As the country has polarized over the past five decades, the center has real political appeal. With the two parties sorted between conservatives and liberals and with a political press that practices both-sides coverage and paints each base as equally extreme, centrism and moderation seem to offer a way out of polarization and partisanship. And it promises something more: a politics driven by neutrality and civility, not crassness, passion and demonization of the opposition.
This is nothing new. Calls for moderation and civility, combined with denouncing both sides as too extreme, are common in moments of moral and political crisis. But they are not apolitical. They take the focus away from injustice and put it instead on the behavior of those protesting it. This allows critics to adopt a moral high ground as the civil, reasonable ones without ever publicly taking sides in the debate. But as our own past has shown, neutrality in times of moral and political crisis is anything but neutral.
In the years before the Civil War, Americans were embroiled in another moral and political crisis: the conflict over the future of slavery. Then, as now, the heated political showdown made people uncomfortable. In an attempt to avoid this discomfort, many hoped to navigate the crisis as neutral parties, taking a “very fine people on both sides” approach to the slavery debate. But as it turned out, remaining neutral in the end amounted to defending slavery.
Neutrality was particularly appealing in places that were deeply politically divided. During the slavery debates and then the Civil War, the border states were the most divided part of a divided nation. Abolitionists, pro-slavery advocates, Unionists and Confederate sympathizers all rubbed shoulders, and sometimes came to blows.
Churches in particular bore the brunt of the region’s divisions. Congregations erupted into chaos, first over slavery and then over secession. The clergy who led these congregations, desperate to keep them together, often attempted a strategy of neutrality. They argued that slavery was a purely political issue, not a moral concern. They rejected abolitionism as unseemly radicalism, and they congratulated themselves for standing above the fray. As one Kentucky Presbyterian put it, “By our superior moderation [we] put ourselves clearly in the right.”
Their story illustrates both the appeal and the folly of such an approach.