Last week I published a post on the controversy at Taylor University over its selection of Vice President Mike Pence as this year’s commencement speaker. I didn’t want to argue that Pence’s invite (or his public positions or the man himself) was good or bad. My purpose was to describe the relational dynamics of the conflict and also to argue that what is happening at Taylor is a microcosm of what is happening in America as a whole in our day and age.
One reader of the post is a friend, one of my former professors, and one of the few individuals mentioned by name in the piece: Dr. Jim Spiegel, a professor of philosophy, who is known as a conservative member of Taylor’s faculty. After reading, Jim challenged my characterization of Taylor as dominated, at least traditionally, by conservatives. He told me that as far back as the 1990s, when I was a student, the faculty was evenly divided between liberals and conservatives.
I was glad to learn this data point, because it increases my understanding of Taylor. But I also appreciate it as a summons to better elucidate ideas that may help peacemakers in the Taylor community and help us all to understand our historical moment in American society.
Mainstream and margin
Picture a flowing river. The current in the center of the river—the mainstream—runs swiftly and cuts the channel deep. It pushes the river in the direction the current is running. Along the banks of the river, however, the current runs slower and less forcefully. It may even halt in lazy eddies that lap the shoreline. Algae, weeds, and trees may grow there as a habitat for different animals than the ones that swim in the mainstream. We may call this part of the river the margin.
Every group of people, from a household to the global population, is like that river. It has a mainstream and margins.
The mainstream of a group is its social center. It sets the direction and flow of the group as a whole. People in the mainstream define the norms of the group by their words and example. They embody the default, the normal, from which alternative views and behaviors are seen as variations or deviations. The mainstream may represent what is considered the average person, like vanilla ice cream or the “original” flavor of potato chip. Alternatively, the mainstream may also represent the group’s ideals, the model for the group to aspire to.
By contrast, the outer reaches of a social group are its margins. People in the margins are different from the mainstream; they do not embody or conform to the standard pattern. Its nonconformity may be due to rebellion or to happenstance. They may be pushed aside or they may keep aloof for their own reasons. But they are still a part of the group whether by choice or because they have no other choice. And they still play a role in the group: sometimes the margin pushes the river in a new direction the way the margins of a river erode its banks.
Nevertheless, the influence of the mainstream on the group is a good deal stronger than the influence of the margins. For this reason it is worth pausing the exploration of this metaphor of a river to say a word about power.
Hard power and soft power
Dr. Spiegel noted with dismay how I told Taylor’s story in terms of power dynamics. He believes that doing so dismisses the theological and moral substance of his concerns about the university and attributes insincere, blameworthy motives to conservative critics like himself.
This offense is unfortunate and unintended, and I regret causing it to him and to anyone. No one should conclude that, because I wrote little to nothing about the rights and wrongs and goods and bads of “conservative” or “liberal” views or of Mike Pence’s invitation or of his policies or of the man himself, I therefore think those judgments are unimportant. They are very important. But they are also the sort of thing that most people opining on the conflict—and on America’s social and political schisms—are relentlessly preoccupied with. People are fixated by the what of the conflict and maybe even the why but not nearly as attentive to the how, and that neglect is a formidable obstacle to making a principled peace.
Thus my concern with power. I believe there are two equal and opposite errors—ditches on both sides of the road—that people tend to fall into when they consider the relationship of power to argument and conflict. One is to believe that arguments are nothing more than power plays. The other is to believe that power has nothing to do with it. A good analysis requires us to steer down the middle of the road.
Ed Stetzer wrote a helpful summary of the analysis of power that sociologist James Davison Hunter propounds in his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (which I highly recommend).
Hunter contrasts “hard” power and “soft” power. When we think about power, we usually think about hard power. This is the power used to coerce people to be, think, and do what we want. Hard power is the power of direct incentives and threats, of explicit rules, rewards bestowed for keeping them, and penalties enforced for breaking them.
We usually think of hard power as strong, and it sure feels that way when you’re under its boot. But hard power is actually considerably weaker than soft power. Soft power influences people’s thinking and actions by attraction and modeling. It is implicit, subtle, and unspoken. It is exercised by the image and conduct of either those to whom the group has attributed prestige—the people that others want to be like or be liked by—or the masses of “average Joes.” Penalties for resisting soft power are an awkward silence, a cold shoulder, a patronizing smile, a mocking laugh, an offer not extended.
The mightiest soft power of all is to define reality—what is true, good, and beautiful and what is not—so deeply and unconsciously that people in a group don’t know it has been defined for them. It is simply a given. The most powerful principles in any group are the ones that go undiscussed; they are simply assumed.
This is why soft power is stronger than hard power. When soft power is working, hard power is unnecessary. As my father-in-law Steve Wise observes, there is no rule at an Alabama Crimson Tide home football game that prohibits spectators from wearing orange and blue, the colors of the rival Auburn Tigers. But no one does, because the community standard is overwhelming. It is only when soft power fails that hard power must be introduced: it is only when people begin questioning the norm and deviating from it that measures are taken to coerce group members to get back in line.
Spiegel takes issue with my remark that Taylor’s official statements on the sanctity of life and on sexuality and marriage are “products of the culture war.” He believes that such a label trivializes them, but that is not my intent. According to my limited acquaintance with those documents, I believe they state everlasting truths that Christians must uphold. However, they were not encoded at Taylor’s founding in 1846 because no social strife required it at that time. Soft power—the group’s assumed definition of reality—was sufficient for more than a century until people outside and later inside the community began challenging it. The drafting of those statements was a hard-power response to external and internal threats, because soft power was no longer enough to keep the river flowing in the right direction.
This brings us back to the mainstream and the margin (keeping in mind that in most groups these are poles with gradations in between: a person can be closer to the mainstream than one person but closer to the margin than somebody else). The defining characteristic of the mainstream is that, as a subgroup of the whole, it has much more soft power than the rest. It sets and reinforces group norms, and very often it doesn’t even know it is doing it.
Importantly, the mainstream can be any “width.” In some groups the mainstream comprises 95% of members. In other groups the mainstream is 5%. A 95%-mainstream group has different characteristics than a 5%-mainstream group, but in both groups the mainstream sets the direction and standards of the whole group. So the data point that in the 1990s 50% of Taylor’s faculty were “conservative” and 50% were “liberal” (whatever those terms mean, and excluding the possibility that a person might not fit either label well) is interesting but largely irrelevant. It’s not about the numbers.
For several decades the mainstream of the university—defining “university” as the totality of the board, administration, faculty, staff, students, parents, donors, and to a lesser extent alumni—has mostly been populated by “conservatives” (however defined). Conservatives have largely set the norms and the direction of the institution. These conservatives have not excluded non-conservatives from the group. In fact, they have often and intentionally made space for non-conservatives; they have wanted a broader river than some other Christian colleges would tolerate. But they have occupied the mainstream while non-conservatives have occupied the margins of the river.
I must stress that the existence of a mainstream and margins in a group is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is simply a thing, a fact of human social existence. And exercising power—influence on the world around us, including other people—is also not inherently a good thing or a bad thing. It is a fact of human existence as well. The challenge is whether we wield our power for good or ill (because despite its uneven distribution, every one of us has some) and whether the mainstream and the margin relate well or poorly to one another.
Another abiding characteristic of the mainstream is that it usually is not conscious that it is the mainstream. In fact, it is prone to deny its own existence. That’s because its job isn’t to distinguish itself from the group but to define the group. Without a mainstream, there is no group—the river becomes a swamp.
By contrast, however, the self-unawareness of the mainstream is compensated for by the hyperawareness of the margin. People in the margin are intensely conscious day in and day out that they are not in the mainstream, that they belong but not fully, that they are in the group but only on the periphery.
This stark contrast of awareness exacerbates conflict in a group. Being in the margin is not necessarily undesirable—some people, like the Amish, prefer to draw on the benefits of being part of a group while remaining aloof from the mainstream. But it is another thing to be marginalized—to see oneself as restricted from participation in the mainstream when one wants to do so. This feature of life in the margin can become so obsessing that some people there may imagine slights where none occur, filter everything through the lens of their exclusion, and take on a cynical, passive, complaining, or remorselessly contentious posture toward the mainstream. Such attitudes have at times been exhibited by some relatively liberal individuals and members of ethnic minorities at Taylor over the last few decades.
Meanwhile the mainstream, which is responsible to establish group norms, has a dilemma on its hands. What the margin wants may be a bad thing, which compels the mainstream to reject it for the good of the group, but doing so inflames the margin’s resentment. Yet sometimes the mainstream is culpable: because it doesn’t recognize itself as a subgroup of the whole, it often fails to distinguish between what is bad for the group and what is bad for itself. In the name of upholding what is universally true and good, it may sometimes merely be fortifying its own opinions, preferences, and interests and forcing them down the margin’s throat.
Mainstream and margin in flux
The greatest ferment in a group comes about when the relationship between its mainstream and its margins becomes unstable and when who belongs to which starts shifting. Sometimes the mainstream concentrates itself in a few people and pushes the rest to the margins. Sometimes the mainstream broadens to include more from the margins within itself, which dilutes the influence of those accustomed to the mainstream and bends the channel in a new direction. Sometimes the mainstream incorporates new faces from the margins while some old mainstreamers find themselves being ushered out. And sometimes a revolution comes from the margins, led by a few who live on the fringe of the mainstream, which replaces the old mainstream with a new one. All of these patterns involve significant discord and disunity, at least for a time.
Mainstream-margin conflict is one way to view the turmoil at Taylor University, and once again it reflects and is influenced by a similar pattern in American society generally.
Since George Washington’s administration, American political life has been the tale of a dual mainstream. Two swift currents have attempted to push the United States in two different directions and have fought over dominance of the river. Nevertheless, the two currents, viewed as a bipartite whole, have composed a joint American mainstream with promoters of radical or unconventional options relegated to the margins.
These two currents have not been unchanging, however. At various moments—the Jackson Era, the controversy over slavery in the 1850s, the late Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam and their aftermath—the dual mainstream has broken down and a new one has formed. We are living through the same phenomenon right now.
The mainstream Right has been overwhelmed by a force from the marginal Right personified in Donald Trump. The mainstream Left is fighting a hard retreat against the marginal Left personified by Bernie Sanders in 2016 and freshmen members of Congress in 2018 like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The margins are becoming the new mainstream; the old mainstream is becoming marginalized. The national river is beginning to flow in a new direction—unless, that is, the new dual mainstream cannot hold together and blows the whole nation into a confused, weak, muck-ridden delta.
These forces are swirling around and increasingly within Taylor University. Though the pattern is not identical to that of the whole nation, Taylor is suffering through mainstream-margin turmoil also. The margin that is uncomfortable with conservative public policy is not only getting larger but more importantly is getting louder. The conundrum for those at the center of the mainstream is how much power to share with the margin without letting the river drift in a direction that they believe God does not want it to go.
The writers of the online magazine Res Publica (formerly Excalibur) represent those who do not have as much influence as those at the center of the mainstream (such as presidential leadership) but have nevertheless been a part of the mainstream by their agreement with its generally conservative drift over the years (compared with America as a whole). Yet they have watched with mounting concern as the mainstream has not, in their minds, defined the river’s direction and its boundaries firmly enough to resist being pulled in a different direction, especially over sexuality.
When I wrote that a number of conservatives “feel their grip slipping and see themselves imminently threatened with marginalization,” they may not (all) be acting out of unconscious personal fear, and I confess that it is unfair to insinuate that. But it is fair to say that they judge that the mainstream is no longer reliably keeping the river flowing the right way. That loss of confidence in the leadership by definition means that these people are close to falling out of Taylor’s mainstream into the margin unless renewed institutional discipline puts their views back into the prominence they believe is deserved.
The margin’s dilemma
Meanwhile, some liberals in Taylor’s margin have long nurtured an unusual habit that has rapidly increased in this period of social ferment, especially among alumni.
I mentioned in my previous post that, when I was a student, “Taylor was home to a tiny fraction of students who vented their liberal spleens in self-published, provocative opinion pieces that nobody agreed with and few cared about.” I remember that I sometimes responded to those pieces with kindness, sometimes with debate, and most times by grumbling to the guys I was eating lunch with. But I always thought, “If you really thought Taylor is so bad, you’d be at Ball State.” Talk is cheap. If students really had a problem with Taylor’s supposedly oppressive and hypocritical conservatism, they would vote with their feet.
The biggest mainstream-margin problems happen in places, like sovereign nations, where people in the margins cannot escape the mainstream. People in the margins there are born into a home both to which they belong and from which they are excluded, and they cannot get out unless they are driven out with no place to go. For the sake of justice and peace, the mainstream in such situations has a very great responsibility to respect and include the margin within its borders.
But this is not the case in the free market of American higher education, especially among private schools. How many students at Taylor University are forced to attend there? Given the expense, it is probably easier for most to go elsewhere . . . unless they would thereby risk the displeasure of their parents, in which case a protest against Mike Pence might actually be a cost-free, misdirected protest against Mom and Dad.
Apoplectic social media eruptions by alumni are even more bewildering. How is anyone who went to school at Taylor surprised that its administration would adopt a statement on sexuality that defines marriage as between one man and one woman or that it would seek a Vice President who concurs with that view for a commencement speaker? What motivates a person to bemoan Taylor University for being what it says it is and what it has always been?
Maybe both students and alumni have been captivated by the allure of Taylor’s community and can’t shake free even if their principles tell them to. Maybe they seized on an implicit offer of unconditional acceptance and belonging and are fiercely claiming it like an unfulfilled promise.
Turning to Taylor faculty and staff in the margins, I concede that, given the dismal and cutthroat academic job market, it is tougher for them to find an alternative. Liberal employees have an incentive to see Taylor change its ways so that they can not only reconcile their personal principles to their institution’s principles but also keep a steady job and keep their families where they’ve settled in and made friends.
The administration has different economic pressures, however. At the present moment—which has been different before and will be different again—faculty are comparatively easy to replace, but students and donors, whether conservative or liberal or in between, are not. This is the balancing act that the center of Taylor’s mainstream is fated to manage while keeping its eye on the ideals of truth, holiness, and love.
I want to credit missionary, teacher, and mediator Dan Buttry for teaching me about mainstream and margin.