The Lie of the “Third Way”

I can’t help think about Harry Frankfurt’s essay, “On Bullshit” whenever I encounter white male pastors talking about a “third way” or being “centrist.” Frankfurt makes the point that humbug (a form of bullshit) is not a claim about reality; it’s a claim about the speaker.

Frankfurt quotes Max Black’s definition of “humbug” — “deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” I suspect this describes many 3rd-way pastors these days.

I want to add that I’m not unsympathetic toward pastors who misrepresent themselves during this rise of white Christian Nationalism. I think there are a lot of pastors suffering from Moral Injury, a form of PTSD.

“Third Way” and “centrist” rhetoric may be a form of self-preservation. It says, “I’m not your target” to angry congregants. For many, speaking truthfully about the rise of WCN puts their families and their careers at risk. Far easier to talk about “polarization” and put the blame “on both sides.” But this silence comes at the cost of moral injury.

“Centrism,” in the USian church at this historical moment is a way of positioning my whitedudeself at the center of two imaginary and equally-obejctionable extremes. It reinforces the norm of binary USian “left-right” politics even as it pretends to offer an alternative. But it’s really just status-quo preaching.

(I have to note that the word “centrist” is very descriptive: it really does *center* white male power in the area of public theology and public policy. In this way it perpetuates material harm for others and moral injury for pastors.)

“I defy classification” is a lie that many church leaders tell themselves about themselves. They lament polarization, demonization, and enemyfying, and praise nuance and perspective-taking. All good. But when it comes to specific policies and questions of power… silence.

A preacher w/out this insight may even identify himself (and it’s almost always a “him”) with Christ, “crucified by both left and right,” as I’ve heard one preacher say, vicariously placing himself in the center not only of American politics, but the f’n cosmos.

3rd-way/centrism is “bullshit” because it’s a claim about yourself, not about reality. The last thing pastors want to do is talk about specific policies or theological claims, preferring to gesture toward the extremes and make apophatic statements about their own (& Jesus’s) identity (i.e. “Jesus is not a Democrat or a Republican.”)

Again, I know this is *moral injury* for many pastors. It’s a trap that leads to burnout and demoralization when leaders are crushed between institutional evangelical-capitalist expectations for church growth and a vocational responsibility for truth-telling.

We need to name this bullshit self-centering rhetoric not only for the sake of the people being harmed by these crises, and not only for the sake of the church, and not only for the planet, but for the sake of the pastors who are complicit in it.

Church leaders cannot navigate the crises of climate change, fascism, & disaster capitalism by making nice with wealthy donors whose interests are in perpetuating those things at the expense of everyone else on the planet. If Jesus takes no side here, he’s not merely useless. He’s doing harm.