Civility in the Public Square

This month I will join with Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and John Inazu of the Washington University Law School, to discuss “Civility in the Public Square.” This could be read as nothing more than an appeal for people to be nicer to one another. However, I hope it will be an introduction for many to a much more crucial and ambitious project. 

It could be argued that America has never really been a genuinely pluralistic, perspective-diverse, free society. We have never been a place where people who deeply differ with one another, whose views offend and outrage one another, nonetheless treat one another with respect and hear each other out. Those who have held the reins of cultural power — its greatest academic centers, its most powerful corporations, and the media — have always excluded unpopular voices and minority views that fell on the wrong side of the public morality of the day. Many white evangelical Christians in the 1980’s and 90’s wanted to occupy those places of power and showed little concern at the time to create a society that respected communities with sharply differing moral visions. Today cultural power has shifted, but those newly come to power seem to show as little interest in genuine pluralism as did the cultural elites in the past. If anything, observers argue that different perspectives and viewpoints are treated with even less respect and courtesy than in the past. The agenda has become not to engage, but to marginalize and silence. 

What will it take to create genuinely pluralistic society? That will start not in the courtroom (though the courts are important) but primarily in neighborhoods, at the local level. John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference (University of Chicago Press, 2016) shows the way. He calls for us to come together with our neighbors around what he calls “aspirations” of tolerance, humility, and patience.

Tolerance is neither indifference (we may be appalled at the other person’s views) nor acceptance. It means rather treating the other person with respect even if we find her ideas difficult to endure. 

Humility is not to doubt the truth of one’s own beliefs, but to recognize the limits of what we can prove to others. Even if your Christian, Muslim, or secular views of the world and morality are true, there is no way to prove them to all rational persons. And that should humble you. 

Finally, patience does not mean passivity, nor does it mean to countenance injustice or evil. Yet if there is tolerance and humility, they should lead us to also be slow to posit motives, to be careful but persistent in our efforts to understand, to even empathize and to take time to communicate our own point of view. In sum, we should tolerate rather than demonize, we should be humble rather than defensive, and we should seek patiently to work toward as much agreement as possible, rather than simply trying to coerce the other side. 

There are many good reasons to wonder if the project of “confident pluralism” can succeed. The most telling criticism is that our social institutions no longer can produce these aspirations, traditionally called “virtues” or qualities of character. Indeed, our culture seems to breed their opposites. Tolerance and patience are now seen as inferior to outrage, protest, and anger. Self-assertion is again, as in ancient times, far more valued than humility. Our society is becoming radically individualistic, and religious authority is perceived to be one of the main barriers to human freedom and flourishing. 

There is another barrier. Face-to-face interaction — not video conferencing, e-mail, phone calls, or social media — is the best place to recapture and practice these aspirations. It is much harder to caricature, insult, and denounce people as evil fools when you are three feet away. But today fewer and fewer of our relationships are face-to-face. 

Is there any hope, then, that we can move forward into genuine pluralism? I don’t know, but I do know what Christians can do. First, Christians can admit their contribution to and responsibility for the current situation. Much of the hostility to religious freedom comes from people with memories of how the churches, when they had more social power, marginalized people who differed with them. We should admit this.  

But secondly, we should follow James K.A. Smith’s proposal in his June 2016, Bavinck Lecture at Kampen titled “Reforming Public Theology.” There he says Christians should consciously seek to form people who are capable of tolerance, humility, and patience through public worship. We should consider how the Christian practice of confession could engender humility. We should remember how praying in worship for our neighbors, even our opponents, in light of the cross and Jesus’ costly forgiveness of us, can create both tolerance and patience. There are also innumerable biblical texts to be preached and studied, from those describing the life of the Jewish exiles in Babylon to the Good Samaritan parable. They all direct Christians to show sacrificial love, not just tolerance, toward those with whom we differ deeply.  

Smith concludes: “Recognizing (and documenting) the way that Christian worship forms citizens for pluralism might be a way to counter the “religion-is-poison” narrative by out-narration, showing that it is in fact Christianity (and perhaps religious communities more broadly) that do the work of forming citizens for common life and the public good.” 

I believe that is exactly right. Could the Christian church become one of or even the main factory where good citizens for a pluralistic society are formed? Yes it could. Who would have thought it? 


This blog was first posted in the Redeemer Report.