I grew up in an independent, fundamental, Baptist church (yes, you MUST say "independent, fundamental, Baptist" three times fast to ward off evil spirits) that taught many things including the evils of rock music (this was the 80's after all), how universities are stealing our kids' faith, and that the world is coming to an end any minute. The strongest teaching we received, however, was in all the ways we were not like the "charismatic" church across town. Bethel Church (formerly Bethel Assembly of God) was a flamboyant, lively, "pentecostal" leaning, "3rd wave" congregation that was experiencing much of the excitement fallout from the "Vineyard movement" at the time (yeah, I know I just threw a bunch of "inside baseball" at you. Bear with me though). The exact details of Bethel's dynamics are not important to the story. What is important is that the congregation at North Valley Baptist Church was unified in NOT being like "those charismatics" across town (meaning Bethel). Bethel became what I later would call a "defining opposite."
Defining Opposites serve multiple purposes, among which is absolving people from the responsibility of knowing what they stand for. Group A doesn't need to perform the hard work of defining themselves when it's much simpler to state they are NOT like Group B. At my church, we couldn't tell you jack squat about the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, or articulate the Gospel. But we could clearly state why we weren't like "those charismatics." Defining opposites allow you to know your own position only insofar as it's not theirs. Bethel wasn't the baptist's only defining opposite though. Science, art, society, technology offered other examples to declare "we're not THAT," or that, or that over there.
Ethically, defining opposites absolve you of responsibility to principles, replacing it with the pragmatism of "whatever is not THAT [the perceived evil] must be good." Moral and ethical erosion, however alarming, is irrelevant compared to the mandate not to be the defining opposite. In a religious context, doctrine and reasoned praxis are subservient to defining opposite avoidance. Another of the baptists' defining opposites were the Roman Catholic Church, with it never occurring to them that other catholic traditions exist beside being Roman, or that perhaps there may be instructive clues to their staying power over two millennia. But I digress...
Where the folly of the Defining Opposite has been most on display in recent years is in the political process. My disappointment as a former Republican (there, I said it!) is even greater than my disappointment was as a former Baptist. Why is my disappointment greater? Because the political options are fewer. While I have acknowledged for a long time that more parties exist than merely the Republican and Democrat parties, I paid them no attention because of the perceived binary choice between red and blue states on the election night newscasts. What's more? I considered third party movements a work of the devil (I'm only 60% kidding) in light of the 1992 advent of Ross Perot, which gave us eight years of Bill Clinton. This attitude was reinforced by talk show personalities I enjoyed like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity (who with careful wording and editing has managed to come just short of declaring he wants to have Trump's baby). In religious circles, I learned that more Christian options existed than merely to be Baptist or an infidel. With politics, however, the options seemed much more limited.
At some point though, I looked around and observed that the foolishness of the defining opposite was in full political swing. Just about any moral and ethical stance became negotiable under the mantra of "Well. You don't want Hillary in office, do you?" Donald Trump declared that his people were so loyal that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and not lose their votes. The tragic truth lies in how correct he was. The Republican National Convention this week was a showcase in how this folly is running its logical course. The math goes like this:
- Hillary Clinton embodies all that is evil (enter Defining Opposite)
- Donald Trump wins GOP nomination on fear and progressive populism
- Trump is now the "champion" against the Hillary
- All things Trump are acceptable and "moral" compared to the prospect of Hillary
- All those opposed to Trump must therefore want Hillary in power
This is so similar to how all cults begin as to not warrant further explanation; only in cults, the subject is first religious, then it turns controlling. In the case of Trump, it starts political but will turn "religious" as the demand for total devotion echoes my previous writing about "religious statism" in America. For all of their rhetoric about "fighting tyranny" here in the US, the GOP has elected to follow the pathway of historic tyrannies of the past. Note how Trump attacks his political enemies that dare to withhold their endorsement, or suggest that principles come before personalities. The dynamic interplay between the egomaniac and the support of his followers is also a recurring paradigm in history. No one ascends to power alone, but is also the recipient of support from those willing to prop them up. Why? Because enough have sold out to the defining opposite mentality.
As I listen to Trumpkins articulate their rationale for supporting such a ghastly grotesque, and the reasons seeming to frustratingly fall away under the onslaught of casual conversation (not even heated debate), the defining opposite argument becomes inevitable. Locked into the binary worldview of A or B (nothing more), they cannot admit to anything that might make them question their vote for Trump. Indeed he could shoot someone, shoot several people for that matter, and their predictable response would be, "Well. At least he ain't Hillary." One wonders where their principles went, if they even had them. Moral and ethical absolutes are the bane of such reasoning, because it leaves the follower knowing that Jesus' naïve question ("What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, yet lose his own soul?") was at best misguided, and at worst a vote for the enemy.
I offer no endorsement of any third party candidate here, only the admonishment that a vote for Trump is not merely a vote against Hillary; it's also a vote FOR Trump... a vote that should rightly plague your conscience with each opening of his mouth or bullying from his surrogates. I have learned that other parties, and their respective candidates do exist(!), so the supposed "binary choice" of Republican or Democrat is a prison from which many must escape. There is no "perfect" candidate, but perhaps there is one of the others that strains your conscience less than ClinTrump. I encourage you to look into them. But if your political/ethical choice is to be ever governed by the Defining Opposite, the rest of us get to wonder what violation of principles could your candidate ever do to lose your support, if indeed you ever had principles that your "champion" could break at all.