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John Wilson

Stranger in a Strange Land

Greatly love the intellect

"Centrism" doesn't appear in James Moore's roll call of nineteenth-century isms (see "Darwinism Gone to Seed,"), nor did the word appear in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. There was an entry for "Centrist," defined as "a member of the Centre Party (France)," though the first usage citation, from the Daily News in 1872, suggests a broader application: "That weak-kneed congregation who sit in the middle of the House and call themselves 'Centrists.'" Books & Culture, alas, doesn't possess the up-to-date digital version of the OED (philanthropic readers, please take note: if given this resource, we would use it), but my now superseded first volume of the supplement, from the 1970s, does include an entry for "centrism," defined as "a middle position between extreme views," with first usage in 1935.

Centrism is a peculiarism, then, with a fluid identity. In politics, it often takes the form of handwringing over partisanship, as Ashley Woodiwiss shows in "Democracy Agonistes". Whereas James Q. Wilson and Edward Banfield began their classic study, City Politics (1966), with the frank acknowledgment that "politics arises out of conflicts, and it consists of the activities—for example, reasonable discussion, impassioned oratory, balloting, and street fighting—by which conflict is carried on," centrists claim to transcend partisanship, all the while painting their opponents as "extremists."

The battle over who gets to define the theological center is even more intense. As Michael Horton observes ("Who's Got the Center?"), "the 'center' is not innocent. It is a real place on the map, which demands that all 'others' be related to it as margins to the mainstream." One such attempt at defining the center—of evangelicalism—was "The Gospel Statement" first published in the June 14, 1999 issue of Christianity Today magazine, the subject of the exchange in this issue of B&C between ...

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