Religious Ping-Pong

David Brooks’ recent piece on the Republican Party has me thinking about a phenomenon that I see in many sectors besides politics, starting with religion.
It’s the tendency we’ve all noticed – to create one-issue fixations. For Republicans, Brooks says, the current fixation is tax rates. Responsible governance, he argues, requires we work with many issues simultaneously and pay attention to the larger historical process in which we are participating. But single-issue fixation allows us to forget all that complexity and focus on one issue only, right now only.
Why do we succumb to this temptation? Is it the desire for moral simplicity and clarity? Is it laziness, an avoidance of doing our homework? Is it the feeling that life is so complex that we can’t deal with it as it is – so must deal with a vastly simplified version of it? Is it a herd-mentality – a mimetic phenomenon to which we surrender because “everyone is doing it?” Is it a political game, where we pick an issue by which we hope we can get some kind of a tactical win – putting more responsible behavior aside? Is it playing into the media’s love for an old-fashioned dualistic fight? Is it the need to create an identity around some issue that will make us stand out, if not apart from the crowd, then with some sub-section of the crowd? Is it all of the above?
When we translate this fixation into a religious context, we can see certain mirror images at work on the right and the left. For example, I’m deeply committed to my LGBTQ friends and family members and to challenging harmful preconceptions about sexual identity. But I’m concerned when I see people on both “left” and “right” make this their single fixation … forgetting that gay and straight alike will suffer if we don’t address the global crises of the planet, poverty, peace, and religion. It’s trading the all-or-nothing/either/or challenge for the simultaneous/both/and challenge …
Teaching evolution in schools … prayer in schools … abortion … gay marriage … the rapture or other eschatological topics … these single issue fixations change over time. But something is “abnormal,” to use David Brooks’ term, when we ping-pong from one single issue to another, lacking a broader ability to hold multiple issues in dynamic tension.
I’m not against specialization; I’m thankful for the people who devote 100% of their energy to fighting mountaintop removal, for example, or to building Christian-Muslim-Jewish relations, or to grappling with better ways to articulate biblical authority, or to developing ethical business that try to maximize employment, not just profit. But even as we specialize … more of us should consider switching sports, from ping-pong to juggling.