Why Pushing Right is Harder than Pushing Left
It’s true institutionally, and not just personally. When, forty years ago, churches like the one I belong to started to emerge, they were pushing left with gusto, and they were loving it. Lifeless hymn sandwiches? Let’s get some experience of God in our meetings! Legalistic lists of things we can and can’t do in church? We’re under grace now! Tradition? Yah, boo, sucks! (Or words to that effect.) And despite all the mockery and all the marginalisation they experienced, there was a sense of being part of something fresh, and revolutionary, which made it all worthwhile, and brought whoops of delight from the church (“we may be ridiculed for being happy clappy - but we’d rather be happy clappy than humpy grumpy!”)
These days, though, the boot is often on the other foot. The things that make me, and my church, the subject of ridicule now are not areas in which I’m pushing left, but areas in which I’m pushing right. The things I believe are the same as the things my Dad believed a generation ago, but the church landscape has changed, making me a reactionary rather than a revolutionary. Charismatic gifts are mainstream (at least in the UK); people across the spectrum fall over themselves to talk about how grace-filled they are; churches which preserve tradition at the expense of experience are dying slowly. So the things that make me and my church stand out are now the areas where we’re conservative: a high view of the gathered church, biblical authority, an orthodox view of hell, Reformed soteriology, complementarianism, and things like that. And for some reason, pushing right on these things doesn’t feel anything like as exhilarating as pushing left on the other things. It doesn’t draw the same whoops from the crowd, nor the same admiration for being courageous. (In fact, when I get called courageous at all, it’s usually for pushing left on something that most people approve of, even though this requires much less real courage than pushing right. It may just be me, but I think it requires far more bravery to say the things Al Mohler says than the things Brian McLaren says, even though the latter is far more likely to be admired for his courage.)
So I was wondering: why is that? I recognise sin in my own heart in this area; the temptation is to push left on something for the sake of it, just to feel creative and new and quirky and impish again, even if the real need is for someone to stand up and hold a line. But why does the spectrum work that way (if it does)? What factors make going left cooler than going right? Why is there so much more swagger in those who push left (“well, if I was going to be very controversial, ooh-er, I’d cheekily ask whether the Bible actually does mean that, as dangerous as it is to say so!”), even when it is normally far less dangerous to ask the question than to answer by reaffirming what the church has always said about something? Why does that generally hold true, even down to the comments on this very blog?
My guess is that there are at least three factors at work. The first is to do with the youth-centred spirit of the age, in which freshness is more fashionable than faithfulness, innovating inspires people more than imitating, technology trumps tradition, and novelty is confused with creativity. Many still think that the Dylanesque call to change everything your parents stood for is iconoclastic, without noticing that true iconoclasm is to be found when people challenge the deepest convictions of a culture, and (say) teach that children should obey their parents rather than tell them to move over because they don’t understand the world no more. When you add to that the modernist metanarrative of progress (which is not completely dead yet), and the wider social obsession with the possibilities brought by technology, it is easy to see why the view could creep into the church that changing things was Good and conserving things was Bad.
The second is equally obvious, in some ways, but it is worth saying anyway: contemporary secular culture is well to the left of the Bible on most things it teaches. Non-Christian Britain thinks the Scriptures are backward on all sorts of topics, including judgment, evolution, tradition, war, marriage, slavery, sexual ethics, holiness, gender roles, and the idea of teaching doctrine in the first place. So when we move to the left, we are almost without exception moving closer to what the culture around us thinks, and that makes the process much more comfortable for us. (I’m not saying, of course, that moving to the left is thereby wrong, merely that it is easy - and therefore that, if I know my own heart, the temptation to distort the Bible to get there is likely to be more acute.) Moving to the right, on the other hand, makes us more likely to be ridiculed by The Independent, Stephen Fry, the writers of sitcoms, our social network, and all the other cool-ade people we desperately want to like us. It shouldn’t, but that does make it harder.
The third factor, related to this, is that the victims of excessive rightishness are much easier to identify, and to feel sorry for, the victims of excessive leftishness. An anti-war protest is much easier to recruit for than a pro-war protest. It’s easy to make movies, or posters, about the victims of slavery and domestic abuse; not so much about the victims of abortion, since they don’t live long enough to be given names. When a couple splits up through unfaithfulness, causing massive pain to their children, the individualistic, morally leftish values that made it possible are not personified, and nobody blames the newspapers, TV shows or movies that make short-term romantic fulfilment life’s ultimate purpose. Being ostracised for challenging church dogma makes a great story, but being gradually dulled to the wonders of God because the gospel is not being preached clearly does not. Suffering under authoritarian leadership results in a narrative with clear goodies and baddies, replete with emotive terms like “spiritual abuse” and “cultish leadership”; the thousands who go nowhere under directionless leaders, with churches being endlessly hijacked by oddballs and dominated by the loudest voice there, have far less grotesque villains and do not lend themselves so compellingly to Oprah. In the modern world, if you’re going to make a public argument, you need a victim and a villain. And leftish victims and villains are just that bit more identifiable than rightish ones.
So there’s three reasons why I think pushing right is harder than pushing left. Practically, my guess is there’s some implications we should draw from that, affecting the way we lead, teach, and (yes) blog. But I’m done for now. I’d love to hear your thoughts.