Moderation and Madness

Yorkshire ChurchIt has been over 3 months since I moved into my Yorkshire home. The boxes were put away long ago, the pictures have been hung up on the walls, my extensive collection of books and classical music are all on the shelves. When I return home in the evening, the hall light’s warm yellow glow visible through the front door’s windowpane speaks of comfort and ease rather than more to fix or straighten. My cat Sarah Jane is nearly always waiting across the threshold, sitting on a green rug, hoping for a tummy rub.  I shop at Morrison’s, have learned the names of the best curry houses in the area, have enjoyed having tea at Betty’s, and feel my heart skip a beat whenever I see the grandeur of the Yorkshire hills.

This sense of well being has been reinforced by engaging with the local community, more specifically, by going to church. I was a lapsed Catholic; my local Anglican church has facilitated my transformation into a convinced member of the Church of England. The vicar has been instrumental in this: despite having several children with special needs, and thus good reason to question God’s goodness, he retains his faith. Furthermore, the congregation is friendly and the services are much less pompous than what I’m used to in a Catholic establishment. For example, I was struck by the simplicity and sincerity of the Ash Wednesday service. It was a grey day, and the pale light reflected through the cold church’s stained glass windows. The wind howled outside. I was there with only 8 or 9 others. The readings and prayers were plain and moving. Our foreheads were then marked with the burnt remains of palm branches, after which the vicar asked one of the congregation to mark his forehead as well, a touching sign of humility. Afterwards, the vicar and the congregation shared a supply of paper towels to get rid of the ash. It’s rare I’ve felt more at home.

Part of my peace of mind, no doubt, is due to the moderation which is embedded in the Church of England’s DNA: when Queen Elizabeth the First came to the throne, she made it clear she wanted the church to follow a “via media”, or “middle way”. As it is comprised of Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic and Liberal factions and its outposts reside in many nations, the Church has had to remain moderate in order to hold itself together. Yet, it makes progress: in my church, there are more women who conduct services than men.

The Church of England is wealthy, but not on a Catholic scale, and not in a way that means it’s able to adorn itself in sacramental bling: there are only so many properties that can be sold off at any one time, and contrary to popular belief, it is not funded by the State. The Church of England also has democratic features: my local church is run not just by the vicar but also by an elected council of parishioners. I suggest this is a safety mechanism, a brake on any extremism taking hold. However, moderation does not mean a lack of moral clarity: the message of “love thy neighbour as thyself” resonates every Sunday. What it does mean, however, is that the content of the Christian message has pre-eminence over the form, namely the rules and regulations of which extremists are so fond.

I will turn 40 soon. I assume that this impending milestone has something to do with my greater longing for the virtues of moderation. The idea of rising up in revolt except under extreme circumstances seems ever more ludicrous. There’s grey in my beard, fewer hairs on my head, and I wrestle with mornings rather than bound out of bed to greet them. I look back and say: I have had my day. I was a union activist. I went out on demonstrations. I spoke up. The warm glow of home and life’s progression along a gentle arc now seem much more agreeable. I dare say that this is how it is for most of the people in my community: they are busy going to work, taking the children to and from school, eating out on Friday nights, washing the car on Saturday and going to church or sleeping in on Sunday. The enthusiasms which seize a few are meaningless in such a milieu: peace, tranquility, sound management and sturdy liberty are what is required, along with keeping one’s garden tidy. No more cataclysms or ideologies: how about being pragmatic, cautious, sensible? Would not such a yearning, had it prevailed, have pushed back many of the evils that have plagued mankind particularly over the past 100 years? The moderate do not engage in class struggle, nor linger in the fever swamps of racism, anti-semitism or Islamophobia. They do not believe they have to prevail themselves upon their neighbours, unless the circumstances themselves are extreme. It is the embodiment of the “live and let live” philosophy. It generally works in my Yorkshire community; it binds people who have few things in common and means my street is silent after dark. When sleep takes hold in such a place, it is untroubled.

Therefore, it’s rather a shame when I look across the ocean to the place from whence I came and see so little moderation in the current Presidential campaign. Rick Santorum is the epitome of the extremist: he focuses on form rather than content, and believes that he has a duty to pronounce on the sins of others. He’s made it clear that he regards contraception as an abomination, and believes that abortion should be banned even in the cases of rape and incest. His intolerance of gays is legendary; his surname is something of an expletive in the LGBT community. That said, perhaps the most worrisome aspect about him is that it doesn’t appear that doubt crosses his mind: his faith doesn’t flicker, although for most of us it is a journey. Nor does he appear to doubt his qualities as a messenger, though the Christian faith makes it clear none of us are unblemished by sin. Worse, it is this galvanised certainty which may be at the root of his appeal: for a number of years now, the chatter on the Republican far right is that they haven’t won elections because their candidates aren’t sufficiently conservative. It is this impulse which meant that Jon Huntsman, an experienced governor who speaks Mandarin Chinese and served well as an ambassador, could get nowhere in the Republican primary; Mitt Romney’s prospects look rather bleak as well. With Santorum, at least the far right has the certitude that they crave, if not the entire palette of policies. As this group dominates the primary elections, Santorum might win. Then the passions on the opposite side will be stirred: no doubt the Daily Kos, the Huffington Post and Democrat activists will all rise as one to help the President. I suggest, however, the winner in this struggle will be the one who remembers the parents who go to work and take the kids to and from school and wash the car on Saturdays. They will recoil from the extremes and vote for the candidate who will run the country more effectively. This is what happened in 2008. As a result, my suspicion is that President Obama understands this; in contrast, I’ve seen Republican supporters refer to moderates as “crapweasels” – a clear indication that they don’t. I sincerely doubt even a crushing defeat would cause these conservatives to lose their faith: there is no “via media” for them, their path forks off, ever to the right, into hinterlands which suggest that a return to the world of the 1950’s is possible or even desirable.

Meanwhile, the rest of us, in England as in America, will go on with living, working, caring, hoping, praying and tending. Soon Spring will come and the gardens will be in bloom; my girlfriend planted azaleas and crocuses in pots alongside the path leading to our door. Easter will follow shortly on, and in my church we will hear messages of joy and renewal. All of this goes on without the extreme, it functions better without it; it is a counterpoint to madness.

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