By Rich Carey
The Failure of Dogmatism – Part II
Why moral absolutism loses in the war for culture.
In Part I, I proposed that dogmatism among Christians, particularly Evangelicals, is counterproductive to our goal of transforming culture. If you haven’t yet read it, I encourage you to do so prior to reading this article, so you have a foundation for the perspectives I’m addressing here. By way of review, let’s define our terms:
Wikipedia provides us with this definition of dogma:
“Dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. It serves as part of the primary basis of an ideology or belief system, and it cannot be changed or discarded without affecting the very system’s paradigm, or the ideology itself.”1
Everyone has a measure of dogma in his or her worldview. This is just the way we are wired, and how we make sense of the world in its current state. Dogma is vital to our mental, emotional and intellectual stability. However, not everyone is equally “dogmatic” in his or her beliefs.
Dogmatism is the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.2
Dogma, or the adherence to certain beliefs is socially acceptable.
Dogmatism is less so, because it has a tendency to force dogma onto others without consideration of their own deeply held beliefs. It implies a moral superiority, which regardless of having merit, is offensive by its very nature and creates friction in relationships.
Evangelicals have a tendency towards dogmatism, especially when it comes to social issues. I propose that Evangelicalism armed with political power often becomes a self-defeating contradiction that fails in the very thing it hopes to accomplish whenever dogmatism becomes part of the equation.
Let’s examine a couple of key issues that we are presently wrestling through as examples of why our dogmatism fails us in our struggle to re-establish the proper moral compass in our culture. These are enormously controversial and complex issues, each worthy of much more discussion than we can give them here, but they serve as examples for us to consider in re-evaluating our tactics and formulating strategies that increase our chances for successfully turning the soul of our nation.
Homosexuality and Gay Marriage
The issue of homosexuality and gay marriage is a particularly contentious one, and it seems many today have a dog in this fight because we are compelled to pick a side by the dogmatists on both sides who steadfastly occupy their respective moral ground.
Evangelicals see marriage as the most sacred of human institutions, initiated by God Himself at the time of creation. Marriage can only be defined as a man and a woman, coming together in holy union for the purpose of love, relationship and procreation. The Apostle Paul wrote that it is a type of the relationship between Christ and His Church. He also wrote that homosexuality is a sin, and those who practice it have no part in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Many evangelicals reject the idea that homosexuality is a genetic inevitability from which there is no escape. They believe that homosexuality is a series of moral choices that result in a stronghold and fear that unrestrained homosexuality has the potential to become a social contagion that has negative effects on society at large. Thus, they have a tendency to view all homosexuals as posing some measure of threat to the nuclear family and, while professing love for them as individuals, soundly condemn their lifestyle as unacceptable to God and mankind.
On the other side of the issue, gay activists (who do not necessarily represent all, or even most homosexuals) view marriage as the union of two people who love one another and want to be recognized as having the same legal rights and social acceptance as heterosexual marriage. Some gay Christians (a term many evangelicals would consider a theological impossibility) simply dismiss Paul’s words as personal opinions or as irrelevant in modern culture. They view the evangelical’s rejection of their lifestyle as being hateful, judgmental and as an evil personal attack against them, and thus tend to respond by unjustly stereotyping all evangelicals as hateful bigots.
Somewhere in the middle, there are many who are neither “rabid homophobic evangelicals” nor gay radicals. They do not see this issue as being all that complicated, despite the abundance of passion and noise made by the opposing sides. They view this issue through the lens that, in reality, is the standard by which all things should be measured, which is simply love and acceptance, and the need to eliminate as much contention in society as possible. The more noise Evangelicals make on this issue, the more of this middle ground is lost and the more marginalized we become in today’s moral- relativistic culture.
This has allowed radical homosexuals to ascend to the pinnacles of power in the entertainment industry and the public education system, where they have established strongholds from which they publicly mock a Christian worldview and actively work to normalize homosexuality in American culture.
I propose that we are losing ground on this point largely because our unyielding dogmatism erects impenetrable walls that obstruct any meaningful positive interaction with the gay community. Worse, it alienates those in the middle who often see our unyielding position as judgmental, unloving and excessively harsh.
Culture could be partially defined as the collective soul of a nation. A simple, yet powerful principle worth remembering is, when hearts are closed, they cannot be transformed. It is the enemy’s strategy to marginalize and isolate the Church, which neutralizes us in the battle for culture. We have largely become marginalized on this issue, and the way back to relevancy is not an easy one.
First, we must step away far enough to gain some perspective. Our words should reflect more of Jesus and less of Paul. Our goal should be to open doors of communication through empathy and a measure of acceptance as fellow objects of God’s love instead of judgment and rejection. I think we can and should seek to have a logical debate on the long-term psychological effects of highly sexualizing a culture, something most reasonable people would agree is not healthy, especially for children and adolescents. There are some lines we can draw in the sand that I believe will seem justifiable to the average person, including those who are accepting of the gay lifestyle.
We should seek to get the government completely out of the marriage business and put it back into the hands of the Church. Committed secular partnerships can and should enjoy the full legal benefits of marriage. Sexuality is a gift from God that should only be celebrated between 2 consenting adults in a private setting. Those who seek to flaunt their sexuality in public should be confronted and rebuked. Any instruction on sexuality beyond basic biology in public schools should be opposed as inappropriate. We must demand and reclaim exclusive parental authority on all issues of morality. Let’s lobby to get schools back to teaching history and civics, not sexuality and social justice.
There are few issues that are more emotional and polarizing than the subject of abortion. Nearly all
of us hold very strong and unyielding views on this subject, either advocating for the life of the unborn, or for the sole, inalienable rights of a woman to terminate her unwanted pregnancy.
The arguments on both sides tend to be largely black and white, diametrically opposed without any room for compromise. Pro-life advocates maintain that life begins at conception and no abortion is justifiable at any stage of the pregnancy. Pro-choice advocates largely see this as a personal rights issue and want no limits by the government regarding when a woman can terminate her pregnancy. This puts us at a stalemate, and because of the emotion involved, very little constructive dialogue can take place between the two sides.
However, raw emotion is almost never a good environment for solving difficult challenges. If we can dial down our feelings and appeal to scientific understanding, perhaps we can find some common ground. Still, the most dogmatic among us on both sides will have no desire for dialogue because they are standing on their respective principles and refuse to be moved. In the meantime, millions of abortions continue to take place with the full blessing of the law, and no amount of yelling at each other through tears and anger is changing that fact. Unbelievably, we are now debating post-birth abortion in many states. The tired old claim by pro-choice advocates that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” is clearly a deception that nobody in the abortion-rights crowd really believes in or advocates for in any meaningful way.
At the end of the day, abortion is an issue of the heart, and no external law can bring genuine transformation within.
In other words, pro-lifers are losing even as we stand in our fortified position of truth that all life begins a conception and no abortion should be permitted. If our goal is truly to save lives and transform our current culture of death into a culture of life, we must become less dogmatic in our position, at least for the short term. In other words, we must compromise in order to gain a partial victory and move the needle in the right direction, a strategy that our enemy has successfully used for decades.
The Strategic Value of Compromise
The most uncomfortable word in a dogmatist’s worldview is “compromise”. The reason for this discomfort is because we don’t understand the value of compromise as a tactical, strategic weapon. Dogmatists typically define compromise thusly:
Compromise: “A change that makes something worse, revealing a weakness of character and lack of principle.”
But compromise has an additional meaning that we would be wise to consider:
Compromise: “A way of reaching agreement in which each person or group gives up something that was wanted in order to end an argument or dispute; something that combines the qualities of two different things.”
It is important that you understand that I’m not advocating for a mushy, irresponsible theology that is not true to scripture. That would not only be a violation of my personal convictions, it would be cruel and unloving because it would lead people away from the truth that sets them free.
What I am advocating is that we strive to create a less hostile atmosphere in all areas of contention where meaningful conversation can take place, where people are genuinely loved and honored as
individuals, and the Holy Spirit is given more room to work within our hearts to bring about genuine transformation. I would argue that this is a foundational principle of the Kingdom of God, which has been overshadowed by the zealousness of the Evangelical movement.
I believe we need to return to a more strategic approach in our cultivation of the Kingdom of God in the hostile ground of an unbelieving world, as exampled by Jesus Himself.
This idea of compromise is most clearly seen in the realm of politics and government. One doesn’t have to look too closely into the average politician’s track record to find examples of compromise. Changing one’s position on issues can be a sign of lack of principles or backbone, weak morals, or outright corruption, and sadly, this is often the case. However it is not always the case. A wise and experienced leader understands that compromise is sometimes the only means by which any measure of victory can be achieved. However to the uninformed dogmatist, any sign of compromise from a candidate on a particular issue automatically disqualifies them from holding office.
The tragic result of our dogmatism in the democratic process is that fewer people with high morals get elected to office. Instead, we get liars and greedy scoundrels who say anything to get elected and do anything to stay in power.
This happens because a majority of those who call themselves Christians in America do not vote and do not educate themselves properly on public policy issues. They tend to evaluate all candidates by a very narrow standard of acceptability and judge them all to be less than ideal on one issue or another and thus unworthy of their vote. Worse yet, they often marginalize and revile those candidates who could be the best qualified and most capable in spite of their shortcomings, while our opponents on the other side pragmatically ignore the glaring moral character faults of their own candidates and successfully elect them into office.
In recent elections, I think many people feel they are voting for the lesser of two evils. And in reality, they are not wrong. We are electing imperfect people to create flawed laws and policies in an attempt to govern sinful, broken people by means of a corrupt, out of control government. This is a bleak, yet accurate assessment. Still, this is the best and only alternative to tyranny or anarchy in this evil age.
The results of the 2016 Presidential election was shocking for many when Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States. His polarizing political style has contributed to our nation being largely divided along party lines. Some polls show that Trump appears to be slowly gaining in popularity, even as the Democrats wage war against him and seek his impeachment for thus far unproven high crimes and misdemeanors.
The self-defeating power of dogmatism is clearly visible in those on the rabid political left and the “Never Trumpers” on the right. Blinded by their hatred of Trump, they cannot see the measurable good that he has accomplished for our nation. They refuse to give him credit for any accomplishment, no matter how commendable, because they stand on the “Trump is Evil principle” all the while ignoring the obvious facts. It seems they would rather sacrifice the prosperity and security of our nation than give up their dogmatic opposition to Donald Trump and begin working along with him for the sake of the people they were elected to represent.
Conversely, Trump is a master of negotiation, tactics and strategies. He has studied Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, which served as inspiration for his own book “The Art of the Deal”. Trump understands the value of compromise in moving the ball down the field for an eventual victory. He always looks for a win-win, knowing that accepting a partial victory now paves the way for more wins down the road. Some see this approach as a lack of principle. I see it as a winning Kingdom strategy for good in a broken, sin-sickened world.
In closing, Jesus was not as dogmatic as many Evangelicals are today. If you look closely at how he dealt with his opponents, he was strategic – even crafty. At times, He pragmatically manipulated them for their own benefit. He did not separate Himself from the sinners around Him; He embraced them in all of their sinfulness and loved them and showed them a better way.
When we isolate ourselves from those who oppose us through our dogmatic, immovable positions on social issues, we lose ground in the war for the soul of our nation. God gave man free will so he could choose life and not death; to choose to love and not hate. Jesus demonstrated this repeatedly as He sparred with the religious leaders because of their own unloving dogmatism, but showed sinners love, forgiveness and acceptance, while pointing the way out of the darkness and into His eternal light and life. Man’s God-given right to choose life is the very foundation of divine love.
We would do well to examine our hearts and do our best to walk in love in regards to our “enemies” as He commanded us to do, understanding that the only force capable of conquering darkness while preserving free will is unmerited, unconditional love. Truth is a Person, not an unyielding set of facts and principles. Life is this evil age is much more fluid and less rigidly defined than we have made it.
“You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall set you free.”
Let us think on these things as we actively engage the darkness in this hour and may we be fully led by His Spirit, which (pragmatically) leads us into all truth.