The American public square no longer seems to be a safe space. Instead, it is the scene of a riot in the making, where yelling threatens to give way to hitting. And social media stands ever ready to cheer on those throwing the punches.
This incivility stems from what Deborah Tannen calls the “adversary culture,” which “urges us to approach the world — and the people in it — in an adversarial frame of mind.” According to Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer, the adversary culture writes a script for our interactions with people we disagree with that has four elements:
- Thoughtful consideration of the other’s point of view is denounced as “compromise.”
- Monologue is preferred to dialogue, since the latter might result in “questioning of long-held values and ideological commitments.”
- People on the other side of a dispute must be demonized, not merely disagreed with.
The widespread use of the Internet enables the fourth element:
- “Online disinhibition” means that “individuals feel unrestrained by normal social conventions, resulting in unfiltered communication.”
Unfortunately, in my opinion, American Christians seem as likely to read off the adversary-culture script as any other American. Doing so means we help make the public square more dangerous. It also means that our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes less effective. No one listens to bullies with bullhorns, after all.
In their new book, Winsome Persuasion, Muehlhoff and Langer make the case for Christians adopting a persuasive voice in the public square, as opposed to a prophetic or pastoral one. The persuasive voice “appeals to the common good and general revelation” and “seeks to change viewpoints or practices within the culture.” It acknowledges the fact of deep ideological disagreement, in other words, even as it seeks to change others’ ideas.
No one listens to bullies with bullhorns, after all.
The prophetic voice, by contrast, “appeals to the revealed Word of God as final authority” and “calls for acknowledgment of sin and repentance.” It is useful when dealing with other believers who confess the Bible’s authority in their lives. However, it is ineffective when used with unbelievers who don’t have the same starting point.
The pastoral voice “appeals to shared needs and suffering” and “offers healing, nurture, and aid to those in need.” It is effective at comforting those in dire circumstances, but it does not have the power to change people’s minds. It can build bridges of compassion, of course, but it does not give opponents a reason to cross them.
The persuasive voice is especially necessary given the emerging shape of contemporary American culture. For one thing, many Christian ideas and practices are out of step with the spirit of the age. A recent Gallup poll, for example, indicates that a record number of Americans — 64 percent — support same-sex marriage. In 1997, that number was 27 percent. This sea change of opinion is arguably the greatest on a controversial social issue in our lifetime.
For another thing, an increasing number of Americans are disavowing religion entirely. According to Pew data, the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation — the so-called “Nones” — grew from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014. The trend is especially pronounced among younger Americans. A recent analysis of the CIRP Freshmen Survey found that 31 percent of college freshmen claim no religious affiliation, a number that has tripled since 1986.
Taken together, these two trend lines should be worrisome to Christians in America. The Christian view of marriage is now a minority opinion, and increasing numbers of people no longer view a Christian affiliation as desirable in the first place. Indeed, a Gallup poll indicates that a third of Americans view religion as “largely old fashioned and out of date.”
This is the cultural context in which American Christians are called to exercise gospel influence. If once upon a time Christians could assume that the public was with us on controversial issues, we can no longer do so. Our opinions on sexual morality and marriage, most obviously, are a minority report. We are what Muehlhoff and Langer call a “counterpublic.”
Counterpublics are characterized by “opposition, withdrawal, and engagement.” Opposition and engagement are easy to understand. The public dislikes our opinions (opposition), and we aim to change its mind (engagement). Withdrawal requires explanation. It is not quietism, the opposition of engagement. Rather, it can be likened to strategic retreat, an opportunity to rest, regroup and rethink before sallying forth again.
Muehlhoff and Langer use Aristotle’s three categories of rhetoric to help Christian counterpublics understand how to persuade the American public on the issues where they disagree. According to them, a persuasive message “is rooted in three factors: the logic of the argument (logos), the speaker’s ability to project a trustworthy persona (ethos), and the speaker’s ability to awaken the emotions of the audience (pathos).” Christian credibility in the public square depends on whether the public views us as credible messengers of a credible message couched in terms they understand and can be persuaded by.
The authors conclude their book with recommendations on how Christian counterpublics can respond to LGBT issues. Christianity’s stance on sexual morality and marriage is arguably the thing that most makes American Christians a counterpublic today. If we’re going to engage the public effectively on LGBT issues — or other hotly contested social issues — we need to think through the kinds of issues Winsome Persuasion so deftly examines.
Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).
- “Influence Podcast: Winsome Persuasion.”
- “Influence Podcast: Discussing Homosexuality with Kindness and Conviction.”
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P.P.S. P.S.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.