I’ve just finished the manuscript for my next book: Sidelined Church: Bridging the Chasms between Churches and Cultures (to be released around august this year). I was asked to do this as a kind of “update” thirty years after Tex Sample’s groundbreaking book US Lifestyles and the Mainline Church.
One of the things I began to ponder was how liberal or conservative ideology influenced lifestyle choices for spiritual leadership. By “ideology”, I mean a system of socio-political and ethical theories and goals. Often this is revealed by attitudes toward hot button issues like sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, war, immigration, etc. But ideological systems are often grounded in, or at least rationalized by, theological assumptions about scripture, history, revelation, freedom, etc.
Although ideology may be grounded in theology, my observation of culture is that theology does not necessarily dictate ideology. Other factors come into play.
For example, a household that might typically hold conservative theological beliefs (e.g. “Blue Collar Comfort”), may still be liberal in attitudes toward abortion or sexuality based on internal family values or neighborly empathy. A conservative spiritual leader might be cautious about being too doctrinaire, or making sweeping generalizations, because this lifestyle segment is apt to be very pragmatic when it comes to their own families, friends, and neighbors.
Or for example, a household that might typically hold liberal theological beliefs (e.g. “Aging of Aquarius”) might still be conservative in attitudes toward affirmative action, immigration, race relations, or homosexuality. A liberal spiritual leader might be cautious about pressuring them to sign petitions or join protest movements for a particular cause. This lifestyle might resent overly zealous “prophetic” leadership.
Liberal and conservative lifestyle groups have historically avoided extremes based on ideology alone. They may well endorse different theological positions, but they also recognize ambiguities in daily living. One of the scary trends in the last 30 years is that some have become so uncomfortable with the ambiguity of daily living that they have taken extreme “black and white” attitudes that equate theology and ideology.
This “extremist" attitude is different from what I ascribe to “Extreme Leaders” in an important way. What makes “Extreme Leaders” extreme is not so much their ideological stance, but their commitment to radical accountability (to church, to Spirit, to God, to each other, etc.). This glaringly contrasts with the “extremists” around ideology today who are very adversarial about public policies, but actually hold themselves aloof from any form of social or spiritual accountability. “Extreme Leaders” are extreme because they are radically submissive to God above all gods. “Extremist ideologues” are extreme because they are determined to impose their will against any opposition. Ego replaces God. ‘Extreme Leaders” welcome critique and debate as a way to grow. “Extremist Leaders” shun critique and debate because it undermines their will to power.
I observe that it is often the “church dropouts” and the “addictively churchy” that tend to welcome “Extremist Leaders”, and therefore also persecute “Extreme Leaders”. But genuine seekers (who never had church experience in the first place) and church participants who see church as just one part of a spiritually healthy lifestyle tend to avoid extremists, but respect Extreme Leaders.
This means that for many international outsiders looking in on national socio-political debates, much of the polarization and hatred they see is a relic of disintegrating Christendom. Much of the heat is generated between people who have an axe to grind against Christendom, and people who have sacred cow attitudes for Christendom. But if you get critical distance from Christendom, confrontation is replaced by conversation. There is still disagreement, but less polarization.