those are not the exact words used).
I personally have friends and relatives at both ends of the political and religious spectrums—“right” to “left.” Some have simply “unfriended” me on Facebook because we disagree about those subjects. I unfriended a long-time friend because he was using ridicule to criticize the advocates of a particular political figure and refused to cease and desist.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Many pundits have written and talked publically about the political polarization of Americans. I agree. When I was growing up and in my young adulthood there were “liberal” Republicans and “conservative” Democrats (and I’m not just talking about the “Dixiecrats” many of who were segregationists). I’ll name a couple. Mark Hatfield was a moderate-to-liberal Republican senator from Oregon who was also openly evangelical (but not a fundamentalist). Henry “Scoop” Jackson was a moderate-to-conservative Democratic Senator from Washington.
I remember a time when Republican politicians and Democratic politicians could actually talk to one another civilly and cooperate with each other. I’m not saying that never happens today; I’m only saying it’s rare compared with the past in my own lifetime.
But that’s been talked about so much in the media that I want to turn my attention now to the similar disappearing middle among Christians. I can’t write about other religions or even about all Christians; there’s too much diversity and any generalizing would be dangerous and invite an avalanche of legitimate disagreement. So I am here, for now, going to stick to my own religious community—if it can be called a “community” anymore—evangelical Protestants very broadly defined.
Long time readers here will know who I mean by “evangelical Protestants.” I have discussed this religious type, tribe, here many times before. And here I am talking only about American evangelical Protestants. The “scene” in other countries is very different. Evangelical Protestant leaders and thinkers in Great Britain and Canada, for example, inform me that no such extreme polarization is a pattern among them in those countries.
On the one hand it seems that ultra-conservatives, what I call neo-fundamentalists, have captured the label “evangelical Protestant” in America. But there are others who have not given up on the word and do not fit that profile. What profile? Well, insistence that “biblical inerrancy” is a qualifying hallmark of authentic evangelical Protestant Christianity, separation (refusal of genuine Christian fellowship and even heart-felt dialogue) from fellow evangelical Protestants who don’t adhere to every “jot and tittle” of what they, the neo-fundamentalists, consider “evangelical orthodoxy.” Many authentically evangelical Protestants in America, however, even if they have dropped the label, do not belong to that tribe and do not fit that profile. For example, while they may believe in their own version (definition) of “biblical inerrancy” (or “biblical infallibility”) they do not insist on it as a defining hallmark of authentic evangelical Protestant Christianity. (Even Carl F. H. Henry, the “dean of evangelical theologians,” rejected biblical inerrancy as a “super-badge of evangelicalism.”)
As one steeped in American evangelical Christianity all my life (even when I was a child my uncle was on the National Board of the National Association of Evangelicals) I can’t help but notice this trend toward separation and even polarization among us. What’s the clear evidence of it to me, anyway? It is that, unlike earlier, in my youth, evangelicals now cannot seem to inhabit any spaces together where “moderates” and “conservatives” can really talk with each other as equals (viz., equally evangelical).
This really hit home to me some years ago when an evangelical friend, a theologian, invited me to attend and speak at a meeting of a very conservative organization of evangelical theologians. Also attending were two of my friends who are also moderate-to-progressive (viz., not inerrantists, not Calvinists, open theists). The conservative evangelical organization, its gathered members, listened to us politely. I had hoped for some real detent among us, a real warming of relationships and cooling down of what had been pretty open hostility. Again, cool politeness reined throughout the three day meeting. However, not once during a meal in the dining hall of the retreat center did one member of that organization sit down with me or one of my friends to eat with us. They would stop at our table, which had open chairs, holding their trays of food, but decline to sit and eat with us. Strangely, I never saw an open seat at any of their tables! There is no doubt in my mind that they had agreed ahead of time not to eat with us. We were being shunned, denied “Christian table fellowship,” because we were (are) doctrinally impure.
At the end of the three day colloquy one of the organizers, a well-known Reformed evangelical theologian, announced that we would all be meeting at a downtown bar in the nearby city for “drinks.” I dared to inquire if he meant hard liquor. He affirmed that he and his Reformed evangelical friends had no qualms about that. I stood and politely explained that many evangelicals in America would consider drinking hard liquor clear proof (no pun intended) that the drinker is not an evangelical Christian. I just wanted to make clear to them that they, too, could be accused by “card-carrying evangelicals” of being less-then-authentically-evangelical for other than doctrinal reasons.
This is just an anecdote and by itself proves nothing, of course. But to me it was an experiential indicator supporting my then growing awareness of just how divided American evangelical Protestant Christians are.
There are some on the “other end” of the spectrum who no doubt think of themselves as authentically evangelical Protestant, in the historical-theological sense, who are behaving the same way as the neo-fundamentalists. They are shaming fellow evangelical Protestant Christians for not jumping on their bandwagon of “progressive theology and ethics” and labeling them fundamentalists (if not worse) just because they adhere to traditional evangelical beliefs and ethics.
Where is the middle ground? Where are evangelical spaces where evangelicals of differing opinions can meet as equally evangelical and actually have civil conversations with each other while disagreeing about matters secondary to orthodox Christianity?
Some years ago my friend Stanley Grenz (d. 2005) and I, together with two other evangelical friends, founded an organization called “The Word Made Fresh” which still meets every year at the annual national meeting of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature. (It is not an official “program unit” of either of those organization but meets just before their joint annual meeting and in the same place.) Last year, in November, in San Antonio, Texas, about a hundred evangelical scholars met to hear and talk about “academic freedom” especially in American evangelical institutions of higher education. What I heard was discouraging. Under tremendous pressure from neo-fundamentalist constituents many previously moderate evangelical institutions (colleges, universities, seminaries) are having to fire evangelical professors with strong evangelical credentials—just because they have dared to “break ranks” with the neo-fundamentalists. In every case I heard described the persecuted evangelical professors adhered to their institutions’ statement of faith, but that was not sufficient for their colleagues.
As a “card carrying evangelical Protestant” I have tried very hard to hold to what I know to be the historic trans-denominational middle ground of evangelical Protestant faith and spirituality, but over the past few decades I have found it increasingly difficult as I get shot at from both the left and the right of my own evangelical Protestant community. I’m too conservative for the progressives and too liberal for the conservatives. Yes, I know I’m not alone, but the middle ground is disappearing around me. Sometimes it’s a lonely space to inhabit.
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