Backlash and Civility
Editor’s Note: Because of the requirements of our production schedule, this article was written on January 7, the day before the tragic shootings in Tucson January 8. The meeting that Tim mentions occurred on January 3.
I was recently invited to attend a forum where Os Guinness spoke on “A World Safe for Diversity,” essentially on the importance of “civility” in public life. About the same time I began reading a new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides Us and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell. They said many of the same things, and it was very convicting.
Putnam’s book points to empirical research that shows that when, in the 1960s, the mainline Protestant churches got deeply involved in liberal politics there was a massive reaction within the American church-going population. Large numbers of people were alienated by the strident tone and left those churches.
However, in the 1980s something of the same thing happened when evangelical churches got deeply involved in conservative politics. Putnam shows that there has been a backlash against the Christian faith and all institutional religion, particularly among younger adults, which is unprecedented in American history. Churches are now perceived as being reactionary, judgmental, and hypocritical, and the number of Americans listing their religious preference as “None” has shot up from 5-7% of the population (where it had been for decades) to 17% of the population and more like 30% among younger adults. The churches that have estranged younger people are largely the evangelical churches that are perceived as taking on a vitriolic, harsh, condemning tone toward nonbelievers and contemporary society.
One of the reasons that Americans have reacted so sharply to Christians’ involvement in politics is that our culture tends to accept the Enlightenment belief that religion is a completely private affair that should not affect how you live in public. That, of course, is unhealthy and wrong. But much of Americans’ negative response is warranted. They know Christ called his followers to love their enemies and to speak the truth in love. In John 17 Christ told his followers that the world would only believe that he really was sent from God if his followers were famous for their love for one another. That is not the case today.
Which leads us back to the topic of “civility.” Os Guinness said that civility is too easily dismissed as simply “niceness” or even squeamishness. Worse, it is seen as unwillingness to contend for what is right and true.
Civility, however, has to do with how you contend, and it is an expression of caritas—charity or Christian love. It is not a refusal to criticize. Indeed, uncharitable discourse makes no attempt to really persuade the opposition. Uncivil discourse merely castigates and caricatures the other side. It doesn’t try to win over the opposition with the truth, but only to marginalize and disempower them.
Uncivil speech is designed to intimidate, silence, and stir up opposition. It does not aim to persuade more people to believe it. Ironically, when Christians speak this way, it shows no confidence in the Truth at all, but only in power, and that is a very secular view of the world. As someone has famously (but anonymously) said, “Evangelicals are in danger of selling their gospel birthright for a mess of political pottage.”
By contrast, what does Christian civility look like? First, it shows respect for persons in the image of God even as it argues that their views and positions are not worthy of respect. James 3:9 says we should not “curse men made in God’s likeness”—a remarkable warning against wishing ill on people.
Second, it shows humility as you argue. That means a lack of eye-rolling, sighing, sneering, and pejorative vocabulary. Especially as Presbyterians we believe that ultimately God opens one’s eyes to the truth, and so we are gentle with those who don’t yet see. That’s why John Newton wrote: “Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation.” (See Newton’s letter “On Controversy” available on the internet at several sites.)
Third, it would be good to follow the ancient rules of debate. One is not to attribute an opinion to opponents that they will not personally own, even if you think it is the logical outcome of their
views. Another ancient rule is: before arguing with your opponents you must state their position positively and so well that they say, “Couldn’t have said it better myself.” Then and only then may we proceed to argue.
What does the future hold? There’s good news and bad news. Os Guinness rightly warns that there are many calling for an American public life without any expressions of religious faith at all, more like a French-style laicite. That could mean, for example, that even private Christian organizations would not be allowed to hire only people who shared their religious faith commitments. Os warned that the lack of civility could lead some to rule certain subjects “out of bounds” and to try to put an end to public debate on many issues of moral values.
On the other hand, Robert Putnam believes that most of the people checking “None” are not hard-core secularists. They have looked at acerbic, condemning, combative churches and said, “If this is religion, I want no part of it.” However, Putnam says, a different kind of church could definitely get a hearing from them. It would have to be different from the old mainline churches that simply reflected the culture and didn’t prophetically declare Biblical truth, but it would also have to be different than the self-righteous churches that didn’t preach or speak in humility and love. There is still a role in our society—perhaps a big role—for churches like that.
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