Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Curse of the Theological Moderates: Ruminations on Reaction Formation

What is a moderate anyway? The dictionary (dictionary.com to be exact) offers up nearly a dozen senses or nuances of the adjective, noun, verb.

Interestingly, the first definition caught my attention: “kept or keeping within reasonable or proper limits; not extreme, excessive, or intense.”

By this standard one would expect self-identified “moderates” to be, well, er, ah . . . “moderate.” Yet, in my somewhat careful reading of the writings of theological moderates over the past two years in a variety of blogs and message boards (at least the Baptist ones), it has been my observation that much of the time they are anything but “moderate.”

Rather than calmly measured rhetoric and argumentation, they often display the greatest passion and intensity. Yelling, name calling, ridicule, over-the-top sarcasm, proof-texting, ganging up, use of false and misleading “facts,” reluctance to apologize when proven wrong, legalistically adhering to the “rules” of the “board,” netiquette, etc., self-righteousness, and an odd combination of quixotic idealism and a dogged preference for whining victimhood characterize much of the electronic speech by the theological moderates I have been reading.

Why are the moderates so angry? What animates their “extreme, excessive, or intense” non-moderate moderation?

Recently a moderator active on a couple of the most popular “Baptist” forums took to answering the question, tongue firmly in cheek, when he commented on some of the fireworks over on another Baptist forum. He opined:

“I don't know why we don't get more angry fundamentalists, but my guess is that the tone here is much friendlier, even though we probably have more true fundamentalists and liberals posting here than at [the name of the other forum]. Moderates are just mean.”

Some years ago Andy Griffith recorded a comedy album featuring the bit “What it was was football.” In it he described a backwoods boy being dumped into the crush of humanity going to a college football game. Unable to understand the rules made for hilarious comedic turns. He finally concluded that the goal of the game was “to get from one end of the cow pasture to the other without getting knocked down or steppin’ in somethin’.”

In a similar vein, not having a Southern Baptist Convention background is a real liability when reading Baptist blogs and forums. The SBC “resurgence”/”takeover” has produced such polarities of opinion that just describing the history by either term virtually brands you as a partisan in the feud. And, much as with the mythic argument between the Hatfields and the McCoys, the SBC “conservatives”/”fundamentalists” and "liberals"/"moderates" (there you go again with the fighting terms!) have so much invested in the battle, that you can get yourself shot at by either faction simply by inadvertently trespassing on a conversation with a rich and factious cultural/ecclesiastical backstory unknown to you.


So, Andy Griffith style, here is my explanation of what is going on with the “moderates.” They appear to be mostly ex-fundamentalists who have evidently retained much of their famous anger. However, instead of being mad at the liberals and ready to relegate them to hell’s fire as the fundamentalists do, the moderates are just as ticked at the fundamentalists and can’t resist telling them to go to hell.

Much of my theological heritage during jr. and sr. high was shaped by a moderate congregation and theologically “progressive” Baptist pastors with all of the attendant frustrations and hypocrisies of mainline religion. Consequently, I have spent most of my adult years running to the right to find “Truth” (capital “T” please). My moderate friends mostly grew up in a fundamentalist culture with all of the attendant frustrations and hypocrisies of fundamentalism. They appear to be devoting themselves to a pell-mell rush to the left.

Interesting. Liberals are not very liberal in their refusal to be open to those to the right of them. Conservatives spend more time suffocating the truth than preserving it. And, moderates are the least “moderate” of the bunch. Maybe Andy Griffith could do a bit on Baptists?

8 comments:

Amill-Presup said...

Clever way to frame things, but I'm afraid that you are employing the logical fallacy of equivocation here. Looking up "moderate" in the dictionary and quoting a definition of a moderate temperament and then comparing it with the temperament of those who are theologically moderate (or even “ecclesially” moderate) makes about as much sense as looking at people in Delaware (a “blue state”) and questioning why they aren't literally blue. The hypocrites! They should be blue. Not tan or brown or peachish.

As one of the "militant moderates," I guess I can answer the question of what's got us so mad... it's people (on either side of the fray) who want to insist that all dissenters be excommunicated. To me, that's like someone showing up at a football game and demanding that anyone who wants to throw or catch has to leave. But they still love football and have great respect for the game!

Look at it like this: say the ABC is our Providence. Well, dissenters didn't have to leave Providence. They could build their Congregational churches, their Catholic churches, even the first synagogue in America. Mind you, that didn't mean the Baptists wouldn't hold fierce public debates about infant Baptism, the ordinances, etc. It just meant that they all still lived together and accepted each other when the debates were over. So it looks like we Baptists have been militant moderates from the start.

My question for those on the fringes, now calling down fire on both the liberals and the moderates (sheesh, I guess the only ones who are okay are the fundies): are you Holmes, taking the beating like a Baptist, or are you the Colony, laying on the beating and then kicking everybody out who doesn't agree? (sure, sure, you didn't have the numbers to expel ALL the liberals plus ALL the moderates, so you just pulled out...but that's a move of necessity, not for lack of trying to “take it back.”)

Dennis E. McFadden said...

“Clever way to frame things . . .”
Thanks!
“. . . but I'm afraid that you are employing the logical fallacy of equivocation here.”
Only if “moderates” do not customarily enjoy the nuance of moderation which seems to attach to the term. Many liberals like to piggyback on the sense of liberality and broad-mindedness conjured up by the term “liberal”; conservatives often like the emotional image of someone “conserving” something of value. Similarly, in very many contexts and conversations I have found “moderates” to want “credit” for taking a moderate and reasonable tone while the “fringes” act like crazy people.

“My question for those on the fringes, now calling down fire on both the liberals and the moderates (sheesh, I guess the only ones who are okay are the fundies)”
You doth overstep, sir. My closing line spoke of the fact that we ALL suffer from inconsistencies: liberals who cannot be “open” to those to their right; moderates who are anything but moderate; conservatives who stifle the truth rather than conserving it. In my intended sweep, that takes in the whole lot of us. There was NO intention to make that list partial rather than exhaustive.
“. . . (sure, sure, you didn't have the numbers to expel ALL the liberals plus ALL the moderates, so you just pulled out...but that's a move of necessity, not for lack of trying to “take it back.”)”
Frankly, your observation is not true to what I experienced first hand during the withdrawal discussions. Unlike the SBC/CBF controversy, there were NO conservatives (to my knowledge) who wanted national power, position, or office. We all had our own day jobs. At the Denver biennial I could NOT convince some of my moderate and progressive friends that there was not a “take over” strategy. Some of them insisted, bolstered by words from some in the Office of the General Secretary, that there was an alternate slate of officers and that MY name was on it as vice president!!! That kind of thinking NEVER entered into our minds.

And contrary to what you may think, “kicking out” was never the PSW issue either. We never expelled ANY congregations over theology (at least in the past three decades of my first hand knowledge).
Our beef was with not with Baptist diversity—left or right. Our problem was that an elite in VF insisted on mouthing the words that our national “policy” is that something was “inconsistent with Christian teaching” while promoting openly gay ABC clergy to positions on the General Board, Executive Committee, Nominating Committee, Biennial program committee, chair of national program boards, etc. It just seemed like a little too much “in your face” to PSW.
To use kindergarten playlot language (and don’t turn it back on me too hard since it applies to moderates and progressives just as much), here was the problem: “They” wanted our money, refused to respect our sensibilities, threw it back in our faces, and said, “Fine if you don’t like it leave.” We left.
Actually, it is my opinion that IFF the Tucson Covenant hammered out a couple of months ago in the annual GEC meeting had been negotiated with the left two years ago, PSW would never have withdrawn to become TM. We knew that the ABC was a mix of left, middle, and right. That was not the problem. And, contrary to what some apparently believe, we had no interest in witch hunts (e.g., one of my dearest friends in the old PSW [for whom I have served as a personal reference] had been an AWAB pastor in the east prior to coming to our region). Tucson promised that the left would not shove people in the face of the denomination who lived a lifestyle that the General Board had already declared to be “incompatible with Christian teaching” in 1992. And, frankly, if the left honors their promise, I suspect that no other region will leave the ABC over this issue.
So, no, nobody in PSW wanted to “take over” the ABC (ala SBC resurgence), purge the ABC of progressives and moderates, or replace existing persons in national leadership with themselves. Indeed, since we were socialized in an ABC culture, we did not want to “fight” it out to the end anyhow. When it was obvious that change was not forthcoming, we simply left.

Amill-Presup said...

> You doth overstep, sir. My
> closing line spoke of the fact
> that we ALL suffer from
> inconsistencies: liberals who
> cannot be �open� to those to
> their right; moderates who are
> anything but moderate;
> conservatives who stifle the
> truth rather than conserving it.
> In my intended sweep, that takes
> in the whole lot of us.

Then why isn't the article called, The Curse of the Everybody?

> Frankly, your observation is not
> true to what I experienced first
> hand during the withdrawal
> discussions. Unlike the SBC/CBF
> controversy, there were NO
> conservatives (to my knowledge)
> who wanted national power,
> position, or office. We all had
> our own day jobs. At the Denver
> biennial I could NOT convince
> some of my moderate and
> progressive friends that there
> was not a �take over� strategy.

If that's true of the PSW, then there must be a "vast left-wing conspiracy" going on to misrepresent the facts. At any rate, in my region, those who are "right of moderate" most certainly do want the power, at both the regional and national levels.

And perhaps the PSW hasn't disfellowshipped any churches lately, but plenty have been disfellowshipped. You're speaking about moderates in one big, broad lump, and that's how I'm speaking about those who have pulled out, those who are in the process, and those who are conspiring...

Anyway, I've never applied the term "moderate" to myself in any way that implies I'm "mild-mannered." By "moderate" I mean that the only dog I have in the fight is that I don't want to deny any dog the freedom to stay and fight. Cos then you no longer even have a fight. And once we're not fighting, are we really Baptist anymore?

Dennis E. McFadden said...

“Then why isn't the article called, The Curse of the Everybody?”

Touché! Actually, I had been reading some very, VERY, VERY angry Baptist “moderates” over on a couple of Baptist message boards. That got me thinking of how funny it was that “moderates” are anything but moderate. The title was not selected until after a “Google” image search turned up the graphic. So, the cool graphic drove the title.

“If that's true of the PSW, then . . .”

Having always been known for never having an unuttered thought, it always sets me off when people don’t believe my hyper-candid descriptions of things. So, at the Denver biennial, when person after person came to me insisting that I was part of a vast evangelical conspiracy and that my name was actually on an alternative slate that was too much. When they told me that members of the Office of the General Secretary told them the story and vouched for its truthfulness (along with a few other alienating experiences), I came home, began a blog and never looked back.

“At any rate, in my region, those who are "right of moderate" most certainly do want the power, at both the regional and national levels.”

Perhaps because the right has such a majority in the southwest (although not an absolute lock), issues of jockeying for power do not come up all that often. I just don’t know that many politically ambitious folks here. Even though I was one of the three people interviewed as finalists for the PSW executive minister post a decade ago (i.e., must be “pretty” involved), I would not want a regional or national office under any circumstances.

“And perhaps the PSW hasn't disfellowshipped any churches lately, but plenty have been disfellowshipped.”

Hey, go blame the people committing the crime, not someone in a region where it has never happened. I am not responsible for what somebody does in some other region.

“And once we're not fighting, are we really Baptist anymore?”

Sadly, there is truth in your statement. But, for some of us with more than 50 years in the family, withdrawing was anything but a lark. Is was, is, and shall be painful and wrenching.

But, hey, as one very learned cleric once wrote: “Having finally lost some of the most contentious, least Baptistic among us was like removing an infected limb before the infection could spread.”

Dennis E. McFadden said...

BTW, Amill-presup,

I just re-read my original post. Having once been in a moderate congregation, my conservatism comes sans the evident anger of so many EX-funamentalists. How do you react to my "Andy Griffith-esque" description of moderates as ex-fundamentalists who are still angry and can't resist cussing out the fundamentalists?

Amill-Presup said...

> How do you react to my "Andy
> Griffith-esque" description of
> moderates as ex-fundamentalists
> who are still angry and can't
> resist cussing out the
> fundamentalists?

Like I began my comments, it's a very clever way to frame things. And I usually enjoy cleverness. Reminds me of a line from Fight Club:

"How's that working out for you?"
"What?"
"Being clever..."
"Great."
"Keep it up, then."

-A.P.

Amill-Presup said...

BTW, you really seem to like the old "throw someone's quote back in his face" trick. Like you're the king of keeping a "record of wrongs." Sorta like a cross between the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Serpent in the Garden. :P

Dennis E. McFadden said...
This comment has been removed by the author.