Trending the Wrong Way

Michael Metzger

See if you agree or disagree with this statement: “Even elected officials who are deeply religious sometimes have to make compromises and set their convictions aside to get results while in government.”

That question was used in a survey of Americans conducted by Public Agenda, a respected independent nonprofit that does opinion surveys to clarify public attitudes about complex policy issues – from education, foreign policy, and immigration to religion and civility in American life.  Public Agenda findings show that support for compromise on issues that involve religious principles (e.g., abortion, gay rights, and bioethics) is shrinking among all Americans.  As a nation, we seem to be trending the wrong way as measured by our capacity to make decisions on matters that divide elites – even those issues where there is broad agreement among the general public.  Sadly, one group – evangelicals – doesn’t view this uncompromising trend as a bad thing.

Public Agenda found those who never go to religious services favored compromise by 82 percent (down slightly from 85 percent four years ago).  But while the percentage of Americans supporting “give and take” fell 10 points between 2000 and 2004 (down to 74 percent), it was much steeper among evangelicals (down to 63 percent – a decline in just four years of 16 points from 79 percent).  It seems that the more deeply committed Christians are, the more they view compromise as sin, at least metaphorically.  Viewing compromise as problematic contrasts sharply with the outlook of earlier evangelicals – namely, William Wilberforce and the original “patient Christians of Clapham.”  They had a different metaphor in mind when it came to compromise.

“We may not always know it, but we think in metaphor,” says George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley and author of numerous books including Metaphors We Live By.  Images (i.e., metaphors) shape the way we understand our world.  In Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, Lakoff says conservatives paint a “strict father” frame of reference that accounts for their beliefs.  Through this lens, discipline, self-reliance and private ownership are good (shaping the way they see solutions to the looming Social Security crisis).  Liberals, on the other hand, carry a different metaphor in their head –a “nurturing parent” image that assumes the world is basically good and can be made better. It is the role of government to take care of others for whom we are all responsible.  Hence, liberals see Social Security differently.

It seems that modern evangelicals see public engagement differently from most other Americans.  But we shouldn’t.  Because we live in a fallen world, our worldview asks us to think about what “can be” (and there will always be a gap between what “can be” and what “ought to be”) and that is why a Christian should compromise.  Put another way, the Christian worldview – guided always by “what ought to be” – recognizes falleness and, in practice, asks “what can be” and admonishes the believer to be humble (which translates to “don’t let the best be the enemy of the good”).  In other words, take what you can get and count every step forward as a victory.

The metaphor for William Wilberforce, as biographer Kevin Belmonte puts it, was that of “being a bridge-builder in public life – to persuading those with whom he disagreed, and commending his views through civil discourse.”  Wilberforce believed in “Christianity without distinction” which “professes an equal regard for all human beings.”  Abolition, public health initiatives, educational and prison reforms, working for better conditions in factories – all these and many more good works sprang from Wilberforce’s image of bridge-building as virtuous.

For Wilberforce, compromise was not sin, it was part of what he once described to Thomas Jefferson as developing “concerts of benevolence” – pulling together disparate groups for the common good.  “A principle on which I have acted for many years,” Wilberforce later wrote to his son Samuel, “and which I recommend to you early in life, is that of bringing together all men who are like-minded, and may one day combine and concert for the public good.  Never omit any opportunity, my dear Samuel, of getting acquainted with any good or useful man.”

The alternatives to compromise are conquest, defeat, or stalemate.  Looking back over European history – especially the last 100 years – deeply ethical intellectuals like Michael Polanyi and C.S. Lewis came to believe that those who have passionate commitment to a system of belief are most willing not only to die for it, but to also kill for it.  Compromise is the fruit of a clear conscience and a requirement of self-governance in a fallen and pluralistic world – and ought to be endorsed by evangelicals who want faith to be taken seriously in the public square.  Instead of affirming the “great divide” that defines much of our public life, let’s reverse the trend by working to identify the variety of approaches for making things work – approaches that can be accepted by others that still show an allegiance to Christian values, virtues and principles.


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