It is said that the two subjects which ought to be avoided in polite conversation are religion and politics. Furthermore, within Christianity, there is often an understandable desire to transcend the politics of the day: politics, by the very nature of the craft, involves compromise and gets very dirty in deal making; furthermore, no political platform fully embodies God’s purposes in Christ, and politicians invariably fall short of upholding what God would have upheld in Christ in every respect. At the same time, Christians in America will invariably be called upon to engage with all sorts of ideas, philosophies, plans, and policies prevalent in American political discourse as members of this representative republic; thus, however Christians engage with politics, they ought to do so in ways which bring the lordship of Jesus to bear, and Jesus ought to be glorified and manifest in how they speak of politics and politicians (Ephesians 4:29, Philippians 1:27, Colossians 3:17). We thus do well to consider the broad trends in political discourse and how they relate to what God has made known in Jesus.
The vast majority of modern American political discourse takes place within the general confines of philosophical liberalism: a commitment to free speech, freedom of individuals, the fundamental equality of everyone, a commitment to the rule of law, free markets and free trade, freedom of religion, and a primarily secular posture from the government. Within this commitment to philosophical liberalism we presently see three major political postures: progressivism, conservatism, and libertarianism. And then there is the fourth type of posture which would presume to represent the political and philosophical center: the moderate.
Political moderation does not represent a political philosophy per se as much as presuming to referee primarily between the progressive and conservative coalitions. In this sense the political moderates wield significant amounts of political clout and power: rarely do the progressive or conservative coalitions maintain sufficient numbers to advance their agendas, and so the support of the political moderates proves crucial for either side to govern and implement policy. If the status quo is tolerable, the moderates generally align with the political conservatives; if the status quo becomes intolerable, the moderates then generally shift toward the political progressives. Thus we generally see political policy and preferences orient around the political center.
There is much to commend political moderation. Neither the political progressives nor the political conservatives maintain a monopoly on truth or healthy public policy; the republic suffers if either group obtains significant political power over a long period of time. Society does need to make a lot of changes as desired by the political progressives and yet also ought to maintain its culture and traditions in many respects as desired by the political conservatives; it thus falls to the political moderates in the middle to adjudicate what ought to be changed and what ought to be retained by empowering each coalition in turn. The lack of a coherent political philosophy beyond a broad commitment to philosophical liberty is thus recognized as a feature, not a bug: the political moderate can believe he or she is not beholden to a particular philosophy or school of thought and thus can reflect greater independence in thought. A true political moderate will be less tempted toward partisanship and should be more clear-eyed about the limitations and difficulties inherent in the ideologies of political progressivism and conservatism.
Political moderation therefore can certainly be a virtue, able and willing to support what is good and commendable about political progressivism and conservatism while avoiding their faults. But political moderation is not inherently virtuous. It is tempting to believe the best way forward on any given policy matter is a centrist, middle way, but the truth and morality of a matter is not always found in the center. Far too often the standard for the political moderate is a status quo which preserves the economic and societal advantages of political moderates, and this is often accepted uncritically and believed to be what would be best for the greatest number of people.
Considering these things can prove challenging because of current standards of critique. Both political progressives and conservatives frequently come under criticism from political moderates and from each other; one can even find some self-criticism within political progressivism and conservatism. Political moderation, however, is not subjected to as much critique and manifests even less self-critique. The virtue of political moderation is taken as self-evident; political moderates often see themselves as those empowered to critique those to their “left” and to their “right” and rarely imagine that they themselves should come under critique.
To this end political moderates should all the more consider Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In it King lamented the lukewarm acceptance black people received from the political moderates of his day. They expressed some concern about the plight of black people but wanted to disrupt the status quo as little as possible. They found the protests, marches, and civil disobedience of civil rights agitators to go beyond what made good sense. And yet, as King related, those with privilege do not relinquish their privilege easily; justice and the removal of oppression must be demanded. The work of calling out and eliminating injustice and oppression has always required uncomfortable agitation and disruption of the status quo and thus will easily cause discomfort among political moderates: this was seen in the work of political progressives with the rights of laborers, children, women, and people of color, and in the work of political conservatives with abortion. Thus, time and time again in American history the politically moderate position did not lead the country in matters of justice and righteousness; instead, political moderates proved more willing to justify and rationalize evil, injustice, and oppression because of the unpalatable political consequences of upholding what was right and just. What passes for political moderation does not always align with God’s concerns for righteousness and the cause of justice.
Christians can glorify God while maintaining a politically moderate stance in American politics. Yet Christians must never assume that whatever passes for the politically moderate stance is that which glorifies God. Political moderates provide important balance among the political progressives and conservatives; they help define what kind of changes, or lack thereof, will be manifest in society. Such provides all the more reason for Christians who maintain politically moderate positions to prove just as critical of their own posture as they would those to their “left” and to their “right” and seek to perceive how they help to reinforce and support the powers that be which work actively to oppress and harm some to reinforce the advantage of others. Political moderates do well to remember how the kind of life which glorifies God in His Kingdom will always be seen as radical and threatening to many across the political spectrum; to participate in creative nonviolent resistance against the powers and principalities will require fortitude, conviction, and confidence in God and will subvert the status quo (cf. Matthew 5:38-42). May we all seek to glorify God, centering our political philosophy and posture in Christ, and maintain life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry