Searching for the Center
The recent forced resignation of Rich Cizik from the National Association of Evangelicals has revealed a number of tensions within the Evangelical community. In addition to the internal struggles within the NAE as to what their particular future holds, there is also the battle for the future of Evangelicalism as a whole. On one side of the proverbial aisle, Jim Wallis and other leftists are gleefully declaring the death of the religious right. At the same time, the powerhouses of the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family are gearing up for a rallying of their conservative base, in an attempt to consolidate their power. While the usual suspects of the religious right and left seek to control the face of Evangelicalism, there is an alternative to the politics of old that is gaining momentum: the Evangelical center.
The Evangelical center is rapidly coming into prominence. Numerous books and articles have been written detailing the importance of finding an alternative to the left/right dichotomy that is so engrained in our culture. Even politicians who have long capitalized from the pitting of one side against the other are now realizing that there are in fact a great number of people who would label themselves centrist or moderate instead of hard right or left. The reasons for this sudden rise in centrist politics, or more specifically, Evangelical centrist politics, are several. First, there is a general consensus that people have been growing tired of business as usual when it comes to the contentious subject matter of politics. This is only increased by the fact that business as usual has been, as of late, a rather bad sort of business. The economy taking a dive has only highlighted voters’ desire for something new. In this past election cycle practically every candidate on the ballot emphasized the need for “change.” Secondly, and more specifically for our purposes, the rise of the Evangelical center is coming after several decades of the Evangelical world being dominated by figures on the right. Deservedly or not, many of these figures have garnered a tainted image, and a lot of Evangelicals wish to distance themselves from some of their fiery rhetoric and blind partisanship. At the same time, most Evangelicals do not like how distant the left is, recognizing that they would merely be trading one party’s ideology and its problems for another.
Because of all these factors there are many people searching for the center in Evangelical politics, but by many accounts, the center is proving to be incredibly hard to find. There are a number of reasons for this. First of all American politics is firmly entrenched in a two-party system. This means that in order for someone to have any manner of influence whatsoever, he or she must find a place in one of the two parties, which of course is not conducive to a centrist approach. This in turn has led to most of the country being raised in either Republican or Democrat homes. When one has grown up identifying with a party and ideology it is very difficult to break from that type of partisan thinking. This means that even when someone does attempt to find the center, they are coming at it from either the left or the right, which causes others who are trying to find the center from the opposite side of the aisle to feel put off by the liberal or conservative tendencies of their fellow centrists. Finally, the center is hard to find because there is no one organization with which centrists can identify. So instead of there being a strong group around which centrists can rally, we are left with a loose nebulous of an idea, rather than the strong parapet of an established leader.
Yet, despite all these obstacles, it cannot be emphasized enough the importance of finding the Evangelical center, for there is so much at stake. The secondary title of David Gushee’s recent book is, The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center, and I don’t think there is a better way to put it. As Christians our first and foremost responsibility must always be to share the good news of the Gospel. The success or failure of a political action can only be measured in how closely it represents our God to a fallen world. But with the hyper-partisanship that so many Evangelicals engage in, this witness is badly damaged. Not only can one make a strong biblical argument for a centrist approach to politics, but finding the center will allow us to distance ourselves from the bad implications of the current two-party system, implications which, sadly, all too often we find ourselves defending. Finally, finding the center will allow us to not be beholden to a party’s leader, but to the Head of the Church. The world needs to know where our allegiance truly lies. A biblical approach to politics will go a long way towards correcting our misplaced loyalty.