In 2003, I was a senior in college. I had recently returned from a semester spent studying in Nairobi, Kenya. September 11,2001 was still fresh in my mind, and I was exploring Christian pacifism. Two short years earlier, I began to develop a sense of my own politics and I was surprised to find, when opinions began to emerge, that I slanted strongly left.

I had a job at a small, family-owned motel. It was my favorite job; some days when I’m deep in grading papers, or behind on a deadline, I wish to be back there. My office was in an old New England house in an old New England town. During the off-season it was quiet and I could read or write or listen to music. It was peaceful.

Except when my boss came in. He was this gruff and loud kind of guy. Lovable in a strange way, actually, but not very likable. He was also extremely conservative. One of the few disturbances in this tranquil space was a signed photograph of George W. and Laura Bush smiling at me from across the room that he bought with campaign contributions. Another disturbance was when he stormed into the office.

He’d turn off the radio, which was either set on some quiet, folky station or NPR. He’d grab the remote and flip the television on to Fox News. He’d talk at the television, grumbling about what this or that democrat did or didn’t do. I kept quiet.

But there was one day that I didn’t. This was in the early weeks and months of the Iraq War. I hated that war with a passion I didn’t know I could conjure for anything beyond myself. The words “shock and awe” literally moved me to nausea. And on this day, when my boss’ friend, who also happened to be the motel’s plumber, joined him in front of Fox News, joined in his chorus of rants and raves, I finally spoke up.

I can’t remember quite what the plumber said, but it was something about how he wished we could just wipe them all out and start over to repay them for what they did to us on September 11. In awkward, stumbly sentences, I pointed out that Iraq had nothing to do with the tragedy of 9/11. My boss turned to me, surprised to hear me speak up, but I could tell he wasn’t surprised by my view. This time, it was he who kept quiet.

The plumber and I exchanged some words. He was enjoying himself; I clearly was not. Finally, my boss mercifully intervened; he said something like, “Okay, back to work.” And the plumber left me with his parting words. He quoted the old adage, sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill, that “If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” And then they left. Without turning Fox News off.

I sat there fuming. A million things I could have said rushed into my head and evaporated just as fast.

I have often thought about that day, about that plumber and the sentiment he expressed. And, of course, I’ve heard it many times since. That same flawed reasoning, that same acquiescence to world-weariness. The way we are all supposed to justify our inevitable fall to selfishness and pessimism.

Last night, I read that same argument again — this time, from David French, prominent Patheos evangelical blogger. In response to recent dialogue about what it might look like to move beyond the culture wars (as in my friend Jonathan Merritt’s new book and my latest Patheos column), French steps in to tell us naive youth that he was once like us. Idealistic. Wanting to be nonpartisan.

But then, through “encountering life,” he realized that “nonpartisanship had a steep price.” Essentially, he learned it was too difficult to take positions that are not clearly black or white. He learned that people find it challenging to classify a person — that they may even misunderstand him — when he doesn’t fit neatly into a prescribed category. And, of course, in true culture warrior fashion, it was the abortion issue that made this clear. Abortion, to him, is a black and white issue, and thus must everything else be.

He ends his condescending “open letter” by posing a couple of questions to those who attempt to be “post-partisan.” He asks, “are you willing to forego any effective voice at all for unborn children?  Are you willing to keep silent when the secular world demands your silence?” Because, he concludes, the “true price of non-partisanship” is silence. Finally, we’re supposed to read Jesus’ death on the cross and “tiniest handful of followers” as justification for being partisan prats.

French tells his story, but he doesn’t make an argument. Rather, we are supposed to accept his implied point because 1) he was once like us and 2) now he’s “a religious liberties lawyer, a pro-life activist, the founder of Evangelicals for Mitt, and the most recent winner of the American Conservative Union’s Ronald Reagan Award.”

But the point that French’s story ends up making is that when he wandered into life’s grey areas, when he couldn’t say for certain in an op-ed or talking point where he stood on a particular issue, it just got to be too hard. When he began to look into same sex marriage, for example, from the position of a lawyer, he saw that the issue was going to become complicated in areas such as religious liberty. He wrote an op-ed to announce that he was anti-gay marriage.

Reading French’s post last night conjured up the same feelings I had, almost a decade ago, when my boss’ plumber friend dismissed my view as the naiveté of youth. You’ll grow out of it, they both say.

I haven’t grown out of it. I don’t intend to. And, if I do, it will be a great loss — an assent to my fallen nature and that of the world around me, rather than a persistence against that nature. When you hear people make this argument — and if you’re young and progressive, you will — listen to them. Smile and nod. Disagree respectfully if you feel so bold.

And then pity them. They lost something precious in losing their idealism. They lost hope that things can be better. They gave in to the pressures to fit neatly in a jingoistic box. They saw for a moment the fog that envelops all of life — all the issues and questions — and they backed away into the safety of an artificially clear environment.

You don’t have to follow them there. Their journey needn’t be yours. Becoming conservative, a culture warrior, or a partisan is not a foregone conclusion. Rather, seek out an elder who remains idealistic in her advanced years. Meet a progressive octogenarian. You will find love and beauty and encouragement. You’ll meet an example that you’ll want to follow into the grey.

Finally, when the plumbers or the David Frenches of the world condescendingly dismiss your idealism as the naiveté of youth, you too can conjure the image of Christ on the cross. You can point to a man who died to show us the way toward an idealized world — the kingdom come. French’s telling of the story ends with Jesus on the cross with just a handful of followers, but we know that’s not where the story ends.

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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  • Beth Walters

    Your calling to find a silver-haired, passionate person as a mentor reminded me of one just such a woman who was arrested with me (and dozens of others) at Duke Power, protesting their continued construction of the huge Cliffside coal-fired plant. She and I (at 60ish) sat in the jail booking ante-chamber, with a 20-something woman on her other side, as police walked back and forth, assuring that we would not make a break for it. Finally, one officer looked at the three of us with frustration, saying he couldn’t understand why nice, successful people like us would do this. Before we could do more than shrug, he urged us, “Don’t you know this will go on your permanent record!!” The two of us on either side of her looked at the 80-something-year-old and at each other and completely broke up laughing.

  • Jesse Noyes

    Was the plumber named Joe?

  • Scott

    ” That same flawed reasoning, that same acquiescence to world-weariness. The way we are all supposed to justify our inevitable fall to selfishness and pessimism.”

    Because conservatism = selfishness and pessimism the exact same way American liberalism = cynical emotional manipulation and blind utopianism. I find your reading of French’s article to be extremely

    Who do you think funds World Vision and Compassion International and Samaritan’s Purse, Jonathon? The vast amount of funding for Christian charities come from selfish, pessimistic, HOPELESS Conservatives, damn their damnable damning of people!

    I find French’s article overly simplistic and black-and-white, but I find your response to be the flip side of the coin. Progressives are wishy-washy and scared of being defined! Oh yeah, well Conservatives have lost hope! (Honestly, “hopeless” is an unbelievably offensive label to put on Christian brothers and sisters.) Progressives aren’t willing to pay the price for their Christian beliefs! Conservatives have given in to their fallen nature (as if progressives and everyone else haven’t)!

    Gross.

    Do you truly believe that culture warriors are only on the right? How is that even possible?

    I had to check again to make sure this was written by you, as you aren’t usually this reactionary and flippant towards people who have simply made the (apparently huge) mistake of having differing political stances from you. How dare they!

    • Scott

      Oops. Looks like I had a couple of problems with the editing. Sorry if anything is unclear.

  • http://www.jonathandfitzgerald.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

    Scott, I appreciate your comment. Believe it or not, neither French’s piece nor my response are about conservatism/progressivism on the surface. French wrote about losing his idealism and giving in to the culture war mentality. I see this acquiescence to politics as usual as a loss of idealism and hope. You are probably conflating idealism with progressivism because, certainly in my story, idealism leads to liberal views.

    But, a lot of what you’re responding to here, you painted into my piece. I didn’t suggest that conservatives are hopeless, but that people who lose their idealism also experience a loss of hope. I don’t think that’s a stretch. I didn’t say culture warriors were all on the right (see Sessions’ recent Patrol piece for more on that). And I didn’t even get close to considering where missions organizations get their funds.

    Sorry you misunderstood me, but calling me reactionary in a comment (a comment!) that is just that, hardly makes your case.

  • Scott

    Jonathan (I apologize for misspelling your name earlier – pure laziness on my part. I also guess I should apologize for my liberal use of parenthesis), let’s be honest here. While you may not want to paint French’s article with the “conservative” brush, yours is certainly about progressivism. Why else would you cap it all off by telling “young and progressive” to pity non-progressive people and then to go meet with a “progressive octogenarian?” The very argument you start off with is this plumber’s “If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” How am I reading into things or misunderstanding you?

    You draw a line directly from (a) changing from liberal to conservative as one ages to (b) “justify(ing) our inevitable fall to selfishness and pessimism.” It’s one thing to argue that it’s a lazy trope to make that life changes liberals into conservatives, but it’s entirely another thing to blame that change on giving into baser natures.

    Is conservatism somehow more selfish or more pessimistic (or “jingoistic,” or “safe” or”artificially clear”)? No, and the suggestion is pretty laughable. Are conservatives selfish and pessimistic? Of course, but so are progressives.

    • http://www.jonathandfitzgerald.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

      Scott, I see where we are getting hung up. The story I tell in the beginning, of my move toward progressivism and the sentiment I encountered that I’d grow out of it, is there as a parallel story to French’s journey (not from progressivism to conservatism) but from idealistic to culture warrior. This is why you have so many questions about my conclusion. I truly am talking not about conservatives, but about people who choose a pessimistic outlook on life (the culture warrior) over the idealism of their youth.

      Look closely at who I say to pity and why I say to pity. I’m suggesting we pity people who have lost their idealism; that should be clear because in the very next sentence I say that they’ve lost their idealism.

      Thus, you ask is conservatism more selfish or pessimistic and I say no (see Matt Lee Anderson’s piece for an example of an idealistic conservative). I am not talking about progressives being selfish. I’m talking about people who have lost their idealism. David French sets up an opposition between the idealism of his youth and his current culture warring ways. I pity him. I think he’s being selfish and pessimistic. Not because he’s conservative, but because he’s lost his idealism.

      Does this clear things up?

      • Scott

        A bit. When I first read your piece, I thought the tale of the plumber felt sort of tacked on until I got to the end, where you bring everything back around to that story. I read your piece before I read the French piece, so I may have let that story influence my thinking on both. Perhaps if I had read French’s article first and spent some time thinking about it, I would have found your article a bit clearer. Maybe. I’m not convinced I would have, but I’m willing to take you at your word that it’s what you meant.

        Re-read your story about the plumber and your editorializing on what it meant to you. You seem to draw a pretty clear line from conservatism to selfishness and pessimism that colored the rest of the piece (and French’s, to be honest) for me.

        On another matter, I really appreciate how willing you (and David) are to engage with people on this site. It’s one of the things that keeps me reading, even when I disagree with the tacks you guys take.

  • Jesus Morales

    For what it’s worth, David French is one of my favorites and I read that piece and found myself nodding along. I am, by the way, 25 years old and celebrating the first birthday of my daughter, so not exactly some world-weary old fogey here.

    What I gathered from Mr. French’s post is this. If you really take a stand for issues such as abortion, you’re going to get labeled as a “right-wing loony” (or whatever epithet) is handy regardless of whether or not you label yourself that way. The wisdom we speak is foolishness to the world, of course they react negatively. Of course they don’t want to hear it. He’s not being condescending, he’s trying to be helpful. He’s trying to pass on the lessons he’s learned the hard way so that we don’t have to learn them the hard way.

    We don’t have to agree with Republicans on everything. I know I certainly appreciate some of the views my liberal friends bring. That said, I cannot ally myself with a group of people who by and large promote an agenda which is completely antithetical to Christ, and in my opinion harmful for this country in general. As for things being “black and white”. Issues such as abortion may be tough, there may be a lot of heartache and tough circumstances, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know where Christians should stand on those issues.

    Final note, you completely mistook his point about Christ dying with only a handful of followers. He was saying that standing for Christ will make us unpopular, in other words, all those progressive and non-partisan types won’t like us because they’ll think we’re right-wing loonies, etc. Quite frankly, not even all Republicans agree with people like Mr. French, that’s why the divide between “fiscal conservatives” and “social conservatives”.

    Thanks. God bless.

    • Huol

      Accepting the “black and white” paradigm of the world is exactly what’s wrong with America though. What Jonathan is getting at is that often times the “black and white” attitude towards politics and theology often leads nowhere and is often the result of cynicism and personal resignation.

      Being against abortion is fine and all, but if your opposition to it devolves into just a crass acceptance of absolutes to have your way, then all you are being is manipulative and dishonest.

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  • Jake

    I like to think of it not as black & white vs. gray, but black & white vs. color.

    Millions of colors!

  • http://csaproductions.com/blog/ Brendt Wayne Waters

    Jonathan, I appreciate the clarification that you made in the comments with Scott about your point being a contrast of idealism vs pessimism and not between political ideologies. I think that my own story can further bolster that point.

    I am an *old* post-partisan evangelical, so I have no youth for Mr French to despise. I was partisan for over four decades. I also was, and still am, quite conservative. So, I have pretty much none of the attributes at which Mr French takes his shots. And yet I found his article nauseating, insulting, and about as uplifting as Eeyore’s emo days.

  • Pingback: The post-partisan evangelical throwdown « Notes from a Small Place

  • Joe Carter

    ***You can point to a man who died to show us the way toward an idealized world — the kingdom come. ***

    Right, an idealized world where abortion is not a “black and white” issue and where Christians can support gay marriage.

    The problem with a lot of young Christians is not that they are idealistic, but that they are cowards. They are too worried about what their friends think to stand up for clear issues of Biblical morality.

    (NB: I’m not saying this applies to Jonathan, though I think it would be more helpful if he were to be vocal about where he stands on such issues.)

    • http://www.jonathandfitzgerald.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

      Oh, Joe! How we’ve missed you!

      • Joe Carter

        As some friends have pointed out, I tend to lose my mind and come off like a jackass when I comment on Patrol, so I’ve limited myself to commenting on one post per quarter. ; )

        No offense to your post—as always you give me plenty to comment on!—but I should have used my one comment on David Sessions’ recent post. That was one of the best things he ever wrote and I regret not taking the opportunity to say so.

        • http://www.jonathandfitzgerald.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

          No offense taken. Thanks for the complement! And thanks to your friends, as well.

    • http://csaproductions.com/blog/ Brendt Wayne Waters

      “I think it would be more helpful if he were to be vocal about where he stands on such issues”

      He’s not Andy Stanley. ;-)

    • Seda

      I posted this question in response to a similar view on French’s blog, and got no answer, so I’m reposting it here to see if I can find a better one.

      I ask this as a Christian: Why is it that we demand that gay people (most of whom are not Christian) let go of who they are and live the way we demand? It does neither you nor I if two gay men enter a loving, committed marriage with each other, and I’ve yet to see any evidence to the contrary.

      If you can’t provide concrete proof outside of the bible that homosexuality does anyone any harm, then we have no business legislating against it. The Constitution strictly forbids the intermingling of church and state, to the benefit of both in my opinion. And before you bring out the tired retort about this being a ‘Christian Country,’ do look up the Treaty of Tripoli signed by unanimous act of Congress in the late 1700s that explicitly stated the opposite.

  • toddh

    When I was 20, I used to love Rush Limbaugh, and now at almost 40, I can’t stand the guy. Clearly I’m headed in the wrong direction! By 60 I’ll probably be a socialist, or something worse ;)

  • Phil Wyman

    Having read French’s article I suppose I saw it differently. He really was retaining his idealism by embracing his “cultural warrior” identity. Is this to say I have to agree or disagree with him? No. But aren’t we all simply trading one variation of idealism for another if we are passionate about things, and as we passionately transition to new ideas, aren’t we just evolving in our ideals?

  • Pingback: On Post-Partisanship, Conservative Condescension, & Hope | Patrol Magazine | the long way home

  • http://mikesnow.org Michael Snow

    Hope you didn’t give up on exploring pacifism. My journey from Marine to pacifist:
    http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Pacifism-Fruit-Narrow-ebook/dp/B005RIKH62/ref=pd_rhf_dp_p_t_1

  • Rob

    Well, this must be one of the most insufferably smug pieces I’ve read on Patrol, and that’s saying something. Thanks for not merely implying but explicitly asserting that those with conservative sympathies are “hopeless” cynics who have given in to their “fallen” natures.

    And if, as you claim to Scott, your “real” intention was not to erect a facile dichotomy between conservatism as cynicism and progressivism as idealism, but simply one between cynicism and idealism–well, then your “story” was simply poorly executed. It’s not at all clear that what you explain to Scott is what you meant in your original post, as it seems to me–and to other readers, apparently–that you’re making an inescapably direct connection between conservatism and a kind of intellectual wickedness.

    By the way, as a postmodern(ist) myself, please accept some advice: it is not acceptable to fall back constantly upon narrative as an excuse to avoid making definitive claims about something. “This is just my story,” you say. Well, yes. But you’re trying to make a point, and, as I noted, it’s not clear that the “conservative/progressive” motif is a part of your allegedly idiosyncratic “story” that isn’t supposed to be extrapolated to our “stories” along with the motif of “idealism/cynicism.” In other words, you’re making an argument, not merely relating a casual anecdote.

    • http://www.patrolmag.com Fitz

      Thanks for commenting.

      • Rob

        And thanks for not really responding! I’m not–and was not–trolling. Here’s another lesson in postmodernism, since I’m trying to imitate your smugness: perhaps your authorial intention was merely to celebrate idealism while denigrating cynicism. But you don’t have to read Derrida and Foucault, who both insist on this point, to know that the text never corresponds to the guttural intentions in the author’s mind, that the words on the page escape the intentions in the mind.

        That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make our intentions clear, however. In this case, the disconnect between text and intention is especially vivid–and wide. I’ve tried to read your piece charitably, and it’s really impossible for me to come away from your editorial without the impression that conservatism as such is synonymous with a kind of sinful cynicism. Either such an impression was your desired intention–in which case, just say so–or this piece wasn’t very clearly articulated–in which case, just say so, without the overlay of “narrative” and “authenticity.”

        Either way, this is what happens when you/we insist on perceiving the world through the exceptionally myopic lens afforded by the dichotomous ideological spectrum that dominates in American politics. Are there other, more primordial encounters with idealism and cynicism, or is that it? Sinful Fox News viewers on one side and enlightened, “authentic” progressives on the other? Thanks, but the same story has been told since the 1960s at least (read “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”).

        • http://csaproductions.com/blog/ Brendt Wayne Waters

          How exactly is someone supposed to “really respond” to a comment that definitively tells us the actual motives and innermost thoughts of others?

          • Rob

            Are you referring to my comment? I said nothing of motives: who knows why he wrote the essay? I don’t care. I did say something about his authorial intentions–i.e., the argument he was attempting to articulate. Are you suggesting that it’s impossible to discern those intentions, even when the author is (or was) [virtually] present to clarify those intentions? If so, why read or write anything at all?

            The bottom line is that it is very clear as Jonathan has written his essay that he is associating conservatism with fallenness and pernicious cynicism. Prove me wrong, from the text. He claims that that wasn’t his intention. If so, then his argument was poorly articulated and he should consider re-writing it. If not, then this piece is, as I suggested, insufferably elitist, with an epistemic horizon about as wide as my little toenail.

            In other words, one could respond to my comment by, say, challenging it with textual evidence. Denying it with bald assertions. Reframing his argument in a new context. Really, anything more robust than a banal “thanks for your reply.” If that’s the extent of “discourse” he wants, then I was clearly wasting my time.

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