Extremism is no Virtue, and Moderation is no Vice

“Extremism in the cause of liberty is no vice.” So said politician Barry Goldwater in a famous speech. The fringes of the political right embrace this dictum. Today it seems to be the motto of political talk radio. And many conservative Christians seem to think it ranks right up there with Churchill’s wartime exhortations.

Except that it’s utter foolishness.

Lately, Christians seem to be living by this maxim, evidenced by their over-the-top political rhetoric, displayed in their Facebook feeds, their bumper stickers, and their endlessly forwarded junk emails—all the great forums of political discourse. As I write this, the top conservative radio talk show celebrity has just labeled Pope Francis a Marxist. This radio entertainer has no education in political science, economics, or theology, yet he feels competent to analyze the Pope’s recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) and judge him to be a commie. I roll my eyes so hard I can almost see inside my brain. This kind of incendiary ignorance promotes hatred, foments division, and fosters bigotry. But lots of conservative Christians will think it’s just great.

Don’t be one of those people.

You might think I’m talking politics. I’m not. I’m talking the Bible and the Reformed Confessions. Scripture demands that Christians use civil language in debate. “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). The Apostle Paul also speaks to honoring and respecting the authorities ordained by God—and in Paul’s case, these were pagan Roman authorities who persecuted Christians. Some Christians today speak with less respect and more contempt of the president than Paul did of the Roman Emperor. “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Rom. 13:7). In the Belgic Confession, art 36, we confess: “Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word, praying for them that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways and that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and decency.” It’s that holding them in honor and respect that has been cast aside by too many Christians who think extremism is no vice.

But a vice it is: sinful, unbiblical, arrogant, harmful to the witness of the church.

You might think I’m some kind of liberal, or a Marxist, like that commie Pope in Rome. I’m not. I shoot guns. I don’t think big government is the answer to every problem. But to call the Pope a Marxist is slanderous nonsense. His letter reflects Catholic social teaching and concern for the poor that goes back a long time. In fact, it was shared almost point-for-point by some guy named Abraham Kuyper, the Reformed theologian and Dutch prime minister. Catholic social teaching, in turn, goes back to the Bible, which repeatedly urges Israel, and then the church, to care for the poor. But a big segment of the church today (including, recently, a well-respected financial guru) assumes the poor are lazy; they all feel entitled. But such attitudes are clueless; they reveal a simplistic and self-righteous perspective on poverty. Poverty is complex; it can enslave people in a cycle from which many cannot escape just by working harder. I know poverty. When I was a child, my single parent mother bought groceries with food stamps. She was able to get out of poverty only because she had certain advantages: supportive parents and a state-subsidized university. Not everyone has or can avail themselves of such advantages.  The early church cared deeply about the poor (Gal. 2:10) and gave generously to the poor. But today all some Christians seem to give them is scorn and judgment.

Barry Goldwater, after claiming that extremism is no vice, followed up with the claim, “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

Wrong again. Particularly for Reformed believers, moderation is one of the highest virtues. John Calvin ranked it near the top of his list. Listening respectfully to someone who disagrees with you is a Christlike act, because it means putting your own cherished opinions on hold for a moment, in order to respect another person who bears the image of God. As James says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” (1:19). Moderation means confessing that I do not have all the answers, that I could be wrong, that people of goodwill can disagree.

I see the same sin in politically left-leaning Christians as well. Liberals, too, can speak of those who disagree with them as dimwitted Neanderthals. But this is not the predominant temptation in our community. And not all political cartoons or humor or critical posts cross the line; civil disagreement and even parody are revered forms of free speech. But lately it seems that the line is crossed so often that it hardly exists anymore. When I see your Facebook posts that are hateful and disrespectful to our current president, I try to ignore them. But I wonder if I should. Today I saw a post (not from a member) that showed a hangman’s gallows and the words: “Recall Process Simplified.” Funny? When the comments suggest our African-American president as the prime candidate for the noose, it is pretty hard not to associate this with the racist lynchings of our recent history.

Don’t be one of those people.

Don’t repost stuff that is borderline racist. Don’t post conspiracy theories about the president being born in Kenya or being a Muslim or hating America. Those are lies, violations of the commandment about bearing false witness. Disagree vigorously with the president’s policies (I’ll often agree with you), but do so with the respect and civility that God himself requires of Christians in Scripture, which we affirm in our Confession. Remember that what you say, what you post, what you forward, reflects on you as a Christian, and thus on the church of Jesus Christ, and its witness. Because extremism is no virtue, and moderation is no vice; particularly when those who bear the name Christian speak in the public square.