The battle is on and it has been on. For most of us who grew up in an evangelical tradition, it dates back to the evolution-fundamentalist controversy at the turn of the 20th century.
Today, many refer to it as “the culture wars.” In its contemporary expression there are at least two sides. The conservatives, or traditionalists, who are largely motivated by religious ideas and often a particular faith tradition. On the other side, the progressives, or liberals, are motivated by either some idea of personal freedom and autonomy or some affirmation of religious pluralism.
Often the competing sides are portrayed as uncaring, militant or consumed by their archaic tradition. The truth of the matter is that both sides are committed to ideals. They believe something enough to fight passionately about it. The worse part of it is that “the culture wars” are a false dichotomy that forces those in the middle to defend a side and leave a reasoned search for truth.
Ultimately, we are not going anywhere. Our political and theological landscape is riddled with landmines and roadside bombs waiting for someone to ask a question about gay marriage, abortion, women’s rights or even prayer in schools. By now, we should have developed a demilitarized zone for the purpose of political stability.
The greatest problem with the culture wars is that it is a war – not a search for truth. Traditionalists talk about standing on the wall and holding back the onslaught of the liberal hordes; liberals proclaim that they are defending personal freedom from the ones who will drag us into a theocratic totalitarian state. Even our rhetoric is charged with the vocabulary of battle. We have left reasoned debate decades ago. Passion has ruled the day and causes us to see red.
In order to see the end of the culture wars, we must do three things: acknowledge the convictions of all sides, develop common ground for a reasoned debate, and learn to play nicely in the sandbox with others.
The first thing that we must do is to acknowledge that each side has particular ideals to which they hold dear. The only way to move forward in a conflict is to acknowledge that we have a conflict and acknowledge what principles are at stake. So much of our political marketplace today is filled with unstated and unevaluated assumptions.
The Republican Party is no more for the rich than the Democratic Party is for the poor. Both parties hold foundational assumptions about how economics works. Without stating these assumptions, one is forced to resolve an invisible conflict with an unknown foe. In a sense, we are fighting without having a clear idea why. Step one is to acknowledge that ideas matter.
Next, we need to return to our common ground. As an undergraduate, I learned that in open debate Christians have two things in common: the Bible and the rules of logic. Unfortunately, I also discovered that nothing brings havoc to theology and politics like the Bible and logic. So much of our modern argumentation is rhetoric.
Unfortunately, modern rhetoric is about winning debates, not the search for truth. We need to take a page from the history of ancient philosophy and medieval theology and painstakingly evaluate our ideas and arguments based upon the Bible and logic. While this is not a new strategy, it has become a foreign concept. We need to leave the age of sound bites and begin to ask questions first, speak later.
Last, each of us inside and outside of the public debate needs to relearn how to play nicely in the sandbox. We need to return to a cooperative spirit in our search for truth. Few sandcastles of truth are built by one person. In short, we need others to force us to reconcile our own foundational beliefs in our personal search for truth.
The people on the other side of the theological and political aisle are the catalyst for forcing us to rethink and re-evaluate how we view the world. They are not the opposition. They are our intellectual allies in this search for truth. This open debate shuts down when the participants lack a respect for the ideas of others. Therefore, we need to lay aside our caricatures and straw men in order to get to the heart of the issue. The only way out of this endless war is to end our political name-calling and let logic, reasoned debates and the Bible evaluate ideas.
Monty M. Self is the instructor of spirituality at Baptist Health Schools Little Rock and the oncology chaplain for the Baptist Health Medical Center – Little Rock.