American public discourse, especially about controversial issues, is often conducted at a very low level. More heat than light, one might say. In this video from The Heritage Foundation, John Corvino, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan Anderson show how to have an informative, civil, and pointed debate about the legal conflict between religious liberty protections and LGBT nondiscrimination laws.
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.”
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.
P.P.S. P.S.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.
Joe Dallas, Speaking of Homosexuality: Discussing the Issues with Kindness and Clarity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016).
The Christian sexual ethic is out of step with the times. This is true across a wide range of heterosexual behaviors, such as premarital sex, cohabitation and no-fault divorce. But Christians are rarely called out for their opposition to those behaviors. When it comes to homosexuality, however, the response is different. Christian opposition to homosexuality generally or same-sex marriage specifically provokes accusations of homophobia and hatred.
The Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the nation, further contributes to the marginalization of the Christian sexual ethic. Same-sex marriage is now understood as a fundamental civil right, and opposition to it is likened to support for segregation in the American South during the era of Jim Crow.
How should Christians speak of homosexuality in this adverse environment?
That’s the question my friend Joe Dallas seeks to answer in his new book, Speaking of Homosexuality. Until 1984, Joe was “a staff member with a pro-gay church, an openly gay man, and an activist, identifying as a gay Christian, arguing for the acceptance of homosexuality.” Then, however, his study of Scripture convinced him that he was in error. For the last thirty years, he has ministered to others, both gay and straight, helping them to develop a biblical perspective on human sexuality. He thus brings a unique personal perspective to bear on this controversial topic.
Joe frames much of the book as a conversation between “Traditionalists” and “Revisionists.” Traditionalists advocate the “traditional view of marriage and sexuality,” namely, that marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman, and that outside of marriage, a person should remain celibate. Revisionists advocate “revising our view of Scripture or of morality in general to condone homosexuality.”
The first three chapters of Speaking of Homosexuality provide a “contextual overview” of the debate between Traditionalists and Revisionists. Chapter 1 argues that “knowing the context of our conversation can help us anticipate problems, adjust our approach, and stay sensitive to the perceptions and feelings of others.” Joe points out that the often acrimonious conversations between the two groups typically revolve around “presumption, politics, and the personal” (emphasis in original). Both sides, that is to say, make assumptions about the other the side that renders them “guilty of stereotyping.” Consequently, “mistrust is a frequent companion” to such conversations.
Chapter 2 identifies three goals traditionalist Christians may have when speaking of homosexuality with others: “evangelizing an unbeliever, discipling a believer in error, or simply reasoning with someone about our different views.” These goals shape the content of those conversations in different ways.
Additionally, who your conversation partner is shapes the kind of conversation you have. Joe identifies five groups in particular: “militants, mainstream, millennials, Revisionists, and friends and family.” Too often, traditionalists lump all LGBT people and their allies into the militant category. Dallas thinks this is a mistake. Rather, “most…could be described as mainstream, fellow humans and citizens with whom we have more in common than differences. And, per Jesus, they’re our neighbors, whom we’re to love and serve.” That last sentence is key, as far as I’m concerned. Too often, Traditionalists approach those on the other side of this issue as enemies to be defeated rather than as neighbors to be loved. That’s not Jesus’ way of doing things.
Chapter 3 then outlines seven guidelines to follow when speaking of homosexuality:
- Speak clearly.
- Speak appropriately.
- Speak empathically.
- Concede what’s true.
- Consider what’s possible.
- Watch the apologies.
- Recognize and point out diversions.
I want to hone in on numbers 3 and 4, because this is where I think my fellow Traditionalists most often go wrong. We do not empathize with the “feelings” and “experiences” of LGBT people. Consequently, we are prone to speak “irresponsible, inaccurate, contemptuous words” at or about them. “Lots of Christians have said hateful things about gays,” Dallas writes. “Lots of Christians are more upset about homosexuality than they are about adultery or fornication, even though those are condemned in the Bible.” Both statements are true. There is no virtue in denying either of them.
If chapters 1–3 address the “context” of our conversations, chapters 4–13 address their “content.” Dallas examines the “origins of homosexuality” (chapter 4), whether “change” of orientation is possible (chapter 5), whether opposition to same-sex marriage is reasonable (chapter 6), whether moral disapproval of homosexuality in and of itself constitutes “homophobia” or “hate” (chapter 7), and in what sense a person can or cannot identify as a “gay Christian” (chapter 8). Dallas’ discussion of the issues in these chapters is nuanced, which is appropriate for the complex subjects they address.
Chapters 9–13 then take up the proper interpretation of the most commonly cited biblical passages disapproving of homosexuality: Genesis 19:1–11 (chapter 9); Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 (chapter 10); Romans 1:24–27 (chapter 12); 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, 1 Timothy 1:9–10 (chapter 13). Chapter 11 examines what significance Jesus’ “silence” about homosexuality has for the moral debate. Dallas’ treatment of these passages is brief but competent. Like him, I find it difficult to agree with Revisionist interpretation of these passages, for the reasons that he cites.
Indeed, in my opinion, it would be more intellectually honest for Revisionists to say that these passages are wrong or irrelevant than to say that they have been misinterpreted or misapplied. In other words, there is good reason why the Traditionalist position has been the default position of the Church for the last two millennia. It is because, as the children’s gospel song says, “the Bible tells me so.” If you’re familiar with the historical arc of the Revisionist position, it begins with “The Bible has been misinterpreted” and ends with “The Bible is wrong on this matter.” That is the arc of mainline Protestant thinking on this topic. My guess is that that is where evangelical Revisionists will land eventually as well. Disagreeing with the Bible is not a place where evangelicals should want to be.
Speaking of Homosexuality is a countercultural book. As I wrote at the outset, the Christian sexual ethic is out of step with the times. This is nothing new, however, since Christianity’s sexual ethic was out of step with the culture of its own time as well. The question, then as now, is with whom—or rather, Whom—we will walk in step going forward.
I’ll conclude this review with Joe Dallas’ closing words:
A steward is rewarded for faithfulness, not outcomes. We hope greater faithfulness means greater outcomes. But ‘other things’—such as God’s and the hearer’s will—come into play. And since those factors are out of our hands, we keep those hands on the plow, striving to improve our understanding, articulation, attitudes, and faithfulness to the standards we preach. Above all, we continue seeking deeper intimacy with the Master we serve.
Speaking of homosexuality is a small part of that life commission. Our more general commission is to speak of Jesus, His teachings, His invitation, His nature, and His soon coming. Any truth we can lovingly communicate to better prepare people for eternity, binding them to Him, is critical.
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon review page.
P.P.S. This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.
Make sure to watch it all the way through. And read the credits; they’re hilarious.
“Egypt in crisis talks after Muslim mobs attack Christian churches” or “12 dead in Egypt as Christians and Muslims clash”? GetReligion.org tries to sort out the facts.
Is a bad marriage better than a good divorce? “Social scientists are concealing the harm that divorce, single parenting and stepfamilies do to children. Not only that, they are also hiding the benefits which even unhappy marriages bestow, not just on children, but on the couples involved.”
Is a national curriculum a good idea? “National control over curriculum creates a single lever you can pull to move every school in America. Would conservatives trust progressives, and would progressives trust conservatives, not to try to seize control of that lever to inculcate their religious and moral views among the nation’s youth? And if you don’t trust the other side not to try to seize the lever, is there any reasonable alternative to trying to seize it first?”
In “Europe’s Concerned, Worried, and Doubting,” David Mills reflects on the differences between European and American reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden.
California college adds major in secularism. Of course, on many college campuses today, students get a minor in it already, though without knowing it.
“How Christianity and capitalism can ‘heal’ the world.” An interesting article about “social investing.” Theologically, however, I’d prefer to delete –ity and capitalism from the title.
“LGBT ‘Welcome’ Ad Rejected by Sojourners, Nation’s Premier Progressive Christian Org.” I’m on the opposite side of the issues from Rev. Robert Chase, but I too wonder how a Christian magazine can avoid taking sides on this issue.
In “Judas,” Lady Gaga goes clubbing with Jesus, who’s a Latin biker, and… Oh, who cares! There’s no “shock value” in this video, only “shlock value.”
In closing, and a bit more reverentially, Carrie Underwood and Vince Gil shine on this country rendition of “How Great Thou Art”:
I totally want to go to whatever church these two provide “special music” for.
P.S. Shameless self-promotion: Check out my article in Enrichment: “Up There, Down Here, Among Us, In Me.” It’s about praying for God’s kingdom.