The tyranny of true believers


Robert Samuelson takes a look at Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort”:

It’s not red and blue states so much as red and blue counties. Bishop — a recovering newspaper columnist — collaborated with Robert Cushing, a retired professor of sociology from the University of Texas, to examine voting patterns in presidential elections. They classified counties as politically lopsided if one candidate won by 20 percentage points or more. Their findings are stunning. In the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election, a virtual dead heat, 33 percent of counties qualified. By 2000, also a dead heat, that was 45 percent. In 2004, it was 48 percent.

Bishop, like many others, has exaggerated the extent of the polarization. Evidence of growing differences of opinion among the general public — as opposed to tinier political elites — is slim.

Consider two decades of polls from the Pew Research Center. On many questions, there was little change. One question asked whether “government should care for those who can’t care for themselves.” In 1987, 71 percent agreed; in 2007, 69 percent did. Or take immigration. In 1992, when the question was first asked, 76 percent of respondents favored tougher restrictions; in 2007, 75 percent did. On some cultural issues, opinions converged. In 2007, only 28 percent thought school boards should be able to “fire teachers who are known homosexuals,” down from 51 percent in 1987. In 1987, only 48 percent thought it was “all right for blacks and whites to date each other”; by 2007, 83 percent did.

The “Big Sort” of residential segregation is still reshaping the political landscape, though more indirectly. With fewer competitive congressional districts, the real political struggles now often take place in primaries, where activists’ views count the most. Candidates appeal to them and are driven toward the extremes.

What Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “the vital center” is being slowly disenfranchised. Party “bases” become more important than their numbers justify. Passionate partisans dislike compromise and consensus. They want to demolish the other side. Whether from left or right, the danger is a tyranny of true believers.

Now consider this Q&A:

Mohler: Now you are affiliated with and a priest of the Diocese of Central Florida, that’s known as more of the conservative of the regions of the Episcopal Church. I would compare that to San Francisco, or Washington, or Los Angeles. In what sense are you really part of one church at this point?

Conger: We’re not part of one church in the sense that I could not function… A priest from, say, San Francisco who was a gay man or had been divorced and remarried, for example, could not come to where I am near Orlando and function as an Episcopal Priest. I could not get a job or license because of my theological views in many parts of the Episcopal Church. There is no interchangeability of clergy. It’s become Balkanized along doctrinal and theological views.

Has the Episcopal Church lost its vital center?

Related posts: Bishop’s Big Sort; More on “The Big Sort”

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2 Responses to "The tyranny of true believers"
  1. Normally I am not quick to cite Constitution & Canons, but Canon III.9.4, on Letters Dimissory, is rather generous:

    If a Priest has been called to a Cure in a congregation in another Diocese, the Priest shall present Letters Dimissory. The Ecclesiastical Authority of the Diocese shall accept Letters Dimissory within three months of their receipt unless the Bishop or Standing Committee has received credible information concerning the character or behavior of the Priest concerned which would form grounds for canonical inquiry and presentment. In such a case, the Ecclesiastical Authority shall notify the Ecclesiastical Authority of the Diocese in which the Priest is canonically resident and need not accept the Letters Dimissory unless and until the Priest shall be exculpated. The Ecclesiastical Authority shall not refuse to accept Letters Dimissory based on the applicant's race, color, ethnic origin, sex, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, or age.

    I don't think you have to be deeply immersed in The Episcopal Church to encounter priests who have been discriminated against for theological reasons. I think Letters Dimissory clearly address the question of theology in their required form:

    I hereby certify that A.B., who has signified to me the desire to be transferred to the Ecclesiastical Authority of [receiving diocese], is a Priest of [sending diocese] in good standing, and has not, so far as I know or believe, been justly liable to evil report, for error in religion or for viciousness of life, for the last three years.

    On the other hand, because Canon III.9.4 does not explicitly forbid theological discrimination, perhaps some bishops feel justified in practicing theological discrimination. Further, I can understand why one bishop may say to another, sotto voce: Beware of this priest, who has a long record of combativeness, poor pastoral skills, theological recklessness or full-blown paranoia.

    Some bishops show genuine hospitality and welcome rectors from a different theological corner of the church (e.g., John Chane deployed Paul Zahl in Chevy Chase; Gethin Hughes deployed John Chane in San Diego). Other bishops clearly try to reshape a diocese in their own image. Evangelical rectors are notably in short supply in some dioceses. (I'm sure some liberals feel the same way about conservative dioceses.)

    If bishops deployed priests based on a literal reading of the canons, most dioceses would be rather more diverse in theology and piety than they are. I'm not ready to call this a tyranny of the true believers, but neither is it the inclusive festival of friends that receives lip service so very often from our pulpits.

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  2. A priest from, say, San Francisco who was a gay man or had been divorced and remarried, for example, could not come to where I am near Orlando and function as an Episcopal Priest.

    As someone looking for work, I'm very much aware that I might have to move to somewhere, literally or proverbially, "near Orlando."

    If things are as Conger says, shouldn't I/couldn't I perhaps contact 815, saying "My spiritual needs aren't being met, as a 'Democratic-Majority Episcopalian'---can you send someone?"

    It's on my mind. :-/

    JC Fisher

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