Brian McLaren on Left-Right Politics

I am saddened by the polarities that have arisen in the United States. When the Left and the Right demonize the other side and refuse to engage in conversation, we all lose. When those in the church read and listen to only one side of any issue, then we are not being wise. “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” (Proverbs 15:22). I’m seeing a very disturbing trend: people on the Right are exclusively buying right-leaning magazines, reading right-wing columnists, listening to right-wing radio, and watching Fox News. People on the Left are exclusively buying left-leaning magazines, reading left-wing columnists, listening to left-leaning radio, and watching left-leaning news. We surround ourselves with “yes-men” who simply affirm what we already want to believe. We are not being challenged to think in new ways, to find moderating positions, to seek the truth in love. And worse, we convince ourselves that the one-sided position is the godly position. We are not listening to “many advisers,” and therefore we lack good counsel.

I just received the latest issue of Sojourners (Jim Wallis’ magazine on faith, culture, and politics). The cover story is called “A Bridge Far Enough? How would Jesus address the issues of our day?” by Brian McLaren (read it here). Readers of my blog and website know how highly I think of Brian McLaren, one of the principal voices in the “emerging church conversation,” and one of the leaders of Emergent.

Following the lead of the Apostle Paul, who became “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22) and who tells us that God “gave us the ministry of reconciliation”(2 Cor 5:18), McLaren writes in this article about how Christians are called to “build bridges” to connect people of opposing polarities in our contentious political climate in the United States.

He identifies four bridges: (1) The Religious Right and the Secular Left; (2) The Religious Right and the Religious Left; (3) The Secular Right and the Religious Left; and (4) The Secular Right and the Secular Left. He writes, “So, for starters, if we want to be communication bridge people, we need to realize that there aren’t just two kinds of people out there, or one kind of polarization. Becoming all things to all people doesn’t simply mean becoming two things to two kinds of people.”

Then he gives seven pointers for bridge-building conversation, based on the principle that “We must teach what Jesus taught in the manner that Jesus taught it.” (1) We must stop answering questions that are framed badly; (2)We must start raising new questions and issues that need to be raised; (3) We must answer questions with questions; (4) We must go cleverly deeper; (5) We must agree with people whenever we can; (6) We must speak through action, not just words; (7) We must tell stories.

How great would it be if Christians were the ones who did not feed INTO the polarization of American politics but were the RECONCILERS of American politics?


lyricano said...

Although this proposal is in the best spirit of American pluralism, the ideology of the Religious Right does not place much value on community, pluralism, diversity, or compromise. The Religious Right believes it is Right (and others Wrong). Bridgebuilding is a wonderful idea, but first there must be a willingness from the Religious Right to respect civic pluralism and discourse. Otherwise, well-meaning people of good faith will once again be dubed by the Machiavellian Religous Right.

Bob Robinson said...

You are absolutely right about the RIGHT.
I think that the hope is not in seeking to build bridges to the Right's leadership, but with those who follow those leaders blindly.
Offering the kind of things that Brian McLaren suggests will build those bridges...
I know because it was McLaren that built those bridges to me.

lyricano said...

So, you're saying there is hope!?!?!


Bob Robinson said...

Yes, there's hope (if a lost cause like me can change...).

The point, however, is not to make liberals out of conservatives or vice-versa, but to raise the conversation above all that.

McLaren is famous for his "post-..." statements as to what Christianity should become. ("post-modern, post-protestant, post-liberal, post-conservative, post-fundamentalist, post-calvinist, etc., etc.")

In other words, he intends to raise the level of the conversation above the divisions and the squabbles of the past and move forward.

Byron said...

"The Religious Right believes it is Right (and others Wrong)". Come, lyrciano, does this not holdly equally true of the Left, be it secular or religious? "A willingness from the Religious Right to respect civic pluralism and discourse"? Perhaps it depends upon whose ox is being gored, but I'd phrase that thought with equal force and apply it to the Left. Frankly, I'd apply it first to the Left...

Byron said...

As far as McLaren's article is concerned, as far as it goes, it's fine, but I'm struck by the over-generalizations that seem to typify a lot of his comments. I think that there are a few people on either fringe, "Kool-Aid drinkers", for whom his generalizations are pretty accurate, but I'm not certain there are nearly as many, probably on either fringe, as he imagines. The people on the fringe may scream the loudest, but I'm not sure that they represent huge numbers of folks. I'm not totally dismissing his concerns, by any means; he's right to a significant degree, but it'd be interesting to deal in more specifics.

And one other thing: what in the world does THIS mean, when he speaks of "people who don’t want to be defined as red or blue, but have elements of both, and for whom faith speaks to both abortion and war, both sexuality and ecology, both family values and fair, respectful treatment for gay people - then we will need to learn new ways of communication."

My faith speaks to each of these issues, but it doesn't say the same thing that other people's faith says, apparently...

lyricano said...

You are probably correct about individuals (left & right) being dogmatic/intolerant re our own positions. We each try (some harder than others) to come to the best and truest position on every issue that crosses our plates.

However, as a system of thought, religious conservativism takes as a fundamental tenant that it is Right and others wrong. One way to heaven, etc. This is usually harmless to society (and occassionally beneficial). The problem (for our civic life together) is when people insist that their position is the Godly one. Our democracy depends on citizens humbly acknowledging that other positions, gods, and experiences are equally politically.

Small 'l' liberalism takes this pluralistic position as a basic tenant and therefore relies upon process, rule of law, and charters. Religious conservatism, on the other hand, thinks it is Right and therefore is much less concerned about pluralistism, rule of law, etc. Maybe a theocracy would be a better form of government, but for now we live in democracy. Ontological thinking/acting makes a powerful personal morality, but it is simply dangerous to a democracy.

Byron said...


Allow me to respond (and I know you will!). First, you seem to be equating the Religious Right with Christian conservatism. I am a Christian conservative, and I do believe that Christ is the only way to Heaven--He said He was, and if that's not true, He's either mistaken or a liar, right? At the same time, I do not consider myself a member of the Religious Right; my political views, at many points, line up with theirs, and on some others, line up across the aisle. At any rate...

I see no conflict whatever between a confident belief in one's faith, a willingness to say, "I believe that I am RIGHT (who, after all, believes that they are WRONG?), and those who do not agree on this point are, therefore, WRONG", and on the other hand, acknowledging clearly that in a pluralistic society, I am utterly equal before the law with the Muslim and the atheist. For my part, I don't think that you'd find people who DO call themselves "Religious Right" disagreeing with my statement. The Religious Right is not concerned about the rule of law? Come now...the Religious Right lines up (as do I) solidly behind strict constructionists being appointed to the bench. That whole line of reasoning is about NOTHING if not "the rule of law". It is because the rule of law is being trampled upon by activist judges who MAKE law instead of interpreting it that I am so up in arms!

Further, there is no coercion in Christ's gospel; I'd not attempt to FORCE a person to become a Christian any sooner than I'd try to FORCE him to agree with me politically, say, and again, I have little doubt that the leaders of the RR would agree with that statement as well. What I think you have in the RR is a political force that, like all the other groups McLaren mentions, believes that it is right and wants to exercise political sway toward its ends. I think it's as simple as that.

Now, I happen to have some issues, not only with certain of the RR's political stances, but some of its methods as well, but not in the way you might think: I believe, as a Christian, that the RR puts way too many eggs in the basket of political change; that it sometimes engages in some unChristlike ways of going about things, etc. But I believe that what we have in the RR is a group of people who see the institutions and values that they believe have built this country being torn down all around them, the rule of law being obliterated, liberty being turned into license irrespective of community, etc. They're hopping mad, and determined to fight back. I wish they'd choose some different battles, and sometimes fight with some different weaponry. But I think that your analysis is wide of the mark at several key points, and I speak as a person with some "inside connections".

Your friend,


Bob Robinson said...

Byron writes,
"I think that there are a few people on either fringe, "Kool-Aid drinkers", for whom his generalizations are pretty accurate, but I'm not certain there are nearly as many, probably on either fringe, as he imagines..."

This is definitely NOT my experience. I think it is not factually accurate to say it is only a "few Kool-Aid drinkers" who buy the Right's agenda.

Let's lay the cards on the table:
In much of the evangelical church, if Radio Orthodoxy says that they should think a certain way politically, then most think that way politically (that is especially true as it pertains to James Dobson). Justice Sunday I and II were not a "fringe" events, but a heavy indicators of the fact that within evangelicalism, the "fringe Right" is the mainstream.

Byron said...

Perhaps I overspoke; there are probably more than a few on the very fringe, but still, I'd say that McLaren generalizes, and further, I think that you'd be blind to miss many on the other flank who do the exact same thing. Go to the next meeting of the Black Ministerial Association in Cleveland and trying "dissing" Bill Clinton, and see what happens...

Bob Robinson said...

It's good to hear lyricano and Byron interacting on this blog. This is bridge-building at its best--these two individuals represent intelligent voices from the left and the right. Thanks for the dialogue, guys!

DLW said...

I for one would not go listing a whole bunch of possible bridges without giving concrete examples of the sorts of bridging that is taking place or how the struggles differ.

I didn't see anything on bridging between secular and religious left and that seems to be what Wallis is forcing to happen by making his case for the religious left as the source of reinvigoration in the Democratic party.

McClaren says some good stuff, but doesn't seem to have as many good examples of praxis as other writers have, because this really isn't an issue he's spent a lot of time on.


Bob Robinson said...

I think that McLaren's article is more about beginning that bridge-building rather than offering a lot of suggestions on how to do it. It's meant to begin the conversation, not end it (that, BTW, is McLaren's MO in a lot of what he writes--which frustrates a lot of people, but something that I find refreshing).