A thought on hidden agendas

My recent debate with John Wilson of Books & Culture—which was a positive experience, and I hope the conversation continues—has made me think about the way groups suspicious of each other seek to find “hidden agendas” in each other’s ideas or actions. Wilson finds the claims of Charles Marsh (“partisan captivity of the gospel”) and Chris Hedges (“Christo-fascists”), among others, simply untrue in relation to the world in which we actually live. In his latest column, he criticizes their positions by engaging in a bit of sarcasm:
On to other things. We have to maintain our cover, you know—talking about all kinds of books and ideas as if we cared, when what really matters to us is the agenda of the Religious Right, the "Christo-fascists," as Chris Hedges says. But wait a minute. What is the agenda for today? Maybe Hedges or some equally acute observer can let me know what it is I'm actually doing when I think I am doing something else.
Wilson ridicules the opposing viewpoint as a witch-hunt, a fruitless quest to find some “hidden agenda” in the minds of conservative evangelicals. Rather than debate this point, it seems to me more interesting to switch perspectives. If Wilson gets so upset about liberals searching for hidden agendas among evangelicals, should we not get just as much upset over evangelicals searching for hidden agendas among liberals? How many times have we heard of the “homosexual agenda”—that insidious plot to corrupt the minds of our children, pervert the sanctity of marriage, and destroy the American family? How many times have we heard myths about the ACLU plotting the downfall of Christianity? How many times have we heard of the hidden agendas of mainstream media—which are clearly pawns of the ACLU, PETA, and other liberal machines seeking the eradication of “Christian America”?

I am not accusing Wilson of holding any of these positions. All I mean to do is point out the one-sidedness that plagues these debates. Conservative evangelicals criticize their liberal opponents for fabricating hidden evangelical agendas without recognizing the way they continue to fabricate hidden liberal agendas (and vice versa). If we are going to get anywhere in these political debates, we need to assume first and foremost that the “other side” has no hidden agenda. We need to assume that each side seeks the best possible life for others. We need to begin with the assumption that each side means well and has the best of intentions. Without this basic starting-point, we will inevitably end up in dead-end arguments.