The Temptation to Transcend Politics
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.
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.
Think of the popular “solution” to the debate over abortion, continually being reinvented by pro-choice writers and politicians as a Third Way between the absolutists on both sides: By all means keep it legal, even through the baby’s partial birth, but feel bad about it and try to reduce the economic causes, which just happens to require social and economic policies they already advocate. The practical effect (surely intended by some of its proponents) is to leave abortion-on-demand as legal as it was.
Or think of the many proposals for experimenting on embryonic human beings that draw arbitrary lines between the kinds of human beings who may be killed and everyone else, dividing them by the number of cells they possess or the number of days they have lived. (Perhaps significantly, this appeal for a Third Way requires euphemistic support, with the experimenters urging the use of the comforting term “Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer” rather than more alarming terms like “cloning” and “embryonic experimentation.”)
Or think of the offering of “civil unions” as a way of giving marriage to same-sex couples without appearing to do so, offered as another Third Way between the absolutists on both sides.
Christians would appear more reasonable to the world were they to accept each one of these Third Ways, and any others offered in the future. Few secularists expect Christians to come all the way over. All they ask is that we be “reasonable,” “moderate,” accept compromise and reduce our demands in order to lower the tensions of life in the public square, to meet them (they claim) halfway. Sometimes they ask, with apparent solicitude, that we be “practical” and not force any issue to a showdown we might lose.
If in these cases and others we agreed to take the Third Way, our lives as citizens would be much easier. We could (and I would not underestimate this appeal) feel relief and pride in standing above the simple polarities that guide the politics of lesser men, for which relief and pride we could give credit to the Holy Spirit. We could feel that we had found a way to be in the world but not of it.
But the public debate over cultural issues like abortion has developed as it has for a reason. Those in conflict over most divisive matters of public life have settled around two poles because they differ on principles, and principles are often either/or, yes-or-no sorts of things.
Some divisions can never be transcended by any Third Way, because the two poles represent eternally opposed ideas, held (at least by Christians) to be truths incapable of surrender. The unborn child has the right to live or he doesn’t. The embryo is a human being deserving of care and protection or he isn’t. A man and a man can’t be married or they can.
What a Christian might do practically, when faced with the imperfect choices presented by politics in a country as divided as ours on almost every matter, is a different and a difficult question. He might accept a solution offered as a Third Way when that is the closest he can get to a public policy the Christian can endorse, as when he approves a restriction on abortion when a complete ban is impossible. That is why we pray for wisdom and why politics should be taken as a high calling.
But what the Christian citizen cannot do is accept the Third Way as an ideal or end. He cannot take it as an excuse to abandon his principles and retreat from the public square. The Christian must maintain his independence and remain open to new ideas, while remembering that at the moment the Third Way is usually the way of death, made as attractive as possible.
— David Mills, for the editors
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Choosing Sides” first appeared in the March 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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