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Politics, the Professor (or Preacher, or Pastor), and the Person in the Pew

This paper was presented at the Christian Scholars’ Conference on the campus of Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, in a session on 8 June 2017 on the topic “Bridging the Divide: Addressing the Gap between the Church and the Academy,” convened by Brandon Pierce of the Church of Christ in Stamford, Connecticut, and Paul Watson of the Cole Mill Road Church of Christ in Durham, North Carolina.  I am grateful for the invitation to present the paper and for the encouraging response of conference attendees, including those of differing political persuasions.

My reflections today mainly concern one narrow aspect of the gap between church and academy, but I beg your indulgence for one general comment on the session theme. The lesson I think I most needed to learn upon departing graduate school for a teaching position in a church-affiliated institution was that wisdom is more valuable than knowledge (in part because it’s more rare); and even inarticulate wisdom merits more notice and respect than superficial cleverness, of which there is no shortage in most institutions of higher education. I suspect that’s also true in ministry staffs, though I have only slight experience of the latter. In one of his sermons, Austin Farrer wrote, “I have been taught to use my tongue and my pen; it is not much.” Everyone who has completed a degree in theology would do well to inscribe that sentence on our hearts.

That said, I appreciate the interest shown in the topic I proposed, though I remain unsure whether one should be indulged to speak at a conference like this about his hobby. (I used to offer as a justification for following politics that it saves time compared with other hobbies, since in politics the Super Bowl only comes every four years. Recently I’ve been led to reconsider whether that justification still holds.) I’ve done a fair bit of reading on the subject, beginning with the works of William F. Buckley, Jr., about age 14, owing to my grandmother’s viewing of his TV program “Firing Line,” but by no means do I suggest that my remarks should be received as the reflections of a scholar of politics. I offer them rather as the opinions of a participant-observer in the life of a school associated with Churches of Christ with students drawn from a number of communions, as well several congregations with which I’m familiar.

A member of one of those churches who has also been a student in my New Testament classes called a couple of weeks ago, when I had begun to worry that the concern animating this paper might be overblown. She expressed some alarm about political opinions a fellow church member had posted to Facebook and the conversation between the two of them that ensued. The first rule of political discussion on Facebook is, of course, “Don’t discuss politics on Facebook,” but I’m pleased to report that in this case the minister of the congregation that both parties attend weighed in after a bit to commend them for the civility with which they were discussing their differences. My caller, however, went on say that the exchange had led her to question whether to remain in that congregation or to seek another, as it was her impression that a significant number of members held the same political opinions as those that had troubled her.

That’s the general sort of situation I propose we consider today.

In all honesty, it’s a wonderful time to be a political hobbyist; the web and the cable news industry supply a ready stream of information about current events, customizable to our leanings, and social media afford us platforms for publishing our opinions and reactions. And so we’re tempted to indulge the fantasy of joining the pundit class and opining on the events of the day. This magnifies the spiritual perils that have always been involved in participating in the political discourse of a democratic republic. Christians are pledged to live under norms such as Paul’s exhortation: “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18 CSB). We seek to practice a love that, as Paul also says, “is patient … [and] kind … does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs,” a love that “finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:4–6 CSB).

Yet, in democratic political discourse, appeals for electoral support and opposition are often directed toward voters’ interests and passions, in a way that taxes these Christian ethical norms. Further, the multiplication of discourse in our time increases the risk that those interests and passions will set Christians at odds with one another. As Anthony Esolen has observed, politics “has a way of making enemies out of people who might have been friends.” Church members are not exempted from this rule, and the increasing quantity and shrillness of political discussion in American life threatens to magnify this phenomenon in our congregations.

A further aspect of this problem arises from the ideological “sorting” that has taken place among American political parties since ca. 1980, so that people on the right and left of the political spectrum are now concentrated in the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively, more than ever before. Political scientist Morris Fiorina notes the consequence: “If you are a conservative ([or a] liberal), there used to be people like you in the other party, so the other party wasn’t all bad. Now it is.” The liberal Republican and the conservative Democrat are both endangered species.

In a recent commencement address at Bucknell University, the journalist Fareed Zakaria observed that, politically, “campuses are invariably more liberal than conservative.” Zakaria’s thinking of the sort of schools in the US News and World Report’s “top 100,” and his statement doesn’t by any means apply to all evangelical or Churches-of-Christ-related schools, though I’d say among those, too, the trend is in the direction he indicates.

Where the statement applies, at any rate, it sets up a particular dynamic for conflict within Churches of Christ and church-related institutions. This dynamic involves the interface between an ideologically liberal or progressive clergy or clerisy and the ideologically conservative communion (overall) with which they interact. I’ve observed this most closely and most often in the professoriate, but I’m also aware of instances in congregational ministry.

Here’s the sort of scenario I have in mind: A bright student enrolls in a well-respected seminary or graduate school. There the professor- or preacher-in-training acquires two things. First, through disciplined study, the student acquires mastery of one or more specialized theological disciplines. (I have great respect for such expertise wherever it is found.) A second thing, though, that we may pick up in our seminary or graduate school experience is a generally progressive social and political orientation, acquired not so much through our own disciplined reflection as through informal conversation and association with teachers and fellow students we admire — a political identity acquired, as it were, by osmosis.

For most of the last century, academic institutions, especially name-brand ones, have enjoyed considerable prestige and excellent public relations. As a result, we tend to regard institutions of higher education as uniquely the home of the disinterested search for truth. That’s especially if our vocation is bound up with them, and all the more early in our careers — before we have actually worked in one or more such schools and discovered that, outside their fields of expertise, academics can and do believe things that are quite mistaken. Early in our odyssey through academia we may acquire the habit of treating the opinions of scholarly colleagues in general as the products of a disinterested search for truth — on all subjects, including politics. Often, I suggest, this assumption does not withstand scrutiny.

The disinterested search for truth, or as near an approximation of it as any of us attains, is difficult and time consuming, and most of us can only manage it with a small number of subjects; it necessarily proceeds case-by-case, and there is no substitute for close study of the evidence relevant to a question and thoughtful analysis of arguments put forward to address it. Most academics, for perfectly good reasons, don’t invest the same amount of time or effort in forming our political opinions as we do in forming judgments within our academic disciplines. If that’s so, then it’s a mistake to treat the judgments of academics in general with the same deference as we do those within their academic portfolio; and of course, once initiated into a specialization, we learn that much of what goes on in discussion among specialists is disagreement, with reasonable and intelligent and honest scholars falling on both sides of all sorts of contested issues! Why should we expect politics to be different, with all the epistemic and moral virtue on a given question to be found on only one side of every issue? (Conveniently, the side we’re on.)

Now, this is not to counsel despair, or to urge the surrender of all our political convictions or commitments; it’s rather to encourage humility, and the recognition that our perspective is limited and our political judgments may be mistaken — even if they are shared by all the learned people we know. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, has devoted considerable attention, informed by extensive survey research, to the difficulties created by political homogeneity in academic institutions. His work (most fully presented in his book The Righteous Mind and regularly updated at the website “Heterodox Academy”) exhaustively documents Zakaria’s judgment that a liberal or progressive ideological orientation pervades the contemporary academy. Zakaria and Haidt (both to the political left of center themselves, incidentally) also draw attention to a troubling feature of the current academic political environment: the growth of intolerance for dissenting views on the part of campus progressives and an increasing refusal to enter into discussion with or debate those who disagree.

Zakaria, while calling attention to “a kind of anti-intellectualism on the right these days – the denial of facts, of reason, of science,” also refers to “an anti-intellectualism on the left. An attitude of righteousness that says we are so pure, we are so morally superior, we cannot bear to hear an idea that we don’t like or disagree with.” As Zakaria suggests, on campus and in those cultural precincts shaped by it, one’s political affiliations and voting choices are increasingly viewed as a crucial indicator of one’s moral rectitude. Here again, Jonathan Haidt supplies the footnotes documenting Zakaria’s contention, citing recent events at Yale, Duke, Berkeley, Claremont-McKenna, Middlebury, and Evergreen State College.

To the extent that a student embraces the milieu described by Zakaria and Haidt, (s)he emerges from graduate education bearing a set of political convictions strongly opposing those held by a significant number of evangelical Christians and members of Churches of Christ (probably a plurality, if not the majority). Further, to the extent one embraces this academic milieu, one emerges from schooling eager to oppose the forces of ignorance and oppression — indeed, the focus of evil in the modern world — that is the Republican Party, in the view of campus progressives.

I suggest that such a commitment poses spiritual dangers for the professor or preacher or pastor who holds it, as well as practical difficulties for those who seek to minister in a communion including significant numbers of people who vote Republican. (Let me add here a reminder of my “participant observation” as supplying the evidence base for this paper. I’ve consulted surveys about evangelical political affiliations in general; I’ve neither found nor conducted survey research into Churches of Christ specifically. But I’ve seen this dynamic play out often enough to believe that it’s a phenomenon worth noting and reflecting on; I don’t claim it’s the only noteworthy phenomenon in the world, nor would I deny that an ideologically conservative clergy interacting with an ideologically progressive congregation would present challenges to Christian discipleship. I simply haven’t observed that dynamic among Churches of Christ.)

Jonathan Haidt’s work offers not only a diagnosis but also a cure, or the beginnings of one, which he summarizes as the cultivation of “viewpoint diversity” in academic institutions — the “viewpoints” there being specifically political and ethical ones. I suggest that Haidt’s program and the resources he and his co-workers at Heterodox Academy provide can be of great help to those navigating these challenges in the church, as well as in the academy.

Essentially, Haidt suggests that people meeting each other across a political divide begin by giving serious and sympathetic consideration to the values and “moral matrix” operative on the other side. Haidt’s approach to negotiating political disagreement has much in common with the Scholastic ideal of disputation, in which in order to advocate a position productively, one first masters the arguments against it and shores up any weaknesses in them, so that one then answers the strongest case against one’s own convictions and nothing less. (It’s not my impression this is the practice in many debates on Facebook or Twitter.)

As presented most helpfully in chapter 8 of The Righteous Mind, Haidt and his co-workers have identified six foundational moral intuitions that form the basis of contemporary political worldviews:

The progressive moral matrix is constructed on three of these: (1) providing care and avoiding harm to individuals; (2) advancing liberation and opposing oppression, especially of historically oppressed groups; and (3) pursuing fairness and penalizing cheating.

The conservative matrix is built on those foundational intuitions, plus three additional ones, with the level of concern for each roughly equal in the setting of conservative priorities: (4) loyalty to one’s family, community, or nation (as contrasted with betrayal); (5) respect for legitimate authority (as opposed to subversion of it); and (6) sanctity or purity (as opposed to moral degradation).

(Libertarians, according to Haidt, join progressives in not giving weight to the latter three categories, but they depart from progressives in understanding liberation primarily in terms of the individual rather than in terms of groups.)

In his book The Three Languages of Politics, the economist Arnold Kling offers a complementary typology regarding political communication, according to which progressives characteristically plot issues along an axis of oppressor vs. oppressed; libertarians, along an axis of liberty vs. coercion; and conservatives, along an axis of civilization vs. barbarism.

Kling suggests that virtually any political issue can be plotted along any of these axes, and that we only fully understand current political debates if we plot them on all three. If, rather than employing only our own preferred axis, we consider how a given issue appears when plotted along the others, we may “become more cautious about [our] own beliefs and less inclined to dismiss people with whom we disagree as malevolent” (accessed via Kindle, location 118). That might be helpful in a church context — so I commend to politically engaged Christians Kling’s book The Three Languages of Politics and Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, as well as their blogs.

That’s the main exhortation I bring today; but I offer a few, somewhat disjointed…

 

Concluding Reflections

 

1. A Christianos is, by etymology, a “partisan of Christ.”
A Christian cannot be an unqualified partisan for any political party or an unconditional supporter of any candidate. Some great Christian teachers (including the one whose name this university bears) have held that even a tactical affiliation with any political cause is inconsistent with being a partisan of Christ; I respect that judgment although I am unpersuaded. It seems to me that judicious democratic political involvement, especially at the local level, can be a means of fulfilling the obligation the apostle lays on Christians to “do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal 6:10 NASB).

2. Christians worthy of the name are devoted to truth and justice, including justice to those with whom we disagree.
Scholars worthy of the name are devoted to the sober weighing of evidence, including the evidence for political claims. This places the greatest responsibility for probity on us when we engage those with whom we disagree, if we would do so as “Christian scholars,” devoted to fact and knowledge and wisdom, as opposed to mere political activists, devoted only to electoral or legislative results.

3. Voting is fundamentally a prudential choice, usually binary, which it is perhaps often best to approach in the spirit of the question, “Is it better if the rackets are run by the Corleone family or the Barzini family?”
I think that was surely the spirit in which to approach last year’s presidential election; I was greatly pleased to find a third-party candidate whose platform I could support. It would seem an act of cowardice to conclude this paper without mentioning our current president, though this may eclipse anything worthwhile I’ve said (as he has a way of sucking the oxygen out of the room). I’ll hope not and limit myself to this
: Donald Trump is an unusually divisive politician who has alienated many within the party he represents, including a number who might be expected to defend a Republican administration, perhaps most notably the conservative columnist George Will. Still, if one imagines there are no principled, rational arguments in favor of support for Mr. Trump or his administration’s policies, there are worthwhile writers to follow, perhaps most notably California State University classicist and Hoover Institution fellow Victor Davis Hanson.

3. On most issues debated in the political arena there are two or more positions that can plausibly claim to be consistent with a profession of historic Christian faith; I regard elective abortion as one of the rare exceptions.
(Opposition to abortion is explicit in the Christian tradition from the end of the first century in Didache 2:2, and likely implicit in the prohibitions of “sorcery” [pharmakeia] in Gal. 5:20; Rev. 9:21; 18:23; 21:8; 22:15. The work of the recently deceased civil libertarian journalist Nate Hentoff, an atheist, is instructive for those who suppose that such opposition can only be maintained on explicitly religious grounds.) As scholars, we’re obliged to investigate positions other than ours before we begin pronouncing anathemas. Most of us don’t invest that much time and effort in forming our political opinions, and I’m not suggesting we should; we don’t all have to become political hobbyists! But if we wish to comment as scholars rather than merely as activists, we’re obliged to speak with due modesty, to ask questions and offer clarifications rather than thunder definitive pronouncements, and to acknowledge the difference between that for which we have evidence and that which we only surmise.

This hardly scratches the surface of a fraught and complex topic, but perhaps I have said something useful. I look forward to discussion, particularly of anything that may have been found confusing.

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