I recently attended a meeting of evangelicals concerned about nuclear arms proliferation. It felt odd, since this hadn't been a topic of conversation since 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. That event signaled the end of the cold war and supposedly the end of mutual nuclear destruction by the great superpowers. Thousands of nuclear warheads have been destroyed since, yet enough remain to destroy the planet many times over. And here we were, thinking about the unthinkable again.
As the meeting moved to a close, the organizers pressed home their case that this, more than any issue today, was the cause we should give ourselves to. After all, smuggling a nuclear bomb into the U.S. via a suitcase is no longer a fabulous plotline in an imaginative thriller; it is a reasonable scenario in the real world. The fewer nuclear weapons on the planet, the less likely that scenario, went the argument. And if we don't bring that number down significantly, sooner or later, it's going to be Armageddon.
Such logic is hard to refute. A similar logic, though, is used by devout activists of many stripes.
HIV/AIDS activists have told us for years that unless we make disease prevention a priority, we will see entire generations and nations wiped out.
Gay marriage opponents argue that legalizing homosexual marriage will signal the end of the family, the bedrock of civilization.
Creation care advocates tell us that if we don't reverse global warming soon, a planetary catastrophe awaits us.
Pro-lifers remind us not only of the sheer volume of annual abortions, but also that such casual treatment of human life, if left unchecked, will dehumanize our society to the point of barbarism.
In each case, the argument is simple: If this particular problem gets out of hand (if it hasn't already), the rest of the institutions of civilization will collapse like a string of dominoes. The argument seems irrefutable. One is hard-pressed to disagree. Nonetheless, I squirm under the relentless logic.
One reason is that when we mix passion and the logic, we end up with a bitter aftertaste. I expect each activist to make his most compelling case. But by the end of the pitch, I often feel manipulated. It's like I'm at a revival, where the preacher holds the fires of hell in front of me to prompt me to come forward and repent. When it comes to evangelism, we abandoned that technique long ago. These evangelical genes, though, often kick in again when we're trying to convince others to sign on to our social cause.
Another reason is that I have long been suspicious of "single-issue" activists. I imagine myself thoughtful and reasonable, and chuckle at people whose vote hinges simplistically on a single issue. I prefer the company of other journalists and pundits, as we drink our fair-trade coffee, discuss the enormous complexity of the world, and how we're going to write about that in the next issue, again.
Then memory kicks in. I wonder: Weren't the 19th century abolitionists "single-issue fanatics"? As were those in the 1930s resistance against the Nazis? Reasonable people of the day — those who balanced many concerns, who appreciated the strength of all sides, who refused to get swept up in single-issue politics — well, they are history's goats. The simplistic fanatics — the William Lloyd Garrisons and Julia Ward Howes, the Sophie Scholls and the Dietrich Bonhoeffers — men and women driven by one overriding cause of their day — these we call heroes.
Such people bring to mind the signers of the American Declaration of Independence who promised to "pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor"—all for the single cause of freedom. They remind me of a parable of Jesus, in which a man discovers one pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45-46) and sells everything he has to buy it. It's as if these single-minded activists have found a mission of inestimable worth.
Yes, I still often find single-issue activists annoying and their arguments sometimes manipulative. But I also recognize that my reluctance to sign up often has little to do with overblown rhetoric or pushy personalities. Sometimes it can be chalked up to an unwillingness to risk all, to actually live a Jesus-life of sacrifice. I call it living a balanced life, or good stewardship of time and resources, or the pursuit of contemplative spirituality! It may be such for others. I suspect for me, it's sometimes just cowardice.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He will reply to comments here and on his blog, where this column has been cross-posted.
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Christianity Today editorialized on single-issue voting in 2004.