Learning to tolerate the tension

By Tom Krattenmaker

USA TODAY, July 16, 2012

Feel the tension? There’s a lot of it out there in the body politic this season. We have tension between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama supporters, between Republicans and Democrats, between religious conservatives and secular liberals.

“Tense” is not the state in which most of us are looking to spend our summer vacations. Yet as two of our best politics-and-culture commentators remind us in their recent books, there’s a different and healthy kind of tension we should respect in this age of narrow-sighted, all-in commitment to our pet idea or philosophy, as if it were the only valid thing out there.

Government is killing free enterprise. Government must protect our benefits. The religious nuts will run the country off a cliff. We need to turn back to God. So go the competing battle cries. Yet as Ross Douthat and E.J. Dionne argue in Bad Religion and Our Divided Political Heart, respectively, our religious and political life has always benefited from healthy tension between competing principles. This tension is inevitable but, more than that, a key to our renewed success —if only we can learn to appreciate it.

Douthat, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, writes about all that has gone awry in recent religious history. He describes the devolution of a religious and civic consensus that held until the 1950s into the free-wheeling, fractured religious landscape we see today. “A nation of heretics,” as Douthat frames it.

Things we rail about

Reviewing Douthat’s copious examples of religion gone wrong, you sense a striking pattern. Whether it’s religious liberals who take “anything goes” all the way to its end point (i.e., why be religious at all?) or religious-right nationalists who claim that the Founders were evangelicals who birthed a Christian nation, the same crucial problem emerges: The things we rail about, though usually true in part, are often miles out of context and further still out of proportion.

Take, for example, the evangelical prosperity preachers who, in their popular books and TV programs, assure with warm smiles that God wants you to have the material riches of your dreams, if only you believe. Douthat heaps scorn on televangelist Joel Osteen and others of this ilk as much for what they have forgotten as for what they dispense. What’s missing is an understanding of the virtue of being materially poor and in setting our sights on ideals higher than material success. Separated from its non-materialist moorings, Douthat argues, “Christianity risks becoming … a faith that’s bound, perhaps fatally, to the rise and fall of the gross domestic product.”

A faith that is at once personal and universal, clear as crystal yet murky and mysterious, a balm for our unsettled souls yet deeply challenging to our complacency, fixed on a savior who is both human and divine — Christianity is nothing if not resistant to either/or pigeonholes. Douthat, a Catholic, laments the growing inability of Christians to abide a Christianity of mystery and paradox — to live, in other words, in the tension between the contradictory impulses of a Christian life.

To state the obvious, both/and thinking goes only so far. As the summer’s big courtroom verdict underscores, sexually assaulting children, for example, is just plain wrong, as Jerry Sandusky gets to contemplate over the remainder of a life that is likely to be spent in prison.

Good vs. another good

But reading Douthat and Dionne, and thinking carefully about the political and religious arguments roiling the public square, you realize that we’re usually arguing not about good vs. bad, or right vs. wrong. Often, it’s about one good vs. another good, or one usually valid principle vs. another usually valid principle.

Take the clash we see this election season in the arguments about individual freedom vs. an ethic of looking out for the poor and vulnerable, often through government interventions. Dionne, a Catholic like Douthat, but unabashedly liberal, vigorously challenges the out-of-context conservative talking points so often heard on the airwaves and Internet. Is the Constitution really and only about protecting individual freedoms and states’ rights? Absolutely not, Dionne argues.

“We need … a more realistic view of the Founders,” Dionne writes, “that honors them for their efforts to balance their philosophical principles and their practical concerns. … They understood the possibilities and limits of government, and they honored individual rights and the imperative of building a durable sense of community, nationally as well as locally.”

Dionne keys the title of his closing chapter to these seemingly contradictory words: community and freedom. Don’t you have to choose one or the other? No, and that’s the point. As Dionne states, “Because we have forgotten that the tension at the heart of our national experiment is a healthy one,” he says, “we have pretended that we can resolve our problems by becoming all one thing or all another.”

We probably won’t learn to love this tension, but maybe we can come to tolerate it, and even value it as the check we need against our society becoming so enamored of one good thing that we forget all the others.

Tom Krattenmaker, a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.