Ideology is the Enemy: The Creeping Victory of “Consistent” over “Judicious”
Note: This is part of an ongoing series I’m doing on the growing dangers we face by becoming more ideologically rigid. They are not intended to go in any particular order, and would be more truthfully catalogued as “musings” than “treatise.” You can find the introductory post here. All of the Ideology Is The Enemy posts can be found here.
Doug Wilson would like you to know that he is not a racist.
He’s very emphatic on this point. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across anyone that argues more often or more forcefully that, despite what some might say, he or she is not a racist. To be fair, though, this is probably necessary. Wilson has caused a bit of a stir in the evangelical Christian community for penning the essay collection Black & Tan, a book that in many ways is a defense of American slavery.
For those unfamiliar, Doug Wilson is a theologian and pastor at Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. Christopher Hitchens and documentary film fans alike will remember him from the movie Collision, which followed a series of debates on Christianity between the two men. Wilson has also famously debated Andrew Sullivan on the topic of same-sex marriage. A prolific writer (over fifty books published and counting), he founded and edits the smart and thoroughly likable journal Credenda/Agenda. He is one of the founders of New Saint Andrews College, a small but respected liberal arts school that does not have science classes teaching that the Earth is 6,00 years old. Everything I have seen from the man suggests that he is intelligent, gracious, kind, respectful, educated, and well rounded; in many ways he is an ideal face for evangelical Christianity today.
I read Black & Tan over the weekend and I must say I found it strangely gripping, in no small part because Wilson is a gorgeous writer. (You can download a free copy of the book here, if you like.) In the book, Wilson takes great pains to point out that he deplores the more brutal treatments of African-American slaves; the raping of slave women by slave owners seems particularly horrifying to him. Indeed, it is in part this condemnation of bad ownership habits that allows Wilson to believe he is justified in his position that he is not racist.
But the practice of slavery itself is one that Wilson has little problem with, and his reasoning on this matter is a direct result of his conservative Christian ideology:
“Our humanistic and democratic culture regards slavery in itself as a monstrous evil, malum in se, and it acts as though this were self-evidently true. The Bible permits Christians in slave-owning cultures to own slaves, provided they are treated well. You are a Christian. Whom do you believe?”
Wilson notes that he doesn’t endorse a return to people being legally allowed to own other people; on the other hand, he doesn’t categorically oppose it either. (He does say that slavery based entirely on race is antithetical to Christianity.) To some degree, Wilson even sees the practice as having positive outcomes. In his earlier work Southern Slavery, As It Was, Wilson makes the profoundly odd and inflammatory argument that “slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since.” I want to stress once again that despite these statements, Wilson is not an outlying pariah in the mold of Fred Phelps; he is greatly respected by peers, allies and opponents on the left alike. He just also happens to be someone who has reasoned out that it’s perfectly acceptable (and in certain cases, good) to own people.
So how did we get here? How did we get to a place where such a respected, well-read and erudite figure representing one of our nation’s largest religious communities can make an argument – taken seriously by a growing number – that slavery is an acceptable thing, provided that you do it right?
The answer to that question has everything to do with the growing importance of being ideologically consistent rather than judicious. To quote Wilson’s Black & Tan again,
“Christians must live or die by the Scriptures, as they stand. Compromise on what the Bible teaches about slavery is directly related to the current pressures to compromise on abortion and sodomy. Southern slavery was an example of the kind of sinful human situation that called for diligent obedience to St. Paul’s directives, on the part of both masters and slaves. Because this did not happen, and because of the way slavery ended, the federal government acquired the power to impose things on the states that it did not have before. Therefore, for all these reasons, radicalism is to be rejected by Christians.”
Wilson’s point is an important one. Because if we decide that ideological consistency is the noblest of goals to strive for – if we declare, here and today, that being adherent to dogma should be a loftier and greater ideal than intellectual compromise, if we really decide that that’s the brass ring to reach for – then here’s the thing:
When judged on the merits of Christian conservative consistency, everything Wilson says about slavery being an acceptable thing is completely, absolutely, one hundred percent correct.
Everywhere you look in American politics and punditry, ideologically consistency is gaining adherents.
Conservatives have a great head start on everyone on this fashionable front, of course. The quest for achieving the Conservative platonic ideal has been pushed with an ever-growing force since the rise of right-wing talk radio. Over the past six years especially the GOP has placed a premium on ideological consistency over all else, including national electability. In comparison, the Democratic Party languishes far behind. If you examine those initial steps conservatives took when they first set down this path, however, it looks surprisingly similar to steps Democrats and leftists are taking today. Ross Perot, Ralph Nader and Ron Paul – those third party candidates who truly sparked imaginations in my lifetime – were all quite different, but each crested in popularity on their promises to bring greater ideological consistency to the White House. [Note: I’ll be dealing with this entire topic in detail later in the month.]
Younger readers might be unaware, but this trend for serious people to push for ideologically consistent policy decisions is actually a fairly recent one. Throughout the first half of my adult life, politicians were instead rewarded for the ability to be judicious in their approach to public policy.
Contrary to current thinking, Ronald Reagan was largely beloved not for being dogmatically rigid, but for being pragmatically flexible. He was a proponent of small government, but he was still willing to raise taxes to provide popular services both as a governor and president. He was pro-life enough to be called pro-life, but not so pro-life to keep him from signing a permissive abortion bill as governor or nominating Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. Indeed, he was famously (at the time, not today) opposed to using almost any “litmus tests” in politics. Reagan’s mission was to create a political platform that greatly increased the size of the GOP tent; it was not to cast out the ideologically impure. Reagan had strong values and fierce convictions, but he tempered them with a judicious approach to governance.
Or to put it another way, Reagan might have been every bit as conservative and Christian as Doug Wilson, but his fundamental understanding of the need to keep his reasoning judicious rather than dogmatic kept him from ever coming to pro-slavery conclusions.
In fact, when I look back on the first decade or so of my adult life I can think of only two places where the purity of ideological consistency was praised over judicious governance: academia and cults. Colleges and cults are two entirely different things, of course; they share little in common. The one thing they do share is that each is a type of cocoon partitioned off from the rest of the world.
When I was in college, for example, my fellow students and I studied political science. In classes, dorm rooms, bars and coffee shops we discussed and argued the emblematic texts of the great minds that had come before. (Mind you, this was in Eugene, Oregon, and so the band of the political spectrum we fought over was relatively small: Trotskyists, Maoists, mutualists and anarcho-syndicalists habitually tangled for supremacy.) The need to actually govern did not exist for us, however; nor, really, did the need to get a job, pay a mortgage or raise a family. All that mattered was the pure academic elixir of political thought. No wonder, then, that the greatest admiration and accolades were bestowed upon those who could prove themselves the most ideologically pure. This is why ideas that sounded crazy to the rest of the world – such as the notions that the descendants of slave owners should be tried for genocide or that all heterosexual sex is rape – were so often embraced in these discussions. (And yes, before you send me emails explaining that John Conyers never advocated trying the descendants of slave owners and Andrea Dworkin never actually said all heterosexual sex is rape, know that I am well aware. That didn’t keep my peers from being willing to go that extra step on their own.)
Once we left school, however, the need to be seen as ideologically consistent was quickly drummed out of us by the real world. The nightly news and our day-to-day lives replaced Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn as our primary sources for how the world worked, as we were thrust into contact with all kinds of people who saw the word differently. The absence of an all-black-and-white palate meant that we needed to begin coloring the world we saw in millions of varying shades. Refusing to be judicious in our views was a luxury we had been afforded by being enclosed in the cocoon of our university. Now that we had graduated, we had to leave our childish things behind.
Today, however, the need to leave those childish things behind is fast disappearing. We still physically live in diverse communities, but technology is largely eliminating the need to interact with those different from ourselves. More and more, those who are politically involved are finding that they can eliminate all other viewpoints from their field of vision. Liberal, conservative or libertarian, you can now choose to be kept up to date on everything in real time, and yet still have it packaged and delivered in a way that never challenges or contradicts your ideology. More and more, every bit of news we receive can be set up to confirm our preconceptions. If you supported a public policy decision that had catastrophic results or campaigned for a candidate who turned out to be corrupt and immoral, fear not – your market-chosen news sources will tell you differently, and you will be able to feel good about yourself and your seemingly unfailing ideology. So, too, will those on the other side of the fence. Every event that happens will feed into your growing certainty that an unwavering loyalty to your ideology is a thing important, urgent and necessary. Every bit of data you have chosen to receive will remind you that things only ever go wrong when you compromise your blind faith in the strictest reading of dogma. Increasingly, all you consume will seduce you into believing that the world will burn unless you forsake judiciousness for consistency. Technology is slowly separating your ideology from the observable real world and limiting it to mere academic theorizing – worse than that, it’s academic theorizing performed in an echo chamber. Technology is making your ideology into a cult.
The real problem, of course, is that while ideologies always work on paper, they must be practiced in a human world. In a real and human world ideologies work best as a starting point, a base from which to find a path to stable public policy. Ideology has always worked better as an abstract piece of art than a detailed photograph. We must learn when to lean on our ideologies, and when to recognize that they are failing us. Ideological consistency is the enemy of that wisdom.
Doug Wilson argues that if you’re a Christian conservative who condemns violent opposition to abortion you need to accept that slavery can also be a good thing; otherwise, you leave yourself open to to complaints that you are not being ideologically consistent. He’s correct. What happens when more and more Christian conservatives realize this, and decide that ideological consistency is a higher ideal to strive for than judicious governance? If we were all good Christians, Wilson claims, such a world might be quite harmonious indeed.
But history says differently.
History says that once ideology declares slavery acceptable, we will find a way to make sure that our tribe is part of the ownership set, and another part of the property set. History says that having absolute power over others always leads to the very things Wilson is sure need not happen. History says that once we discover the degree to which it is profitable to own others for labor – how our lives are freed up for more pleasure pursuits than toiling in fields and cubicles – it becomes a very difficult system to dismantle. History says we’ll even kill or die for the right to own people, once we’ve had a big enough taste of it. History says that slavery would surely become the same source of evil it was two hundred years ago, and was two hundred years before that, and two hundred before even that.
It would, however, be ideologically consistent.
 Not entirely true. There was one other that came across my radar screen during those years. In addition to academics and cultists, I remember that Mr. K____ used to talk about the importance never wavering on your ideological consistency.
Mr. K____ was rumored to be the richest man in our upper-middle class suburban town. He had owned much of the land the town was built on, and over decades parceled it out in high profit sales to the city. Despite this, he lived in a dilapidated shack and wore cheap, near-threadbare clothing. He was ancient, and I never saw him clean-shaven; his white hair ran wild from underneath his brown trucker hat. When I was eighteen I worked the summer as a busboy at a local coffee shop where Mr. K____ was a regular. He seemed to consider berating the all-female wait staff a sport, sending back eggs for being runny one day and then sending them back for not being runny the next. He would sit in his booth for hours through breakfast and lunch, getting refills of coffee and calmly shredding napkin after napkin. Each day he tipped the exact same amount: one nickel and one penny. To my knowledge, his daily coffee shop forays were his only regular interaction with other people.
When things were slow Mr. K____ would call one of us busboys over and show us his pamphlets.
These pamphlets warned of the systematic dismantling of the American way of life by the Jews, who apparently were almost in place to enslave the world for their nefarious purposes. Jews themselves were a weak and cowardly lot, Mr. K____ and the pamphlets would say, and because of this they relied on the violent muscle of the American Negro. These pamphlets would have cartoon drawings of Jews and Negros working together to rob, rape and kill white Christians. The Jews were always pictured as being midget-height with noses larger than their torsos, the Negros as fat, hairy gorillas in human clothes whose lips matched the Jews noses in size. I do not know where he got these pamphlets.
Mr. K____ had many arguments for why the government needed to round up the Jews and Negros and ship them back to Israel and Africa, respectively. The strength of all of these arguments relied upon the same kind of strict adherence to Biblical and Constitutional consistency that Doug Wilson relies upon to get where he does on the subject of slavery.
And though there is no doubt that he was completely off his nut, I can tell you that Mr. K____’s intellectual discipline and logic were always impeccable.