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Why Our Polarized Nation Needs Moderating Voices

In 2006, political and economic commentator Kevin Phillips published a lengthy book, “American Theocracy,” setting forth three predominant problems he believed were threatening the U.S. position as a leading world power.
These issues – revealed in the book’s subtitle, “The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century” – were forces that brought an end to previous world powers (with oil representing the dominant energy source) and, if unaddressed, would bring an end to the United States as a leading world power, Phillips said.

Reading the book today, it is easy to forget that it was written six years ago as a contemplation of what was to come if patterns continued – not a contemporary commentary on current affairs.

While Phillips provided a detailed analysis of these inextricable issues, the chapters focusing on the negative effects of radicalized religion are especially pertinent in light of the growing religious polarization and the ever-receding moderating middle ground.

Phillips said that “the precedents of past leading world economic powers” – he focuses on Rome, Hapsburg Spain, the Dutch Republic, Great Britain and, presently, the United States – “shows that blind faith and religious excesses … have often contributed to national decline, sometimes even being in its forefront.”

The growing religious excesses in the United States are revealed in comments by conservative and liberal Christians following Obama’s re-election.

On the liberal side, EthicsDaily.com recently reported about the polarizing comments of Cornel West, Union Theological Seminary professor, who criticized Obama for not being liberal and progressive enough, calling him “a Rockefeller Republican in blackface.”

On the conservative side, the Christian Post reported that Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told his supporters that “this was supposed to be the morning when Americans got up and shook off the nightmare of the last four years. Instead, they awakened to a new one: a profound drubbing of the Republican Party that is supposed to be the guardian of the conservative vision our nation so desperately needs.”

While the polarizing nature of these comments is clear, the extent to which religious polarization exists today is more evident when reading comments from Christians who believe they are offering a moderating voice.

In a recent article, a retired pastor stated that he “will not be lamenting the demise of America” in the wake of Obama’s re-election. This is a positive, moderating position.

However, his comments directly following were not: “The republic will survive another four years of an Obama administration. The country survived a couple of generations of Democratic control of the House of Representatives. We survived a civil war. We have endured much over the centuries at the hands of corrupt, inept and incompetent politicians and have survived.”

Proclaiming that the election of a president will not bring the downfall of a nation is a helpful, moderating statement.

Proclaiming that “the republic will survive” as it has survived “a couple of generations of Democratic control … a civil war … [and] the hands of corrupt, inept and incompetent politicians” is not.

This implies that, under Democratic leadership, the nation can only hope to survive, and equates the current administration with “corrupt, inept and incompetent politicians.”

It is in this polarizing climate, exacerbated even by some who believe they are moderating the divide, that Phillips’ analyses of the destructive effects of radical religion in previous world powers becomes increasingly important for people of faith in the United States.

If this nation wants to avoid the pattern detailed by Phillips that took place in previous leading world powers, people of faith who choose to take a moderating path will have a significant role to play, as Robert Parham’s recent article asserts.

Over the past few years, in an effort to insert a moderating presence into an increasingly polarized society, EthicsDaily.com has published numerous articles encouraging people of faith to engage in civil and respectful dialogue.

These articles, written by people of faith who would label themselves in a variety of ways, reveal that you can strive to be a moderating presence whatever your political, social or religious perspectives.

In other words, to be a moderating presence does not require that you take a moderate, middling position on issues.

What it requires is that you choose to engage in civil, respectful dialogue, whether your view of a given issue is liberal, conservative or somewhere in between.

As I wrote previously, being a moderating presence is not a matter of whether we come to agree with one another, but how we choose to engage one another when we disagree.

The challenge is to put these moderating exhortations into practice, because, as Phillips’ analysis makes clear, radical religion has a history of dividing and dismantling even the most powerful economic powers of the world.

Zach Dawes is an ordained minister who lives in Austin, Texas, having served churches in Georgia and North Carolina. He blogs here.