A Third Way?

Michael Metzger

Our son Mark recently asked me to describe my politics. Here’s the gist of what I told him.

With Inauguration Day coming up (January 20), it’s a fitting time to talk politics. I like to think my politics reflects the original meaning of the Greek word polis, for city. My wife Kathy and I live in Annapolis, the City of Ann, named after Lady Ann Arundel (1615-1649).

Politics is how we as individuals cobble together our city, or community. In this sense, everyone is political, whether or not we recognize it. Even the Amish, with their almost total separation from the wider world, are political, putting their into practice how they understand what makes for healthy communities.

A rather extreme example I grant you, but it underscores Vaclav Havel’s point in The Art Of The Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice. Politics is morality in practice. And that’s why it’s impossible, for achieving a consensus on a moral (i.e. good) society is never perfectly realized.

That’s because consensus requires accommodation, compromise, give-and-take. It’s art more than science. Lyndon Johnson understood this, both as Master of the Senate and President of the United States. I say this even though I disagree with much of what he considered moral.

Havel had a better understanding of politics as morality, although he was not religious in any formal way. In his first major address, he told Czech citizens, “I assume you did not propose me to this office so that I, too, would lie to you.” We could use some Havels today.

And so I describe my politics as political in the best sense of the word: Seeking to achieve a consensus regarding what makes for a flourishing community through respect, accommodation, compromise, give-and-take; understanding it’s largely unachievable in terms of ever being complete. But it can form what the preamble of US Constitution calls “a more perfect union.”

In other words, better than before but never perfect. I like to think my politics runs along the lines of an ancient tension between things we ought to conserve and things we ought to change. The former is a hallmark of being conservative, the latter of being liberal. I believe Christians ought to hold to both, conservative and liberal, both/and, while recognizing we lean one way or the other.

I lean toward the conservative, as conservatives have a better grasp (or used to anyway) on the macro issues including economics (conservatives also have historically held to the sanctity of unborn life). But I have to come to see how liberals are better at the micro, touching human hearts with moving stories of, say, inner-city families devastated by crime.

Put another way, liberals tend to talk people while conservatives tend to talk policies. We need both. But in 2020 I’ve felt pulled toward the liberal side as I’ve experienced firsthand how Covid-19 has disproportionately crushed Hispanic occupations and lives. I’ve felt this in the pop-up pantry my wife and others pulled together for the Hispanic community. Most of the pantry leaders, those most in touch with Hispanic lives week in and week out, tilt liberal.

[btw, this past Friday morning, January 1, MSNBC featured a story on one of the pantry’s leaders. Click here to watch the interview, as well as the pantry in action.]

I feel that all of us working the pantry, conservative and liberal, see firsthand Damian Barr’s great observation of 2020 that he recently shared on Twitter. “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some were in yachts, some rowing alone in small skiffs. Some would sail through, health and professions intact; others would lose both.”

Most of my conservative friends are sailing through, including me. But upward of 80 percent of the +500 Hispanic families at our most recent pantry have lost work. What we’re seeing is a K-shaped recovery. But I wouldn’t feel it if I wasn’t getting my hands dirty on stinkin’ hot summer days and freezing winter mornings. I’m not patting myself on the back. I likely wouldn’t be at the pantry week in and week out if I wasn’t married to Kathy. I probably would have just written a check (what conservatives tend to do more than liberals).

So I describe my politics as conservative/liberal. But I recognize this doesn’t appeal to most Americans, as most are politicized. This includes Christians right and left who see their party as the end-all for making a better world. These believers tend to be deficient in respect, compromise, give-and-take. They’re poor at loving their neighbors.

Our politicized nation means hardly anyone today is conservative or liberal. Politicized conservatives tout conservatism, which advocates “trickle-down” economics (which hardly ever seems to trickle down to Hispanic families). Politicized liberals tout progressivism to help the poor, advocating government redistribution of wages (all while progressive leaders typically enrich themselves off the redistributed revenues that hardly ever reach everyday people.)

In terms of political parties, this makes me Unaffiliated. Washington is broken. Can it be fixed? I don’t know, but I doubt it. We need a third way. We might start with Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. Haidt’s a liberal atheist. But he’s respectful of conservatives, noting they score higher than liberals on three of five moral foundations for a flourishing society. If Haidt’s right, a third way would be conservative/liberal.

And it would correct what the writer of Ecclesiastes warns against: Do not be excessively righteous. Why would you ruin yourself? (7:16). Politicized Americans, including Christians on the right and left, are excessively righteous. They’re ruining our country. A third way, one that’s conservative and liberal, would offer all Americans a way to not be excessively righteous.

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13 thoughts on “A Third Way?”

  1. Thank you so very much for this. Your son is blessed to have received such a wise response to his question.

  2. Very well thought out viewpoint. I have found that much of my conservative values have been shaken by the last four years of Trump’s presidency. I now see that government can be a solution for our countries problems if we are willing to try and fail until we get it right, I think that we must become more active in our communities and try to bridge the gap between rich and poor, black and white. Only then can we heal our communities.

    Kudos to you and others like you who show Christ in action!

  3. Mike, in practice, in faint memories of learning about the founding of the Republican party, it was a third way that “stuck” rather than fell apart. That “third way” led to a new party, and the third-way-thinking Republicans came mostly from only one of the two extreme parties (the Whigs) and were willing to see their original party fall apart. Kinda’ like burning the ship they sailed on. That period was one of huge conscientiousness with regard to slavery. A question might be whether national “third way” policies or action can be achieved in any other different way – it can be hard to tell if conscientiousness can roll toward the formalities of new party leadership – and that would be considered, I imagine, “excessive righteousness” by those who were “turned away from” in the party left behind. It takes an intelligence electorate to generates third-party formal change, but since our electorate is trained to be “bought-off” thru their elected officials bringing home the bacon – going without bacon is a sacrifice not often made.

  4. I was halfway through your post and thinking, I need to recommend Jonathan Haidt’s book to him. It is such a great explanation of the different lenses through which people view morality. Like you, I skew liberal on some issues and conservative on others. I do not fit in any of the boxes. I appreciate this thoughtful piece. Thanks my friend. Blessings to you for this New Year!

  5. I, too, found Haidt’s book very helpful for decoding why the liberal/conservative conversations come a cropper most of the time. And I think Tom Sowell’s book, the “Conflict of Visions” has been the most helpful in understanding the very different visions of the means for achieving goals both share (peace and prosperity) are more perfectly achieved. I leave it to you to evaluate which vision best corresponds with a biblical view of human nature.

  6. Thanks, Mike. Your struggle is one many of us who follow Jesus have in living out our political discipleship following the one true Lord of America and the world. We feel “homeless,” stuck outside the silos of America’s partisanships. I’m finding groups like the Center for Public Justice (cpjustice.org) very helpful in providing me a political “home” in today’s America. They follow a “third-way” trajectory seeking to discern from early Christian traditions the public justice elements in American conservatism/liberalism. Much of what they say sounds very like the wisdom you shared with your son. Your comments were truly encouraging to me.

  7. Bravo, Mike. This entire election season, I’ve been advocating for not tying our Christianity to one party or the other. A pastor friend of mine distributed John Wesley’s rules for voting on yard signs – and that’s the first time I’ve had a yard sign. Wesley wrote to an inquirer who asked for counsel on voting:
    1. Vote for the person you judge most worthy
    2. Speak no evil of the person you voted against
    3. Take care your spirits are not sharpened against those that voted on the other side

  8. Hi Mike,
    Christians need to acknowledge that the country (government, citizens, churches) is quite like Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. Our politicians have written many laws thumbing their noses at the Lord, and our culture and many churches and other faiths are also thumbing their noses at him. This is reality. Can the Lord make the dry bones live? We know he can, but will he? We are like a massive graveyard, having ended up there by constant disobedience to the Lord’s known will. The first thing needed in America is true repentance and revival. A spiritual awakening is the only pathway forward. May the Church wake up.

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