Ideological Totalitarians—Kiss and Make Up

Ideological Totalitarians—Kiss and Make Up February 18, 2014

Fundamentalism comes in all shapes and sizes. Not only have I met conservative Christians and Muslims who are fundamentalists, but also I have met liberal fundamentalists. A fundamentalist spirit is present in those who will not seek to collaborate with people on the other side of an issue. The fundamentalist mentality is reflected in “Take no prisoners—or else.”

Here I call to mind USA TODAY religion columnist Tom Krattenmaker’s book, The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians. In my endorsement for the book, I wrote:

…Krattenmaker complexifies the situation in which we find ourselves in America today. Drawing attention to a groundswell of compassion and civic virtue within evangelical Christianity that does not fit the negative stereotypes of much of secular America, Krattenmaker powerfully argues that the battle is not between evangelicals and non-evangelicals, including secularists. As he sees it, the culture war dividing line is between religious and secular totalitarians on the one hand and those from across the religious and cultural spectrum that are coming together in support of the common good…

Tom claims that we should no longer allow the totalitarians of these diverse stripes to control the microphone. Am I too naïve in thinking that perhaps the day would come when there would be no more totalitarians and we could have a splendid karaoke session where everyone shares the mic? That does not mean there would no longer be strong and passionate differences and convictions. But there would be civility across the board toward those across the aisle. Unfortunately, we are a long way away from that change in our public profile as a society.

Religious and secular, conservative and liberal totalitarians make for unlikely and unbecoming bedfellows in American society. They are too busy fighting with one another based on pre-shrunk perspectives and ideologies to ever make up. As a result, not only do they suffer; we all suffer as a result. What has led us to this place?

It is important that we understand history so that we don’t repeat it, as the philosopher George Santayana remarked. Certainly the Scopes-Monkey trial in 1925 on creation and evolution had something to do with it. As George Marsden highlights, “It would be difficult to overestimate the impact” of this particular trial “in transforming fundamentalism” (George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism — 1870-1925 {Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980}, p. 184). I maintain that the trial and its fallout did not simply help to transform Christian fundamentalism but also liberalism, too. The pivotal loss of the public square to the evolutionists and liberal theology as well as secularism at the time led to back and forth motions, posturing and traumatic battles throughout the following decades up unto the present. Efforts in those circles have always been aimed at retaking the hill, including Capitol Hill. The marketing gurus for the respective camps have labeled their membership bases as moral majorities of various persuasions. The present-day partisan politicians in Washington play this same game, use such rhetorical flurries, and bear witness to the faulty lines of division of the warring tribes.

How do we move beyond tribalism in the contemporary context? It is one thing to have strong convictions. It is quite another to be so ideologically framed that one cannot make attempts to collaborate where everyone wins whenever possible. A winner take all mentality not only defeats the other side; it also defeats the common good.

Self-righteousness is something we all struggle with. I am no exception. With this point in mind, it is important to note that people claiming to take middle ground positions can be just as rigid and proud as those on the right or left. One such as I who wishes to espouse centrist positions must not fixate on cementing everything in the middle ground and claiming squatters’ rights. We, too, need to move beyond posturing. We, too, need to listen and make room for others from across the idealogical spectrum to argue their cases. That being said, crusading moralists on the right and left often reject calls for cultivating an expansive moral vision.

Evangelicals’ longstanding (and rightful) concern over abortion does not usually account for a centrist and expansive moral vision. A centrist and expansive moral vision would require us to concern ourselves with other pressing matters involving such topics as universal health care, environmental stewardship and pollution, and the rights of minorities and the poor. All too often, we fail to see the connection between these various issues; we are in no position to point fingers, especially when we Evangelicals don’t help fight against injustices that make it extremely difficult for mothers to bring babies to term. From the opposite end of the spectrum, those on the left often fail to account for the moral dilemma that abortion poses. No matter how it is framed, abortion is an evil—whether or not one can or does argue that abortion is a necessary or the least-of-all possible evils. The same types of struggle could be reversed in terms of capital punishment and war: for example, in the case of war, no matter how just or apparently necessary the evil of killing someone to guard against greater harm is, killing someone is still an evil. Liberals often appear to get this point much better than conservatives.

I remember a group discussion involving conservative Evangelicals and Zen Buddhists over various pressing ethical concerns, including those mentioned here. What stood out to us is that given our history of building community relations with one another, we Buddhists and Evangelicals trusted one another enough to know that we were not going to try and take the other tribe’s camp by storm. Thus, we could be honest about our struggles and concerns. The Buddhists were open and honest about their struggles with abortion, revealing their consternation over how many liberals fail to see the moral difficulties that abortion poses. It made it possible for us Evangelicals to be more open about the moral complexities of our own positions and to guard against posturing. Such honesty and humility from our respective groups helped us all work through our strong differences and disagreements to humanize one another’s positions. Such humanization has also helped us work to complexify arguments for the sake of building a more centrist and comprehensive moral vision for the good of all.

Next time you hear someone in your circle saying we need to take back America from the other side, consider that if we keep on with our partisan infighting there might not be any side left to fight— including our own. So, before it’s too late, encourage those unlikely bedfellows—the ideological totalitarians of various extremes—to kiss and make up. After all, making up can be so much better than even the best of fights.

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