The Involuntary Moderate

David French summarizes a tension I often feel between my faith and my politics:

“I’ve always been conservative. In the left versus right context, I’ve always considered myself a man of the right—the Reagan right. But when the extremes grow more extreme, and the classical liberal structure of the American republic is under intellectual and legal attack, suddenly I’m an involuntary moderate. 

So, for example, I’m a person who believes in the traditional Christian doctrines of marriage and sexual morality. I don’t believe in sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman. I don’t agree that trans men are “men” or that trans women are “women,” and while I strive to treat every person I encounter with dignity and respect, I don’t use preferred pronouns because their use is a form of assent to a system of belief to which I don’t subscribe.

That makes me pretty far right, correct? Not when the right gets authoritarian or closes its mind and heart to the legacy of real injustice. I’m apparently the conservative movement’s foremost defender of the civil liberties of drag queens. I’m constantly decried as “woke” in part because I don’t discard all of the relevant insights gained from critical race theory, I strongly oppose efforts to “ban” CRT, and also because I believe in multigenerational institutional responsibility to ameliorate the enduring harm caused by centuries of racial oppression. 

The through line is pretty simple. I’m both a traditionally orthodox Christian and a strong believer in classical liberalism, pluralism, and legal equality. I’m a believer in those political values because I’m a traditionally orthodox Christian. I want to create and sustain the kind of republic that was envisioned by George Washington at his best, a place where “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” 

I do not want to commandeer the government to “reward friends and punish enemies,” and I do want to protect the fundamental freedoms of even the most strident of my political opponents. This is not because they’ll like me if I do, but because it is just and right to defend the rights of others that I would like to exercise myself.” 

Two important concepts come to mind as I read this: allegiance and Lordship. Christians are called to declare their allegiance to Jesus as Lord above all other priorities and worldly allegiances. Stated another way, we are to love Jesus supremely and follow his commands even if they conflict with the values and demands of the surrounding culture or the strategies of our preferred political party. And it so happens that one of Jesus’ central commands (taught in his Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan) is to love your enemies and treat them with dignity. Based on this radical Christian love ethic, David French defends what he sees as the great value of classical liberalism, which grants equal free speech rights to all. But his defense elicits the ire of far-right conservatives who would like to suppress certain types of free speech which they deem destructive. Their message to French is simple: “You aren’t allowed to call yourself one of us if you defend your enemies’ right to free speech.”

French’s predicament is not just a sad example of extremists whose views would undermine classical liberalism. It is a troubling—and at the same time, inevitable—consequence of anyone who believes in Jesus’ Lordship. You become, as it were, an “involuntary moderate”: an offender not only of the party you typically oppose, but of the party with which you consider yourself most closely aligned. Thus one prominent evangelical theologian has argued, “How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t“.

It is tempting at times to interpret the principle of Jesus’ Lordship to mean that the only proper political path for Christians is to find the middle road between extremes. But centrism for its own sake is dumb. There will almost always be a contingent in your political party who thinks you are compromising too much, or not enough; and the reasons why will vary by issue, the political climate of the time, etc. To commit yourself entirely to the middle ground would therefore be merely another way of putting something else, in this case a political strategy, above the Lordship of Jesus. You might even appear calm and reasonable on the outside, while harboring a sort of internal self-righteousness and pride. “I’m not like those crazy extremists out there. I know how to keep a level head and see the best of both worlds.” Centrism can of course be a useful descriptor and a helpful method of action and analysis, but it would be just as unwise and unbiblical to let it become the ultimate interpretive lens for your political identity as pronouncing your party the exclusive province of God. Our calling as believers is to obey God regardless of how others categorize us. Sometimes that will mean taking a radical stance that certainly could not be called “centrist”, or, for that matter, “liberal” or “conservative”. Jesus himself was frequently put to the test on his political stance, as different factions sought to pin down his agenda. His agenda, to their endless bafflement, was nothing like they expected or imagined. He offended everyone.

All this to say, I sympathize with David French’s situation, while simultaneously taking it as a sign of his sincere faith. Like him, I am committed to the traditional orthodoxy of Christianity, and lean conservative on most of the social issues he mentions. Also like him, I am convinced of the despicable reality of systemic racial injustice (and I would also add that I think there is solid evidence for climate change) and remain committed, on Christian grounds, to classical liberalism—all while rejecting the modern far-right movement’s bombastic “victory-at-all-costs” impulses, to say nothing of its tendencies towards conspiracy theories and its attacks on our democratic institutions. Thankfully, one of the nice things about being a Christian is that even if I don’t have a home in a particular political party, I will always have a home in Jesus himself; and not for anything I have done but solely because of his grace.

[John 14:] “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God;[a] believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?[b]3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.”[c]5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” 7

Image Source: Pew Research.