Crumbling Consensus

Consensus has never been easy to come by. Every group, every movement, every family, every coalition or club or team of any kind requires some level of agreement/consensus in order to be meaningfully distinct in identity and remotely efficacious in purpose. And every one of these groups knows how elusive but essential consensus can be. But consensus seems to be more elusive than ever, at every stratum of society.

On a global scale, the promise of a flattened world where globalized trade and enmeshed economies lead to a new order of shared commitments to the common good has certainly not come to fruition. If anything the attempts at forging consensus have only aggravated existing resentments and differences, whether among radical Islamic entities or “don’t tread on me!” rogues like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un.

On a national level, the “united” part of the U.S.A. has become little more than a specter of nostalgia. Not that true unity was ever there (the Civil War and its still-smoldering legacy are just one obvious testament to this), but these days there hardly seem to be two Facebook friends who agree on more than a handful of things.

This is all very evident in the crazy-and-getting-crazier 2016 presidential election. The two party system has never seemed more incapable of capturing the streams of fervor and diversity of conviction among the American electorate. The Republican Party especially, after a steadily building fragility in the Tea Party era, is on the verge of total fracture as the stark differences between GOP tribes become more evident. There are the angry/nativist/anti-immigrant tribes supporting Trump and Cruz; the libertarian tribe supporting Rand Paul; the tribes of many nations supporting the other seven or so candidates, and so on… Even among Democrats there is a striking fragmentation, with socialist-leaning Bernie Sanders carrying the torch of the Occupy Wall Street crowd and Hillary Clinton carrying the torch of establishment liberalism. Reliable old coalitions like evangelicals are no longer predictable or remotely monolithic in their political preferences (they never really were). As an article on CNN recently highlighted, there are at least 7 distinct types of evangelical voters in this election cycle.

It’s all quite confusing for voters, and I predict it will result in record low turnout in November, especially among the 18-30 crowd (unless Bernie Sanders is on the ballot). But the election is only a microcosm of a larger cultural trend toward hyper-fragmentation and societal polemics that goes far beyond pluralism.

Why are we so fragmented? Why is consensus harder than ever to come by? Here are just a few quick answers to an (obviously) wide-ranging question:

  • Consensus requires belief in shared values; shared values are built on trust in metanarratives, faith in institutions and continuity between generations. But all of this was obliterated by postmodernity.
  • Technology has moved quickly and decisively in the direction of “i.” The Internet, apps, phones, social media… all of it is totally tailored to individual consumers, such that the experiences of the world (via feeds, playlists, Netflix queues, etc.) are increasingly unique to the tastes and preferences of individuals. Simultaneously, the infinite array of sources, communities and idea-spaces on the Internet are the perfect breeding ground for ever more hybrid and amorphous “bubbles” of ideological mutations.
  • In part because more of it exists and is accessible than ever before, information (e.g. anything to be found via Google) has become too overwhelming and too untrustworthy to facilitate healthy discourse and build common cultural language. Internet information serves only individuals, answering on-demand questions and confirming or denying whatever we wish. It never forces us to be wrong if we don’t want it to. And if consensus is to be built, some people have to accept that they are wrong.
  • Academia, one of the traditional bastions of consensus-building thought leadership, is more fractured and incoherent than ever. Look at the dissertation topics in any Ph.D. program or examine the research interests of any faculty website and you’ll see how the long march toward hyper-specialization and hyper-narrow conceptions of “expertise” has rendered intellectual output little more than jargony, echo-chamber gobbledygook. The insular, impenetrably abstruse nature of academic writing (and apathy about good prose) has led to a dearth of public intellectuals who actually help the masses reason together.

For all these reasons and more, consensus is harder than ever to come by.

This is especially true for already ambiguously defined coalitions such as “evangelicalism” and its parent company “Protestantism,” both of which are by nature on shaky definitional grounds given that their seemingly rock solid foundation for authority (Scripture) is subject to nearly infinite interpretive permutations.

The fragility of evangelical consensus has become starkly evident in recent years, particularly as it relates to evangelical identity and boundaries of orthodoxy. Society’s shift away from traditional Judeo-Christian sexual ethics has of course precipitated much of this, bolstered last summer by the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges to legalize gay marriage.

Many denominations have split because of this issue and just this month the global Anglican Communion censured The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the United States for its liberal stance on same-sex marriage.

A few months ago the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), a 40-year old coalition of 121 Christian institutions of higher education, lost a few members and nearly split over the question of whether its institutions could permit faculty and staff to be in same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, individual Christian colleges are facing controversies and bad PR on account of the increasingly all-over-the-spectrum opinions within their ranks on everything from sexuality to Islam and racial diversity.

As an employee of an evangelical college (Biola University) and an alumnus of another (Wheaton College), I can attest to the growing sense of fragmentation and unease within these institutions regarding questions of boundaries and identity. You have liberal constituents (students, faculty/staff, alumni, etc.) who wish the schools would loosen up their theological boundaries and fall in line with government-mandated norms on things like LGBT inclusion and abortion pill access. Then there are many conservative constituents who are nervous that the colleges will compromise on convictions under so much pressure. What compounds the difficulty for colleges like Biola and Wheaton is that they are non-denominational: there is no governing theological entity beyond them to which they can appeal for clarity and a final word. No, the buck stops within their walls and within their (relatively young) histories. And what at once makes these non-denominational schools great (Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Eastern Orthodox and more comingle and cross-pollinate) can also prove challenging in building theological consensus.

Though it will be hard, I think the sustainable way forward for institutions like this is to move toward more rather than less clear theological definition. This will require much discussion, debate, many committees and disappointments on all sides. And it should not be rushed. But it will be helpful in the long term.

Local churches have more stability than parachurch organizations these days in part because they are free (and motivated) to be theologically precise. People choose or don’t choose to join a church in large part because of its specific set of beliefs and theological interpretations. And unlike Christian colleges or parachurch organizations, churches are not as financially pressured to keep a diverse coalition of constituents/donors happy. For a local church, definitional boundaries are helpful so that members know exactly what they are committing to and visitors have clear reasons to “take or leave it.”

In order to be effective in their missions, organizations and groups of any kind must be clear on who they are and what they believe. We should want to see discernible differences of convictions and goals among the many groups that make up a healthy pluralistic society. A conservative evangelical college shouldn’t be forced to look and act just like a secular state school, just as GLAAD shouldn't be forced to adopt the values and mission of Focus on the Family. Boundaries and differences allow groups to have meaningful identities and society as a whole to thrive.

That said, these stronger-because-they-are-distinct organizations can and should work together where there is overlap and common goals. Cooperation for the common good can exist even in the midst of crumbling consensus. We can find consensus on some things while disagreeing on a whole lot more. A Muslim community center and an evangelical college can work side by side in refugee relief without building a case for theological sameness. A Catholic theologian can co-present at a conference with a Baptist colleague and pray side by side while respecting the fact that he could never be a tenured faculty member at the Baptist seminary.

These sorts of common-ground opportunities, taken as they come and for what they are, are key to rebuilding consensus in our fragmented age. They are chances to humanize one another and learn from each other’s traditions, which are stronger insofar as they are allowed to be distinct.