In a televised speech on July 24, Barack Obama said that Americans are “fed up with a town where compromise has become a dirty word.” But some Americans believe that “compromise” is not just a dirty word, but a sinful one — a belief that is rooted at least partly in conservative Christian theology and Christian rock music.
In politics, there always have been varying degrees of acceptable compromise, depending on the individual and the issue. And, yes, some people are less flexible (1964’s Barry Goldwater, preaching that “extremism in the pursuit of virtue is no vice!”, comes to mind), and some issues are less negotiable, than others. On the other hand, the purist absolutism of “no compromise whatsoever” seems to be a modern phenomenon — and the refrain “no compromise” has exploded since Barack Obama was elected President.
In October 2010, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) said that earlier Republican majorities had allowed “altogether too much compromise” and promised that “there will be no compromise” if Republicans took control again (as they did). John Boehner, discussing how he would work with Barack Obama if he became Speaker, promised purity: “This is not a time for compromise, and I can tell you that we will not compromise on our principles.” Darrell Issa tried to redefine the term into meaninglessness: “You know, the word ‘compromise’ has been misunderstood,” he said, clarifying that his job will be “Getting America back to the center right where it exists.” And those leaders’ “no compromise” stance has seeped its way down to the grassroots, so that, for example, a gun-rights advocate can write, “One of the reasons our system of government has lost its way is legislators fail to stand on principle and instead give into compromise.”
The refrain is at the heart of the current debt ceiling impasse. Ron Paul: ““What you and I need is someone who stands for conviction over compromise.” Eric Cantor, asked “is there any compromise you can make on taxes?,” answered “No”; his position is that merely showing up at negotiations is compromise enough. Michelle Bachmann is sending signals that no compromise is acceptable. Rush Limbaugh, quoting Ayn Rand, asked “where do you compromise between food and poison” and, later, advised the G.O.P. to hang tough, saying, “winners do not compromise” — a statement Fox News calls an “epic rallying cry.” A right-wing blogger states straightforwardly, “Republicans must never attempt to compromise with Democrats.”
No compromise. No compromise. No compromise. That phrase sounded oddly familiar — and then I remembered why.
In 1982, I was college roommates, and good friends, with a born-again Christian. My friend (I’ll call him “Matt”) was a very good guy: a hard studier, wryly and intelligently funny, an exuberantly bonecrunching flag football player, always happy to pop open a few beers on a sunny afternoon or do serious damage to a bottle of V.O. while we played cards. Although he was a “born-again,” conservative in his interpretation of the Bible, and sincere about his faith, he wasn’t intolerant of others — and, significantly, his faith didn’t infect his politics; the professional Christian Right simply hadn’t advanced that far yet. (Once, when we listened to some audiotapes of a then-unfamiliar Jerry Falwell, he agreed with me that Falwell was strangely shrill and theologically unsound, and was uncomfortable with his God-and-Mammon blending of religion, politics, and fundraising.)
But while Matt wasn’t an extremist back then, he was at least a prototype of future extremists — the subject of an early-Reagan-era experiment in conservative religio-political engineering. Early political fundamentalists like Falwell, Chuck Colson, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson, and related groups like Young Life and Dobson’s Focus On The Family, were starting to use Christian radio and books and campus organizations, not to save souls, but to see whether the religious integrity of good people like Matt could be twisted into political servience — whether, by cleverly marketing certain issues that blended morality and politics, like abortion, people like Matt could be convinced that conservative politics and conservative Christianity were branches of the same vine, so that they would sweat, bleed and even die for conservative politicians as if they were angels of the Lord Himself.
Of course, they succeeded.
An early sign of the religiopolitical messaging that was pushed on people like my friend back in the late ’70s and early ’80s was a seminal album by the immensely talented and influential Christian musician Keith Green: 1978’s “No Compromise.”
“No Compromise” was tremendously successful on the Christian rock charts, helped establish Christian rock as an economically viable market, and influenced countless later musicians. After Green died in a plane crash in 1982, both his biography and a tribute album also were named “No Compromise,” the phrase Green believed summed up his entire religious philosophy:”No Compromise is what the whole Gospel of Jesus is all about…” And, apparently disregarding copyright laws, innumerable later Christian musicians gave their albums the same name.
Although the surface meaning of Green’s “No Compromises” statement may have been religious, it always had political overtones. The original album cover didn’t show a Christian refusing to bow down to a pagan idol, along the lines of Robert Service’s poem “The Soldier of Fortune.” Rather, it showed a crowd bowing down to some kind of political leader, a king or pasha of some sort — and the Christian in the image is refusing to bow down to him. In other words, “No Compromise” always promoted political wilfulness and resistance, not just religious integrity.
My roommate had that album, of course, as well as a T-shirt with the same slogan and a cross. And he talked a lot about what it meant, which to him was that a person of integrity should not only refuse to compromise his faith, but refuse to compromise any of his ideals, in any circumstances. Over time, his fondness for the phrase turned him from a reasonable, spiritual person into a rigid, inflexible moralist — with “moral” being defined only by the people and ideas he considered authoritative. Sadly, the very independence that he had (rightly) treasured as a moral good had been twisted, psychologically, into the very subservience to worldly men that he considered unfaithful to his God and wanted passionately to avoid.
Since then, “No Compromise” has continued to serve as right-wing religionists’ version of “No Fear!” or “Just Do It!” — but it also has spread to the political world. The slideshow linked below has a sampling of “No Compromises” images, showing how the phrase has expanded from a niche Christian pop album, to church youth groups and advertisements, to Tea Party and anti-immigration symbolism, and even to become the logo of an international military weapons manufacturer. And, to the extent it has shaped the ethics of a generation of (now middle-aged) social conservatives who now serve, lobby, petition, and fundraise for the G.O.P., how it has become the Republican Party’s counterproductive maxim for how to govern in a diverse, secular democracy.