Tell me, John Danforth, what would Jesus do?
In a panel discussion about the relationship between religion and politics held on Wednesday in Battell Chapel, Episcopal priest and former Sen. John Danforth spoke of the ways in which political leaders have polarized the nation along religious lines, dividing us by our faith. He proposed the following solution: Meet in the middle, come to the center.
Well, sure, that sounds nice — all this talk of compromise, dialogue and middle ground. But is it the morally correct way to go? This kind of rhetoric assumes that the center of any issue possesses some kind of innate truth that can appease both parties. Yet if a flat-earther asserts the globe isn’t round while an astronomer argues that it is an oblate spheroid, it would be absurd to ask them to compromise and say that the earth is in fact shaped like, say, a dodecahedron. Middle ground is not always truthful soil.
Furthermore, the center itself is an elusive target. President Bush’s opinion ratings fluctuate daily; our opinions on the Iraq war have transformed from patriotic enthusiasm to soured fatigue, and in the span of just three years, Britney Spears has gone from being a pop icon to a white trash punch line. Quoting Yeats, “The center cannot hold.” Constant attempts to reach a compromise of moderation only stagnate politics and relativize truth.
Danforth asserts that is it ethical to compromise our beliefs for the sake of maintaining unity, and perhaps for trivial issues it is. If I want chocolate ice cream and my boyfriend prefers vanilla, we could agree on vanilla with hot fudge and call a truce; the truth is that it doesn’t much matter, and by the end of the week, we’ll probably have forgotten that we ate ice cream in the first place.
But we aren’t talking about trivial issues. Religious fundamentalists adopted their political ideology because they believe that conversion to their form of Christianity is essential to save the souls of the unfaithful; at stake for them are the futures of the unconverted that face an eternity of damnation and alienation from God. At the other end of the spectrum, religious progressives fight for the equality of each member of God’s created order, equality rooted in biblical passages like Genesis 1:26. To them, denying gay couples the right to marriage creates an oppressive system within society, a system that needs to be undone if Americans are to live in a country that adheres to biblically based tenets of equality and justice. To do otherwise insults God’s injunctions to humanity. So, it isn’t hard to see why the idea of a straight-down-the-middle compromise has just about as much appeal as King Solomon’s suggestion to two potential mothers of the same baby: “Cut the infant in two and you can each take half. Hey, it’s a compromise, right?”
Although I hardly think we should stop doing unto others or turning the other cheek anytime soon, I do question the supposition that centrism is truly a Christian virtue. The Rev. Sen. Danforth would do well to recall that Jesus was not a center-loving kind of guy. He spoke with Samaritans, healed lepers, chose women as his disciples, argued with Pharisees and performed miracles on the Sabbath. Jesus challenged the people of his day and pressed them to ask what it meant to be in proper relationship to God. And he didn’t do that by finding a comfortable middle ground — he did it by stating, bluntly and sometimes even harshly, what he believed was right in the eyes of God.
I mean none of this to imply that I do not believe in reconciliation. I could not call myself a Christian if I didn’t. But I also couldn’t call myself a Christian if I compromised on the issues upon which Jesus stands firm. And I couldn’t call myself a Christian if, by compromising, I condoned philosophies that I thought would make Jesus would roll over in his grave — or, more appropriately, in his heavenly throne.
Ecclesiastes tells us that to everything, there is a season, and surely there is a time for compromise. After all, even God haggled with Abraham over how many righteous people it would take to save Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction! But when it comes to compromising one’s beliefs, morals or integrity, we would be better off standing firm. After all, John Danforth, that’s what Jesus would do.
Danielle Tumminio is a 2003 graduate of Yale College and a third-year Yale Divinity School student.