By David Gushee
Early this week at Notre Dame an impressive group of Catholic scholars will gather for a conference called “Polarization in the Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal.” I was invited to participate and had agreed to do so before events beyond my control forced my cancellation.
The polarization the Catholic scholars are addressing this week is not just a Catholic problem, which is one reason I was invited to speak at the event as a Baptist who grew up Catholic and remains engaged with both communities. Much of my career has been spent addressing (or provoking!) polarization, notably about contested public issues in which the sides line up along an unsatisfactory but very powerful right-left spectrum.
Here is a summary of what I was planning to say at Notre Dame this week:
Cultural-moral-political polarization as we know it in the United States today is traceable to events of the 1960s and 1970s. A trio of brilliant books by Rick Perlstein focusing on Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, respectively, describes the birth of modern American political conservatism against the backdrop of the dramatic events of that era. I have learned much from this brilliant social, political, and intellectual history of the period.
Modern American conservatism combined three major impulses or commitments: American nationalism, economic libertarianism, and cultural traditionalism. Though each had deep and somewhat independent roots, events of the 1960s-1970s fused together and intensified them in reaction to perceived threats of the era.
American nationalism in the 1950s was dominated by anticommunism during the dreadfully frightening Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. Weapons of mass destruction hung like a Damocles sword over everyone’s heads while an ideological struggle raged between East and West. Polarization did not become a national problem in this arena until conflict over the morality and wisdom of the Vietnam War began tearing America apart. But after that, American politics became dominated by the split between “hawks” of the right and “doves” of the left, with fear of Communism always available as a cudgel against the doves. Today, while the situation is a bit more complex, the right still tends to sound muscular, nationalist, and exceptionalist while their opposition is more peaceable, diplomacy-oriented, and multilateralist.
Economic libertarianism and free-market economics stood in contrast with government increasing the tax and regulatory burden in a drive toward poverty reduction and greater economic equality. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program was one point of division, but every political campaign thereafter featured low taxes/small government rhetoric on the one hand vs. economic justice/fairness rhetoric on the other. These divisions remain with us.
Cultural traditionalism sought the preservation of the status quo in, to varying degrees, religion, morality, and race. For many white Americans, “tradition” looked like a culturally Christian society, with a particular understanding of Protestant Christian moral values broadly communicated and privileged. It also looked like racial separatism and segregation in a white-dominated society so overwhelming and comprehensive it was taken for granted. Every piece of this cultural picture was challenged during the 1960s and thereafter, which in turn evoked nostalgic and angry reaction and stout resistance to social changes in areas such as gender roles, racial integration, and sexual morality.
All of this infected and inflected every aspect of U.S. society — politics, media, religion, and beyond. A left-right polarization became visible almost everywhere. The two main political parties bent to accommodate it, though never altogether cleanly. Various sectors began to be identified as left or right, blue or red — national media tending left until Fox and Rush arose to counter from the right; academia largely “blue” with Christian colleges often “red” in opposition; evangelical churches and denominations conservative, mainliners liberal. All with various exceptions, of course.
The power of left/right polarization became so great that it dwarfed older sectarian divisions going back hundreds of years in some cases. Now what mattered was not Catholic v. Protestant but conservative Catholic + conservative Protestant vs. liberal Catholic + liberal Protestant. Liberty University and Christendom College resemble each other far more than either resemble their liberal Protestant or Catholic sister schools. There is something deeply dispiriting about the way 50-year-old U.S. political categories remain more powerful today than any other factor in determining how participants in every sector of society organize their mental and associational worlds.
Meanwhile, efforts to create some kind of centrist, moderate, or balanced alternative — in religion or politics or morality — have never seemed weaker or less robust. My friends from Texas say that the only thing you find in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos.
Is there a way forward?
I can only think of four:
1) Fight on till victory. Each side fights to the finish till the other side collapses in defeat. But because each side has plenty of strength and determination, victory for either side seems unlikely.
2) Retreat to enclaves. Each side withdraws from engagement with the other side because conflict is painful. We end up with not just red and blue politics but also red and blue media, congregations, parishes, and friends. Many are already enclaving where we can.
3) Find a grand synthesis. Some of us have tried it with a holistic human dignity or sacredness of life ethic. It works pretty well until an issue comes up where people read the demands of human dignity in very different ways.
4) Accept without approving. Learn to live in mixed red/blue, left/right communities despite convictional differences, understanding that human beings all need acceptance even though we do not always approve of each other’s views or practices.
Christians, at least, have resources for this approach in expansive biblical texts like Romans 14-15. There Paul reminds his squabbling readers that there is One Judge of all the earth and we are not it. Radical Christocentrism could trump moral and political polarization. Sometimes it actually does.