The populist Jim Hightower wrote a book not long ago titled, “There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos“. Yup.
Was having lunch a few days ago with a friend of mine, a former Methodist Pastor. We were talking politics, what else? Lots of criticism on how we as a nation are treating the “least of these”, soon we were reviewing the state of the national health care plan. We were both bemoaning the fact that once again, private enterprise will profit from people’s ill health, and that a “public option” or some type of health care access for all is still an impossible dream. We found shortcomings in President Obama’s leadership style. In fairness to a leader that always seems to seek consensus and build bridges within the community, I defended him by pointing out that this style had been how he had always led, going back to his days at the Harvard Law Review. Back then, when he received the title of Editor of the HLR, it was obviously a milestone in terms of racial inclusion. The expectation was that he would appoint more minorities onto his editorial staff, more women and other students that might not have had that kind of opportunity. Instead, Mr. Obama appointed not one, but three Federalist Society students. (The Federalist Society is the ultra conservative law association that supports what they label “strict constitutionalism” and other conservative legal principles. They promote their ideology even among law students by scholarship and other sponsorships.) When Obama appointed the Federalist students at Harvard, his more moderate and liberal companions were astonished. He was adamant that he could bring all of the various student groups together, he set out to prove that he could achieve consensus. Of course, this was at a (perceived) liberal university, in a more moderate if not progressive time in our history. He brought this attitude of reconciliation from a position of power (both from his newly awarded title and prevailing culture.)
As I reviewed Obama’s background with my friend, I pointed out that indeed, he still seemed to identify himself as a great and diplomatic peacemaker. At about this point in our conversation, my lunch partner slammed his fist down on the table and shouted, “The Arrogance!” Heads turned as my french fries went airborne like popcorn. I had to shhhh him as he began his critique. ”Who does he think he is, the Messiah? The Chosen, the great healer? No, he’s not THE chosen, but one that was ELECTED to represent common people: working people without insurance, without jobs, in need of a fair chance in this country.” It was a good point. And most importantly, the POTUS’ current efforts to seek compromise with the national political parties leads the discourse ever rightward. Dig in your heals as a moderate, and take two steps to your right. Rinse, repeat. It’s awfully hard to leverage a compromise from a minority position. And now Paul Krugman of the NY Times has further articulated this argument — that those who claim to stand in the middle are losing their core principles in an effort to appear as peacemakers. The desire to be seen as somehow fair and balanced has allowed their ideals to slip further into alignment with wealth and corporate interest, and further away from the Least of these. Krugman no longer blames the right for what ails us, but suggests the “Cult of the MIddle” is destroying America.
“We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating — offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion. So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent — because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship…The cult that I see as reflecting a true moral failure is the cult of balance, of centrism.”
We religious moderates try so hard to be fair, to bend over backward to show our love for all sides. We talk about having “Holy Conversations” and desperately want everyone to “come to the table.” If issues like immigration, LGBT inclusion, or the disparity of wealth in our community are too hot, we quietly defer and talk about something else to keep the peace; meanwhile, the ultra conservatives control the conversation with those hot issues and have no problem loudly preaching their own, fundamentalist understandings. When we voice objection to the filling of their bully pulpit with partisan rancor, they feign the pain and hurt and outrage of a chastised toddler, skillfully downplaying their own powerful, ongoing conversation. If necessary, it’s easy for them to pivot the discussion to one of people and not ideas. Rather than have an honest theological discussions, it’s just too easy to scare progressives – just label them “divisive” or loudly insist that their “fringe” views are harmful and destructive for the church body. Nothing will back a progressive down faster than an accusation of hurt feelings, no matter what the message is really about. The centrists appeal for calm, pray for peace, ask for Holy Conversation between both sides, schedule a meeting, don’t you know. But the middle is a place that you can lose your soul.
Krugman reminds us:
And yes, I think this is a moral issue. The “both sides are at fault” people have to know better; if they refuse to say it, it’s out of some combination of fear and ego, of being unwilling to sacrifice their treasured pose of being above the fray. It’s a terrible thing to watch, and our nation will pay the price.
Imagine the Christ as centrist… “Sure, the Romans that are enslaving you us understand things differently, so let’s all examine our unique perspectives together and find commonalities in our shared experiences.” The Prince of Peace never fought a physical battle, but He stood his ground on principles. He struggled for those who struggle, and the battle came to him. Thankfully, he never ran back to that yellow stripe in the middle of the road.