Why this former college president wants Americans to join the ‘courageous middle’

why this former college president wants americans to join the ‘courageous middle’

People who stand between the snarling extremes of American political debate are sometimes seen as ineffectual or timid. The late Rush Limbaugh, for example, often said on his radio show, “You won’t find a book in the library called ‘Great Moderates in American History.’”

Throughout more than three decades on the air, Limbaugh advanced a mindset that eschewed compromise and moderation, arguing that “moderates don’t have a core set of beliefs, by definition,” and that moderation and compromise don’t win elections. “Moderation is caving as far as I’m concerned,” he said on one show in 2011.

That’s a belief that has taken hold among many social conservatives, who say there should be no compromise on issues ranging from abortion to personal pronouns, and who spurn politicians who try to work across the political aisle.

Moderates, in other words, need an advocate, and Shirley A. Mullen has stepped up to the task.

In her new book, “Claiming the Courageous Middle,” Mullen, president emerita of Houghton University in western New York, makes the case that it is both moral and brave to occupy a “radically redemptive middle space” and that Americans should actively work to escape “the pull of the poles” that lead to tension not only in politics but in religious communities, schools and our own families.

Mullen, the daughter and granddaughter of pastors, comes to the topic as a Christian, but one from a family that prized both religious faith and independent thinking. She concedes that the middle is usually seen as a place of weakness or fearfulness, “a place we wander about until we dare to choose a side.”

But that’s not what she’s advocating or defending. Instead, she wants us to redirect the energy we’re using to defend “our side” and to direct it to the middle, which she believes is where we find the common good. This is not just to reduce the acrimony in our public discourse and the gridlock in our politics, but because this allows us to discover more creative solutions to our problems than each side would find on its own, Mullen says.

Why polarization persists

While polarization is widely seen as a negative force, it offers comforts that keep us in its grip. In her book, Mullen says that polarization serves to highlight the important tensions or pain points in any discussion, it satisfies a fundamental need that people have to belong to a group by creating “communities of certainty” and it “provides the security of being ‘right’ at a time when moral clarity is hard to come by.”

“When we don’t know who to trust — and when even science has failed to provide clear answers in the recent pandemic — we know that there will be those on the poles who will save us the challenge of having to deal with complexities and ambiguities in isolation or in our own strength,” Mullen writes.

Additionally, aligning with one side or another creates energy, all the more so if we perceive the other side as a menace or threat. This is why a real or perceived threat is often invoked in fundraising. In the book, Mullen recalls a conversation with the president of an academic nonprofit who said he found it difficult to raise money “if one is attempting to approach issues in an irenic and reasoned fashion.”

She added: “Another colleague noted that if she wants to raise funds for the nonprofit organization she leads, she simply has to announce to her constituency some new statement or action from the religious establishment that seems to threaten the particular constituency she serves. The funds pour in.”

While Mullen doesn’t spend much time talking about politics — polarization in American institutions, especially higher ed, goes back decades, she says — threats are often invoked in campaigns.

Donald Trump, for example, often frames his legal battles as a threat to all his supporters. “In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you,” Trump has repeatedly said. And Joe Biden’s campaign frequently talks about “democracy being threatened” if Trump is reelected.

So, given the energy and intensity of the poles, what hope does the “courageous middle” have of attracting anyone to it? How can it be rebranded into a positive space that Americans want to occupy, given the epithets hurled at it over the past few decades? And, perhaps most of concern for people of faith, how do we hold fast to deeply held principles while negotiating middle ground with people who believe differently than we do, without falling into the trap of moral relativism?

‘We have so much to cherish as a family’

Mullen, of course, isn’t the first person to come to the conclusion that there is value in the middle and much to be gained from thoughtful conversations among people who hold strong and competing views. Faith groups, in particular, have been at the forefront of of this kind of work, given doctrinal disagreements that have arisen throughout the history of Christianity.

While those disagreements sometimes aren’t resolved and can lead to organizational splits — as when more than 1 million Methodists on the Ivory Coast of Africa left the United Methodist Church last month over LGBTQ issues — people of faith have strong intrinsic reasons for working toward resolution of their differences.

As the Rev. Paul Matumbi Muthuri, a former bishop of the Methodist Church in Kenya, told Religion News Service, “You don’t throw away the relationship of your sibling because you do not agree on an issue. ... We have so much to cherish as a family. The value for brother and brother respect is so big.”

Even when divisions have separated faith traditions in the past, there are many groups that are actively working to bridge them through interfaith initiatives in places as richly diverse as New York City.

“We have the Commission of Religious Leaders, which is a body of different faiths coming together and seeking to respond to social issues, especially when they’re issues of tension within communities,” the Rev. A.R. Bernard, senior pastor of the Christian Cultural Center, said in a recent interview with Deseret News.

“Whether it is along racial lines, class lines, especially religious lines, we come together and demonstrate what can happen when we sit at the table and have civil discourse, seek to understand, find common ground and work toward the common good, so I think that what we do here in New York City is quite unique compared to the rest of the country.”

In fact, faith groups, it seems, are uniquely positioned to lead such conversations, not only because of their history, but because of how they stand outside of politics.

As Harvard Law School professor Ruth Okediji said earlier this month at a conference convened by the American Council on Education’s Commission on Faith-based Universities: “The beauty of faith-based institutions is the freedom to digress from the current cultural dominant view and encourage students to pierce it and ask the hard questions, not the ones for which they already have the answers but the ones for which the answers are not already decided.”

As fruitful as such interfaith initiatives are, Mullen allows that when individuals work on their own in the middle, it can be challenging and even lonely work at times. But this seems to be a moment in which many Americans are ready for change. There is increasing talk of an “exhausted majority” that is tired of all the acrimony. Many people describe themselves “politically homeless” or just feel that they don’t quite fit in the prevailing groups.

“Thoughtful persons of faith,” Mullen said in an interview, are especially likely to feel caught between political extremes, and they are often unfairly cast as part of the polarization problem by people who see all religious conservatives as far right. But in fact, many religious people don’t see themselves at all in that place. “Not quite fitting can, in itself, become a gift in this moment, in this culture, in the society in general,” Mullen said.

“The challenge to that group is to invite them, to encourage them strongly, to complicate the cultural stereotypes about conservative people of faith.”

‘An entirely new vision’

In making the case for the middle, Mullen first notes that there will always be certain situations in which there is clearly right and wrong, and that people of faith must take a stance true to their beliefs. But, she writes, “right now in our culture and in the church, the range of issues that are being put into binary categories of true and false and right and wrong is much larger than it needs to be. And the villainization of those those on the “other” side is overly intense, unnecessary and contrary to biblical principles of the worth and dignity of each person, she says.

Even when we identify those areas that aren’t hills we need to die on, so to speak, people may feel natural resistance to venturing into the middle ground for myriad reasons, including the fear that they are betraying their side or God, and the fear of having their beliefs challenged and possibly changed. There’s also the matter of pride, and sometimes animosity — not wanting to concede any ground to a person or group that we really dislike.

Mullen argues that while although there are clear binaries in the Bible — God’s commands are absolute, for example, in the Garden of Eden and in the Ten Commandments — there is also a compelling case for, at times, pursuing a third way with truth gleaned from both sides of an issue.

“It is not simply the averaging out of all perspectives, not a bland compromise, not a submission to one or two of the most powerful voices. It is an entirely new vision, animated by the holy imagination of the person who has dared to follow God into the fray of his fallen creation,” Mullen writes.

While she has officially retired as a historian and college president, Mullen is continuing to lecture and to talk with people about the themes of her book. She is especially interested in reaching young people with her message so that they can actively choose the “courageous middle” and help to launch and sustain a movement. But she makes clear that the work falls to individuals who make the decision to work in this space in their own lives. People in the middle have a choice, she said: Either we can see polarization as a reason to be silent and try to stay on everyone’s good side, “or you can become a host of thoughtful, difficult conversations that can be useful to everyone.”

As for how to start, she recommends looking into the work of scholars such as Richard Mouw, the former president of Fuller Seminary, and John Inazu, the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as Muslim scholars Eboo Patel and Asma Uddin (both Deseret contributing writers). She also urges people to find “a community of kinship” and to become an apprentice or do volunteer work with organizations that work in this space. (Examples she cites are the National Immigration Forum, the 1st Amendment Partnership, the AND Campaign, Parity NYC, and Interfaith America.)

Going forward, the challenge is for like-minded people — not people who think alike, but people who agree that there is virtue and common good to be found in the middle — to figure out “how to make this a movement of contagion,” Mullen told me.

One way, it seems, is to focus on her message that in talking to each other, in dwelling in the middle space rather than retreating to ideological silos, “people can be caught into a larger vision of the truth than they ever imagined.”

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