Listening to the debate over going to war with Saddam Hussein reminds me of one of the big differences between a conservative and a liberal mindset.
Conservatives tend to see things in terms of black and white. "Saddam's an evil influence; we've got to wipe him out." Liberals have a typical habit of blurring the distinctions: "Wait a minute. Things are much more complex than you know. The situation in the Middle East is a snarled ball of yarn."
According to this admittedly oversimplified scheme of things, conservatives rush into war, shooting and bombing their way out of every conflict. Liberals head instead for the United Nations, mindlessly jabbering for years on end and endlessly negotiating deliberately ambiguous treaties with dishonest tyrants.
We conservatives just aren't sophisticated enough. We look at an election law in New Jersey that says plainly that you can't replace a candidate on the ballot within 51 days of the election. "No replacement possible," we claim when our opponent drops out of the race; "he missed the deadline by more than two weeks." To us, it's so black and white. "But you don't understand," say the liberals. "It's much more complicated than you know. We've got to take a great deal more into account. The law is old and unprepared for special situations. In an unusual case like this, we have to find out what the voters really want."
Conservatives think there are pretty plainly just two sexes. Liberals wonder whether there may be three, four, or even more. It will take a good bit of further observation and research to know for sure.
Conservatives argue for a pretty swift execution of justice, including maybe even a pretty swift execution of convicted criminals. Liberals argue for endless appeals to discuss all the things that might have affected the criminal's childhood.
Conservatives say divorce is bad, and that God says He hates it. Liberals say it depends on the circumstances, and that you will probably never fully understand all the difficult things that were going on, and that you will probably never know how much these people have suffered. (On this one, I've heard a lot of conservatives argue like liberals.)
Five years ago, WORLD magazine led the way in saying it is wrong to translate the Bible with a feminist agenda (or any other particular social agenda) in mind. Dozens of critics with a more liberal mindset responded that those of us on the WORLD editorial team just didn't understand all the nuances of the translating task. If only we had gone to the right school for a few more years, maybe we would have caught on.
All of which is why conservatives cheered but liberals rolled their eyes almost 20 years ago when Ronald Reagan spoke of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." And it's why they do the same now when George W. Bush talks bluntly about an "axis of evil." Conservatives thrive on such blunt simplicity. Liberals groan in sophisticated disdain.
Granted, the caricatures sometimes break down-and sometimes even get reversed. But it's not for nothing that the reputations are what they are. Conservatives really do like things simple. Liberals really do like things complex.
So in good conservative fashion, let me oversimplify by saying that the tendency to keep at least the big things simple is rooted in the character of God Himself. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. There was the Tree of Life, and there was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve could be in the garden, or they could be thrown out. You were either on Noah's ark, or you drowned in the great flood. Psalm 1 juxtaposes a godly man against one who is called "unrighteous." And so on.
Jesus, too, drew wonderfully simple pictures. There were five wise virgins and five foolish virgins. A wise man built his house on the rock, while the foolish man built on the sand. A farmer went out to sow. He used a child to illustrate greatness.
"Stop it, Belz!," I can hear a chorus of readers protesting. "What about the times when the Pharisees had everything spelled out in black and white, and Jesus sent them away puzzling over the nuances of his profound teaching? What about when they knew it was time to stone the adulterous woman, and He challenged them instead to think about their own sin?"
To which I quickly confess: All of us are sometimes conservatives in this sense, and sometimes all of us are liberals.
But I don't think it overstates the case to insist: First draw the main lines boldly; only then begin sketching in the shades of gray. Establish early the borders that are beyond dispute; then you can move on to the details. Nail down the big stuff; the nuances can keep us busy tomorrow.