It Takes Self-Confidence to be a Moderate

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Photo by Evan Wise on Unsplash

As Trump continues to do what he does best — suck the oxygen out of every space into which he stalks — my form of protest, at least today, will be to argue the virtues of moderation.

To do so I reach back to a speech given in 1988 by the President of Yeshiva University, Norman Lamm. Lamm spoke then in defense of what he called “Centrist Orthodoxy,” which he defined as a Judaism that was deeply rooted in the Torah but open to, and enriched by, secular knowledge. The Hebrew term is “Torah Umadda,” religious principles and secular knowledge.

Such a combination also, I would argue, is what is distinctive about historic liberal or mainline Protestantism.

In the course of his talk, Rabbi Lamm had this to say about moderation.

“Moderation should never be confused with indecisiveness. On the contrary, a lack of self-confidence in one’s most basic commitments is often expressed in extremism. Only one who is sure of what he stands for can afford to be moderate. A strong heart can risk being an open heart.”  (italics added).

I quote Lamm now for two reasons (beyond thinking he is both right and eloquent). First, many accuse moderates of simply being indecisive or lacking any convictions. Or worse being cowardly. The old line is trotted out. “The only thing in the middle of the road is a yellow line.” Yes, to be sure, there are some that might be called moderate who avoid commitment, hedge their way through life, and put their finger up to see which way the wind is blowing before venturing a thought or opinion.

But moderation, in my experience, is closer to what Lamm said at a time when there was hot debate in the Jewish community about “who is a Jew?” Moderation, which entails seeing complexity, holding competing truths in tension, and some capacity for self-doubt, requires courage and a certain toughness. You’ll get it from both sides.

Which brings me to my second reason for bringing the topic up just now. Joe Biden was elected, I think, because he is a moderate. And thus far, as President-elect, his style has been moderate and presidential, a refreshing contrast to that of Donald Trump.

Still, it won’t be long before Biden will be getting it from both or all sides. I hope and pray that he has the strength to keep to a moderate course, which will entail disappointing some within his own party. He will need to be met with similar acts of courage by others, in particular those not in his own party. Whether some Republicans can discover or re-discover their inner moderate remains to be seen.

But as Lamm defined a “centrist orthodoxy” — holding together a deep rootedness in faith’s tradition and engagement and learning from the secular world — so Republicans and Democrats now need to keep their proper party principles in tension with a commitment to the whole of America and to its healing.

Such healing remains a long shot in these acrimonious and extreme times, fueled by the internet frenzies of fools. Trump is doing all in his power to see that it doesn’t happen after January 20. But if it is to come it will come from those whose heart is strong enough to risk being open. May their tribe increase.

1 COMMENT

  1. Exactly. My favorite quote along these lines is from Lionel Trilling: “Reconciliation is a heroic virtue.” I believe the key problem in our politics these days is not polarization, a constant feature of democracy, but the failure of the reconcilers to have the courage to speak up and propose good resolutions.

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