January 02, 2017
The Monday after the U.S. Presidential apocalypse I was cleaning the kitchen. I wiped out the cupboards, reordered the pantry according to types of carbohydrate… the usual stuff. As I cleaned, I caught up on podcasts and analyses of the election results. There were clearly two camps: those who had experienced the Rapture and those who were Left Behind.
Even allowing for our closeness to the events, it is striking, isn’t it, just how far apart the two sides of American civil discourse have become. There is a growing sense of deep incompatibility and hostility between the political and social visions of conservatives and progressives. As a consequence, it has become harder and harder for either movement to accept the necessary compromises with the other that make government work in a democracy.
In a moment I’m going to try out a philosophical speculation about why it’s becoming harder to find these compromises. But before we get there, some background. In A Secular Age (2007), Charles Taylor explored the rise of an exclusive humanism in Western societies. In Taylor’s account, this development involves the growth of a situation in which our view of the goods and ends of human life has been cut off from reference to anything transcendent. If that sounds dense, the reality is much more familiar. Consider this for a moment—when was the last time you heard a proposal for a political policy that was justified by reference to God’s will or a benefit to be obtained in the afterlife? Even in the recent debates around marriage equality the arguments from both sides rest on appeals to minimise harm—either to vulnerable members of the LGBTIQ community or to vulnerable children raised in same-sex marriages. This is striking because, for at least some Christians, there is also an argument that would rest on God’s revealed will in scripture. Advocates of the case against marriage equality are well aware that this argument will have little traction in our public discourse, so it doesn’t get any airtime. The reference to a transcendent reality is not acceptable—the higher goods or ends of humanity, at least in public, must be self-referential.
Interestingly, this affects both political progressives and conservatives alike. Exclusive humanism functions at the level of the conditions of thought. It structures what we find plausible in arguments. It is felt in the weight we give to certain thoughts and reasons, more than in the content of political or theological doctrine.
My speculation is that this loss of a transcendent horizon affects our ability to compromise well with others. So much of our political and social vision, whether progressive or conservative, consists in the transformation of the present. All of the weight of achieving that vision rests on us. Too much is at stake to wait or to compromise. But the failure to achieve good compromises, under the increasing pressure of an immanent eschaton, drives us further and further toward rotten compromises—the willingness to do, say, or be whatever it takes to achieve our goals.
In his work, On Compromises and Rotten Compromises (2010), Avishai Margalit wrote, ‘We should, I believe, be judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and our norms. Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are.’ (p5)
The elevation of President-elect Donald Trump seems to me an act of desperation rather than principle. In the Clinton presidency, white evangelical Christians insisted on the relevance of moral character to fitness for office. But, as many have observed, they now appear to have abandoned this conviction from fear of losing crucial political battles around supreme court nominations and freedom of religion. The result is an orange-tinted, bouffant political compromise named Trump. The election of Trump is not the sign of the Apocalypse or the Rapture, but it is a moment of revelation—one in which our larger philosophical and theological conditions of thought are laid bare.
Rev. Dan Anderson is chaplain to Robert Menzies College and the pastor of Trinity Chapel at Macquarie University, where he also serves as the Anglican Chaplain, and is a part-time PhD candidate exploring the ethics of forgiveness in political contexts. Dan has previously worked with AFES at the University of Canberra and Sydney University’s Cumberland campus, and currently serves as a director on the AFES National Board.
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