At a recent conference I attended, an insightful Canadian colleague remarked to me that the U.S. is in a “cold civil war.” I’d never thought about it that way before, but it’s a frightening idea, and there may be some truth to it. In my lifetime, the left and the right have never been so distant from one another. Politics and politicians have never been so polarizing. This goes for the politics of the Church as well as of the nation.
Consider, for example, our current national political climate. To self-identify as a Republican is to embrace a cluster of positions: small government, lower taxes, fiscal conservatism, a pro-life perspective, and generally traditional views on marriage. To self-identify as a Democrat, on the other hand, tends to mean that one supports more direct government intervention for public welfare, greater taxation on the wealthiest members of society, a pro-choice perspective, and an acceptance of gay marriage. Yet there’s no real internal coherence to these party platforms. Some issues, such as fiscal conservatism and small government, naturally go together. But how is it that fiscal conservatism has become tied to traditional views of marriage? How is it that broad support for government-sponsored social services has become entwined with a pro-choice agenda? One would have to do a considerable amount of historical work to discern the processes by which each of these issues became tied up with the others. At the very least, however, we can say that the right people allied with one another for mutual political gain, and thereby determined the agendas for a large section of the population. As it becomes more and more commonplace to see particular issues linked together in a platform, it becomes easier to see these issues as a “package deal.” We have to take sides because a more selective agenda has no political leverage. Ideological entrenchment is the inevitable outcome.
Rather than modeling intellectual virtue and the fruits of the Spirit in this divisive time, the Church seems to have modeled its political life on that of the secular world. At least, this is the case in many Protestant groups in the U.S. The most visible current controversies, of course, revolve around issues of sexuality. Within the UMC, clergy—even bishops—are pledging civil disobedience in defiance of the General Conference and the Discipline, despite the fact that the UMC is not a civil state, but a largely self-governing voluntary organization. The ability and willingness to have real and meaningful conversation with one another is all but lost. To regain this ability will take serious self-examination, critical thinking, intellectual virtue, and of course the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; Gal 5:22-23).
Perhaps the best articulation of this kind of critical perspective I’ve come across is Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy. We need to reclaim a hermeneutics of generosity. This would mean a willingness to give other people a fair hearing, to learn from them, to try to get inside their perspective and see its merits. The Church should model this approach in the face of a culture that is ever more sharply polarized. Yes, we must remain passionately committed to our beliefs, passionate about the Gospel, but passionate does not mean unreasonable, brittle, or entrenched. If we continue to mimic, however unconsciously, the cultural of secular politics that has led us to this point of cold civil war, the outcome will be a cold ecclesial war. We will compromise our unity in Christ and our witness to the world, all in the name of being right.