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.

Conclusion

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.

When it comes to politics, I often hear people say that they are conflicted. This was magnified during the 2016 presidential election when for the first time both major party candidates had larger disapproval poll numbers than approval numbers. There were common laments such as, “I voted for the lesser of two evils,” or “I just held my nose and voted for …,” or “I voted for a third-party candidate,” or like Senator Mitt Romney who said he voted for his wife!

But we also may feel conflicted about policing issues, how safe or risky to be with pandemic health concerns, the size and role of government, and a host of other dilemmas. These challenges remind me of the story of President Harry Truman meeting with his economic advisors who kept giving him their opinions with the qualification “but on the other hand.” Exasperated, Truman blurted out, “What I want is a one-handed economist!”

Truman’s desire for a simple one-handed solution to complex issues resonates with any of us who at times just want a simple answer. But simple answers rarely lead to lasting solutions. At best they appease the moment and usually postpone any real answers. They reflect a lack of curiosity and necessary commitment to really understand and work through the complexities of an issue.

Simplicity – Complexity – Simplicity

But is embracing complexity the answer either? Oliver Wendall Holmes famously said, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

It is important that although Holmes obviously puts down simplistic (and let me add sloganized) solutions, he also wants to get beyond being stuck in an exhausting complexity typical of political issues. For instance, when it comes to the economy, probably most people would love to cut the size of federal spending unless it means cutting their own particular benefits. Even Ayn Rand—the well-known author of Atlas Shrugged and a staunch individualist who railed against government handouts for others—wound up receiving Social Security!

But who has the wisdom and the political will to navigate through these political complexities to reach a simple solution—and who would vote for someone who tries to do so? Do we just live with either being simplistic or conflicted or is there a better way out?

Being Conflicted as a Path to Wisdom

Let me suggest that being conflicted may be a necessary avenue to wisdom if wrestling with that conflict leads to greater understanding and subsequent action. The Apostle Paul experienced this truth in his spiritual life. He wanted to do good, but “evil is right there with me” (see Romans 7:21-23). He was conflicted about the law of sin in him to do wrong that was fighting with his delight in God’s law to do right.

A simplistic solution for him would have been to deny this tension and pretend that he didn’t battle with sin. That’s an attitude that leads to a super-spiritual and superficial faith. Or he could have just accepted and fulfilled his sinful compulsions. Instead, Paul goes on to say that it is through Jesus that he finds real freedom from the bondage of sin and death and he is then able to live life according to the Spirit. (see Romans 8:1-2).

Does God Take Political Sides?

But does this kind of spiritual discernment apply to the tortuously complex political realm as well? Reinhold Niebuhr observed that politics is the hard work of negotiating “proximate solutions to insoluble problems.” In such a complex reality can we ever get to a place of confidence that we are making the right choice of what to believe or who to vote for?

Very practically, does the Holy Spirit lead us to vote Republican or to vote Democratic or do we even believe that the Holy Spirit cares which way we vote? Are we just left to our own fallible human preferences or does God have preferences that we need to discern? In Lincoln’s second inaugural address he says of the North and the South, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other…the prayers of both could not be answered…that of neither has been answered fully.”

Lincoln’s insight helps us humbly accept that God does not take sides according to our human political desires. Rather, I believe that he selectively answers our prayers and prompts our actions according to his divine wisdom and purposes. In other words, it is crucial that we discern God’s ways for developing our convictions rather than just asking him to bless our political opinions.

As we head into this campaign season, I feel passionate about how our Christian faith must affect our country’s current political climate and choices. I don’t want to shy away from feeling conflicted. But neither do I want to remain in an immobilized state. I want to speak and act on what I discern and believe to be right. This blog is my effort to encourage others to be salt and light in a decomposing and dark political culture. Please join me in this endeavor. And if you feel conflicted along the way – you are probably on the right path!