Saturday, March 10, 2012

How Liberals and Conservatives Talk

            You’ve heard Liberals and Conservatives—and their extreme cousins, Radicals and Reactionaries—talk. Conservatives say, "Slow down! We need to hold the line on change for a while. Let’s wait till a consensus to emerge before we move ahead with new policies." Liberals, on the other hand, say, "Let's go! We are way behind the times. Let’s move ahead with ordaining practicing gays (or allowing kids at the Lord’s Table, or demanding that the government act more vigorously to alleviate poverty). Reactionaries—extreme Conservatives—say things like, "Now you've done it. I'm out of here. I want to start over with a new church that eliminates all recent changes. I want no part of them." And Radicals—extreme Liberals—say things like, “You haven’t done enough. I’m out of here. I want to start over with a new church (or no church) that changes everything.

            In this somewhat academic blog post, I want to explore how we, as Liberals and Conservatives (mostly) and even Radicals and Reactionaries (well, at least a few of us) talk about the church. Or, better yet, I guess I’d like to write about how our talk about change helps us understand our Liberal or Conservative selves.

            So first I need to define a few terms. First, structure. The structure of a church is its legal, organizational and cultural aspects--everything from confessions to church orders, from congregations to ethnic habits. Second, drift. Drift is how the pendulum swings within culture. Over the past fifty or even one hundred years, most commentators would agree that within most denominations, regardless of their starting point, that drift has been leftward. So, in Canada’s United Church, for example, the Primitive Methodist current has mostly been swamped by Unitarian and other theologically Liberal currents. In the United States, the original isolationist currents of Fundamentalism have been overtaken by political activism and media savvy. And, where Fundamentalists used to dress differently, watch no TV at all, and discourage higher education, they now (even at the beach) dress the same as everyone else, watch the same TV, and have many of their own institutions of higher education.

            My thesis is this. Conservatives and Liberals both accept current church structures. But while Conservatives and Reactionaries are suspicious and concerned about the current drift to the left, Liberals and Radicals are not. Ironically, however, Reactionaries and Radicals, unlike their more moderate partners, both reject current church structures. They want to break them down or start over. Reactionaries tend towards independentism or building new church denominations while Radicals tend to drift out of church all together. The following illustration might help keep these distinctions straight.


<<-----------------------Religious Structures----------------------->>

Radicals              Liberals        Conservatives             Reactionaries
(reject                   (both accept structure)                 (reject
structure)                                                                        structure)

<<-----------------------------Religious Drift-----------------------------<<
(Radicals, Liberals                                   (Conservatives, Reactionaries
Accept the drift)                                       Reject the drift)


            Now, those on the left and the right have favored ways of trying to get their point of view across. While certainly not limited to these strategies, more often than not, these are the fallback positions.

            Liberals and Radicals, depending on how far left they are, tend to argue from circumstance or situation. They say things like, “We need to fix the inner city’s poverty,” or “Look at the suffering in the Sudan! What can we do to alleviate it?” Liberals are motivated by difficult realities like crime, illness, racism and illiteracy. They get to work to fix such things. Conservatives and Reactionaries tend to argue from purpose or principle. The say things like, “the Bible is inerrant!” or “Everyone has to subscribe to our denominational confessions,” or “we need to find the truth.” Conservatives and Reactionaries are motivated by the great ideals that have been handed down to them, by the laws of the universe, and by the rules that embody them. The get to work in order to bring people back to or rally people around their ideals.

            People on the left and the right also have peculiar ways of working together (or not). In the middle, the Liberals and Conservatives who want to stay with current church structures treat issues one at a time because they and the world we live in are complex. They understand the dangers of oversimplifying. Thus people who hold to middle positions tend to see many causes at work in the church rather than just a few. Causes that both Liberals and Conservatives are concerned about include secularism, less literacy, wealth, new interpretations of old passages, youth culture, TV, leisure, social pressures, and so on.

            The extremists, on the other hand, Reactionaries and Radicals, tend to treat all issues as related since the world, in their mind, is really pretty simple. Extremists love simplistic slippery slope arguments that suggest everything is headed in one direction. Thus they tend to reduce the causes to a very few, usually negative, ones: refusing to take the word of God seriously, or refusal to take alienation or poverty seriously.

            But Liberals and Conservatives are also different in how they tend to communicate. Conservatives and Reactionaries on the right argue deductively from principal (ie, if scripture or the confessions say so, we must accept that). Liberals and Radicals on the left tend to argue inductively from experience. So, if there is suffering, then we better do something about that. The right argues from written documents and cultural memory: laws, confessions, and traditions. The left argues from relationships and people, striving to improve the lot of people via equality, progress, or openness.

            The bottom line is that I think the past generation or two has seen a marked shift away from the center and towards the fringes. As people read and study less they are also less able to describe complexity or put up with bureaucracy. So they reject the structures while holding every more extreme opinions that make conversation ever more difficult.

            So what do you think? And where do you fit in?

(This blog post was informed by the scholarly work of the late Bernard Brock, a mentor and teacher for me. As a communication theorist at Wayne State University, he was especially interested in the political arena. But his ideas can easily be adapted to the church setting, and that is what I’ll do here.)

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