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Contentions

“Their Presentation Partook Less of Argument Than of a Tribal Incantation”

James Forsyth is the marvelous senior pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church. He wisely doesn’t give sermons on politics. But he said something that I (and not necessarily he) took to have has some application to politics.

The Reverend Forsyth warned that one of the dangers within Christianity is that “every issue becomes a hill to die on.” He had in mind doctrinal differences that should, in the broad scheme of things, be relatively minor, yet which some people instantly elevate to a matter of high principle. Every issue becomes a referendum on the authority of Scripture. Which leads to unnecessary divisions. And those who disagree with us are people who are not only wrong; their views are a product of bad faith.

Something similar, I think, occurs in politics. For some political activists, both right and left, all issues are of nearly equal importance. All constitute a hill to die on. Those who see things in a different, less apocalyptic light, are deemed to be unprincipled, weak, and hopelessly compromised.

My own sense of things is that driving all this is a kind of psychic satisfaction that is produced by engaging in relentless combat, including (and sometimes especially) with the perceived infidels on one’s own side. Those who possess this cast of mind revel in polarization. They crave separation. They are in principle opposed to comprise. Their mindset is that the other side is malevolent and needs to be destroyed, not negotiated with. The willingness to die on every hill is a moral virtue, a sign of commitment and purification.

To be sure, there are some hills that are (figuratively) worth fighting for and dying for and some lawmakers who will never take a principled stand for fear of blowback. And none of us can know with certainty how to determine whether we are compromising on a key principle or not. We all have issues that are important to us and drawn lines we will not cross. Yet increasingly I have come to believe that where we choose to fight has less to do with the issues per se than with our dispositions and emotional make-up. And unless we understand that, we won’t fully understand what is really at play. We think we’re debating the merits of an issue when we’re really at odds over temperament and certain deeply help perceptions and attitudes.

The Scottish author and politician John Buchan, in writing about the Liberal Party in Scotland in the early part of the 20th century, said, “Its dogmas were so completely taken for granted that their presentation partook less of argument than of a tribal incantation.”

He went on to say this:

While I believed in party government and in party loyalty, I never attained to the happy partisan zeal of many of my friends, being painfully aware of my own and my party’s defects, and uneasily conscious of the merits of my opponent. Like Montaigne I could forgive “neither the commendable qualities of my adversaries nor the reproachful of those I followed.”

I will be the first to acknowledge that seeing our own (and our party’s own) defects and the merits of our opponents is among the hardest things in politics to achieve. As I understand Buchan, though, it doesn’t mean that we give up on core principles or refuse to criticize those whom we think are making errors, particular grave errors. Rather, I take him to be saying that many of us ought to be a bit less dogmatic, that even our understanding of eternal truths periodically requires what he calls “spring-cleaning,” and that many of us should demonstrate something of a lighter touch as we journey through this world. And if in the process we now and then dispense a healing grace, so much the better.


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