Monday, February 9, 2009

On Centrism: American Catholic Centrism as Apologia for Powerful

Paul Krugman has a good commentary in today's New York Times about President Obama's continuing conviction that he needs to make decisions keeping the Republican minority in mind, in order to preserve the "center." Krugman's piece is entitled "The Destructive Center" (

Krugman argues that, while claiming to serve centrist needs, the Republican minority (and those willing to collude with it) have managed to cripple the financial stimulus package. As he notes, the cuts that "centrists" forced the president to make in his stimulus package fall disproportionately on those who are in most need of assistance in this time of financial crisis, and benefit those who have created the crisis in the first place.

I'm interested in Krugman's argument because it parallels one I have been pushing on this blog re: American Catholic centrists. Underlying the philosophy of liberal centrism is a belief in the need for balance. Following the election of Mr. Obama, I noted centrist Catholic supporters of Obama, members of the knowledge class at the center of the American church, noting their fear that the balance had been destroyed in our government with the election of Obama. These commentators were calling for the continued alliance of Catholics, even those who support the new president, with countervailing movements in the Republican party--to maintain balance.

This centrist strategy in both religion and politics strikes me as insupportable for a number of reasons. There's, first of all, the strange presupposition that good government is all about maintaining balance. The notion that government is about balance first and foremost is only one among several options of our founding documents. It's a Madisonian federalist assumption, one driven by fear of "mob" rule if democracy is allowed to do its work without fetters. Jefferson thought differently about democracy and its potential.

It's interesting to see the center of the American Catholic knowledge class largely determined by Madisonian federalist and not Jeffersonian populist assumptions about "balance" and the "center."

It also strikes me as worth noting that the center shifts. It is not a rigid, predetermined compass point. It changes as the balance it serves moves to the left or the right.

We have lived through a long moment in our culture in which the center has shifted decisively to the right. In defending the center, "centrists" are actually defending political and religious ideas that were once considered unthinkably to the right of center. The fundamental conservatism of centrist American Catholic thinkers today is never quite out on the table for discussion. And yet it sorely needs such analysis, particularly if some of the most serious rifts in the American church are to be addressed with any honesty and any real healing.

I'm fundamentally suspicious of centrist claims because of their inherent tendency to side with power, with the powers that be at any given time. In my view, religion has built into its very center an anti-authoritarian impulse that constantly subjects the powers that be at any moment of history to critique.

When we bow to the right in the name of preserving centrist balance, what we really do is abdicate our responsbility to critique those who have the most power in church and society, and who use that power to serve their own ends rather than for the good of the whole. Centrism mutes some of the most important voices within the Christian community, and, in doing so, vitiates the church's prophetic witness within the social and economic sphere.

Ultimately, I think that what may concern me most about this centrist pattern of thinking is its ability to elide over all those placed outside the circle of social belonging by those in whose hands power lies. As I keep repeating on this blog, I am profoundly disturbed by the ability of many of my centrist brothers and sisters in the American Catholic church to defend a papacy that has dispossessed so many Catholics of their place in the church.

How is it possible to continue talking with any credibility about love, healing, unity, compassion, justice, inclusion, and catholicity while we simply ignore large numbers of people dispossessed by the consensus we are defending? This question cannot be allowed to go away, because human beings with real human lives should never be allowed to vanish . . . .