During the intense presidential campaign after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the rock-ribbed conservative Republican candidate Barry Goldwater dramatically declared, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
More recently, Jim Hightower, a progressive political activist from Texas, wrote a book called, There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos.
Why do both men on opposite sides of the political spectrum see so little value in moderation? Why does this seem to be the default position of not only politicians but also of so many in the general populace and in our churches and among our friends and families? Why do many on the left feel that unless you fully buy into a “defund the police” position that you don’t care about social justice? Why do many on the right believe that if fighting against abortion rights is not your single most controlling issue that you don’t care about human life? Why do we put others in these political boxes that squelch not only meaningful dialog but constructive actions to effectively counteract the evils that we are against?
The Greek poet Hesiod (c.700 BC) spoke about “moderation in all things” and the Apostle Paul encouraged the church at Philippi to let their “moderation [gentleness] be known unto all people” (Philippians 4:5). Eugene Peterson emphasizes an intention of collaboration in his paraphrase of this text, “Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them.” Wouldn’t that Christian attitude make a difference in our political discussions?
But sadly, instead of moderation, the militant idealism of perfection and purity dominate political agendas with either scathing ridicule or dismissive neglect of those who have the courage to be a moderate. In today’s climate, if you’re not totally for the New Green Deal or conversely if you are not firmly against climate change legislation you may not be deemed worthy of your respective Democratic or Republican political party.
Such blind loyalty is not new in traditional partisan politics, but like crabgrass it has now spread over the entire political landscape and is choking off almost all fresh green shoots of moderation. Moderates like Republican Mitt Romney or Democrat Joe Manchin are seen as fringe members of their party rather than as leaders of reason and balance. Why is this the case? I believe there are at least three reasons for this wholesale rejection of moderation in much of contemporary culture and political discourse.
Moderation seems weak.
We live in a competitive culture of always needing to be strong and our opponents always needing to be wrong. It is argued that “one cannot be moderately pregnant.” Indeed, being in the middle can be a wishy-washy or compromising stance of not having any real convictions. It can also be a lowest common denominator for those who need or want to avoid conflict. The former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin was seen as a weak politician because he did not have the backbone to resist Hitler’s advances in Europe.
But is moderation always weak? Isn’t it much harder to say “come let us reason together” than to say “do it my way or else”? Doesn’t it take more strength to welcome honest disagreement than to demand feckless loyalty? Perhaps to Barry Goldwater (who lost forty-four states in his presidential election bid!) one could better say, “Moderation in pursuit of relational trust is no vice and ego in the name of domination is no virtue.” Or to Jim Hightower, “There’s nothing on the side of the road but ditches that go nowhere.”
Moderation requires humility.
A second reason it is hard to embrace moderation is that it takes humility. Intellectually, humility exhibits a curiosity of learning new things that might change one’s opinion. It may mean watching more than one cable news channel and reading thoughtful opinions from different political perspectives. It also means listening to those with proven and widely respected expertise in areas like science, ethics, international relations, or whatever issue is under discussion. Experts can be wrong sometimes but not nearly as often as ignorance!
Spiritually, humility is counter to the destructive arrogance of pride. Proverbs says that “with pride comes disgrace but with humility comes wisdom.” God says through the prophet Isaiah that the people the Lord looks on with favor are those “who are humble and contrite in spirit.” The New Testament writers time and time again exhort followers of Jesus to “humble themselves.” (See Proverbs 11:2, Isaiah 66:2, Romans 12:3, 1 Peter 5:6, James 4:10.) Unfortunately, these biblical commands are too often ignored by some Christian leaders who confuse “zeal for the Lord” with their own ego and prominence.
Moderation recognizes our humanity.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes teaches us to “not be over-righteous, neither be over-wise—why destroy yourself?” (See Ecclesiastes 7:16.) This may sound like a strange exhortation. Isn’t perfection or purity or righteousness our goal? Isn’t it good to abound in wisdom? When is purity not good? What does it mean to be over-righteous and why does it seem to be the besetting sin of the religious and the ideologs of our culture?
When I studied material science I learned about alloys and how the inclusion of other elements or impurities can actually strengthen a metal. Pure iron sounds impressive but it is very heavy and not practical for most applications. However, by adding some carbon it becomes steel, which is not only much lighter but more malleable and stronger as well. To use another metaphor, purebred dogs are beautiful but are often more susceptible to diseases that may not affect a more resilient crossbreed or even a mutt.
Unfortunately, some of the worst instincts in human experiences have been to try and create a superior or pure “race” by subjugating people of other ethnicities or differences. The New Testament Jews didn’t like Samaritans and Hitler didn’t like the Jews. Today, national fundamentalists around the globe want a society of people like themselves and white supremacists militantly want to exclude people of color from their lives.
So, aspiring to purity is not always a virtuous aspiration. It is as a spiritual virtue—to be pure in heart or to seek God’s righteousness. But when we embrace an ideological or a self-centered purity, it tragically disintegrates into a spirit of perfectionism and pride. Parker Palmer writes, “Wholeness is the goal. But wholeness does not mean perfection. It means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” Wholeness means recognizing the impurities in our lives as means of grace and growth.
I believe wise moderation is another form of wholeness—of bringing together ideas and people that create something that is not fragmented into disparate opinions and self-centered constituencies. As the Apostle Paul said, “when I am weak, I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Thoughtful and meaningful moderation is not being lukewarm. Instead, it is a humble and courageously human posture for living life well with others.