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Choosing Sides: The Temptation to Transcend Politics

David Mills

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Many of us, of the activist but bookish sort who read and write for magazines like this, know well the feeling that one does not want to be associated with either side of a divisive public debate and the wish that there were some other choice, some third way transcending the polarized positions in which everyone else is entrenched as helplessly and ineffectively as the French and German armies on the Western Front.

This feeling sometimes comes from intellectual snobbery, more often from an impatience with the limits of politics, there being an idealist if not a utopian in most of us. It may come also from a genuinely nonpartisan mind. We can see that people in any conflict tend to settle around two poles for reasons that don't always take into account every possibility. As Christians who have only a temporary and pragmatic allegiance to any earthly political movement, we can sometimes see alternatives the partisans cannot.

Tempting Politics

There may often be a third way to think about the issue at hand, and Christians must keep enough distance from current political passions and partisan political commitments to see it if it is indeed there. But of Third Ways, that perennial political temptation, we must be wary.

Proposals for Third Ways need particular discernment, because they appeal so strongly to the Christians' proper desire to remain independent of worldly parties, and such independence is most easily established by saying a pox on both houses. Both their possible truth and their appeal to our self-interest make Third Ways very seductive.

They are always dangerous, but particularly so at the moment, when the public square is so divided, and one reason for the division is the "absolutism" of Christians who reject the compromises that satisfy the majority. It is not only an uncomfortable but a risky position, when principled "divisiveness" is equated with "extremism" and "extremism" defined as that which deserves no public voice.

The Third Way offers an apparently honorable way out. It promises to quell the divisive public debate by satisfying both sides. The problem is that it is generally promoted by those who want to avoid the discussion of principle that divides the sides, while nevertheless practically supporting one principle and effectively denigrating the other.

Read the entire article on the Touchstone Magazine website (new window will open).

Posted: 20-Mar-07



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