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Smiling Conservatives

[Religion News Service, April 25, 1995}

Smile and the world doesn’t always smile with you. When Verlyn Klinkenborg reports on a pro-life protest outside a Milwaukee abortion clinic (Harper’s, January 1995), the first thing he tells us about the participants is:  "They were smiling.  ‘They smile all the time,’ said a woman named Catey Doyle…in the room with me." Likewise, when Julie A. Wortman writes in The Witness about her reluctance to attend a meeting on evangelism, her first complaint is, "Most of the people I’ve encountered who enjoy talking about and doing evangelism have seemed unnaturally smiley and friendly." When liberals peer across the barricades, they don’t only see their opponents thinking wrong thoughts. They see them smiling about it, which is even more unsettling.

I observed this phenomenon at a debate on an abortion law. The pro-choice side was headed toward a 60/40 election-day victory, and enjoyed powerful establishment support; pro-lifers were running a grassroots campaign with much dimmer hope of success. But when the session broke, pro-lifers hugged each other, joked together, and generally had an affable time. Pro-choicers looked grim and driven, and particularly irritated by having to be around all these damn smiling people. If you stood close enough, you could hear their jaws grinding.

It hardly matters which subject is under debate. If the lines are drawn between liberal and conservative—or, to use James Davison Hunter’s more precise terms from Culture Wars, progressive and orthodox—the happy-face ones will be standing, and hugging, on the right.

I have some sympathy for progressives’ irritation. When I was a young feminist in college twenty-odd years ago, the bane of my day was the Jesus freaks. Not only did they have misplaced priorities (imagining that religion was more important than revolution), but they smiled all the time. They looked too clean, somehow. They gave me the willies. My friends and I spent those years in faded black outfits, smoking cigarettes, and living lives as disheveled and scuffed as our appearance. Though the Jesus people’s shininess perplexed us, we considered ourselves superior on general principle. Anyone that happy must be clueless.

Now I am one: Christian, pro-life, and smiley. Not clueless, I hope, but the reverse: eventually I gathered enough clues to put together a picture that made sense, a coherent world-view less plagued with uncertainty.

The orthodox’s ability to arrive at conclusions seems to be the nub of the problem. Klinkenborg’s central complaint is that pro-lifers have certainty on something about which he is unsure. He paints a snarling caricature: pro-lifers have "a ferocious, alienating certainty" and wear the look "the human face assumes when the mind stops considering variables." He imagines them standing outside a clinic "muttering imprecatory prayers" and "holding signs and swastikas" (??). And, presumably, still smiling.

Yet he quotes Catey Doyle, the Milwaukee lawyer and pro-choice activist who has watched these groups for years: "There’s something in me, I realize lately, [that] I really long for in a way. It’s to—I’ve never said this out loud—to be involved in some kind of a movement that just takes over your life, sweeps you up, gives you a focus…Sometimes I even look at these anti-abortion protesters, and they’ve got something I don’t have."

What puts the world in order for the orthodox is not a movement but a belief about God, from which social-issue convictions sprout like twigs. People sort themselves on the culture-war front, Hunter found, not according to race, class, age, education, or even church membership, but according to whether the God they worship is an  "external, definable, and transcendent authority."

The orthodox may not have all the answers, but believe they know Who does, and so radiate that annoying contentment. Progressives analyze this irritating certainty in a number of ways: it’s a need for security or an inability to handle ambivalence; it’s immaturity, cowardice, fear of change. The orthodox have stopped thinking, stopped "considering variables."

But doubt is not itself a virtue. Coming to a conviction is like choosing a mate: though cautious hesitation may accompany the process, a final resolution is its goal. Questions are meant for answers, after all. When a couple formalizes their commitment we celebrate, and are pleased to see their decision endure; we don’t chastize them for no longer considering variables.

Arriving at belief in a transcendent God is like committing to marriage. The first conviction causes other convictions to fall into place, offers a central locus around which life is organized, and provides a community of like-minded believers. "There’s a really nice feeling," Catey Doyle says wistfully, "about…knowing, for example, that you can just talk to people and they’ll understand completely everything you’re talking about."

Progressives, by definition, are pioneers: their path is less certain and more lonely. If orthodox are more secure it’s not because they shunned the stress of pioneering but because they found what they sought. That’s something worth smiling about. And there’s always room for more.

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