Amidst our divides, meaningful relationships and a listening posture hold out hope
Amy E. Black concludes our series of responses to Jay Green’s essay that was published on Monday, November 28: “The New Shape of Christian Public Discourse.” Black teaches political science at Wheaton College. Green’s response to the forum will appear on December 20.
I appreciate many of the concerns that animate Jay Green’s “The New Shape of Christian Public Discourse.” I lament with him our lack of meaningful and charitable discussions across political divides. Far too much of current political discourse consists of talking (or, in too many cases, shouting) past one another, focusing more on trying to raise alarm than seeking to listen to a range of voices and perspectives. Although I agree in large part with Dr. Green’s diagnosis, I am less convinced he has discovered a cure.
Green identifies a key problem: Discussions of political differences using categories like left and right often cause more confusion than clarity. Such simplistic binaries tend to flatten complex and nuanced topics. When issues are described as having two, and only two, sides, advocates line up as if for battle, ready to defend their position against “the enemy.” Contemporary political discourse would be more constructive if we could find ways to move beyond such “us vs. them,” “good vs. evil” framing and instead embrace the complexity of political issues, seeking to understand the wide range of opinions people hold and listening, even, for possible policy options.
I am not convinced that Green’s proposed 2 x 2 matrix is the best way forward. (Full disclosure: I have presented a 2 x 2 matrix in my own work in an attempt to distinguish between the individual and institutional dimensions of the relationship between religion and politics, and that matrix has many flaws.) Like any method designed to simplify complex issues, such a construction risks the danger of reducing categorizations to caricatures. A matrix can helpfully direct us away from simplistic dichotomies and toward a wider range of views, but it must be constructed and presented in a way that creates four meaningful categories and invites a wide range of placements within the matrix.
In the matrix Green presents, not all quadrants are created equal; his proposal has clear heroes and villains. Which option sounds better: “Whatever it Takes” or “Bound by Commitments to Liberalism”? Before Green places himself in a quadrant (a nod to transparency that I appreciate), the reader has likely already discerned Green’s personal position. After reading his depictions of the graph, almost everyone will want to be on its bottom half, and most will want to be in the bottom left corner with the author. Such favoritism and villanization detract from Green’s initial call for deeper and more dynamic public discourse.
Green’s discussion is strongest when describing the ends of each of the axes in some detail, but he spends too little time on a necessary next step: pointing the reader to the wide range of possible ways to “plot” various positions on the graph. Discussion of extremes helps clarify the end points, but a chart like this only gains dynamism when used as a scatterplot that displays a wide array of options. What could be a tool for increasing awareness of the multiplicity of political views contending in the public square ends up focusing narrowly on four options.
To achieve his stated goal to “sketch the outlines of a more dynamic picture of what [he sees] as the current state of our discursive climate as Christians in America,” Green needs to move away from static choices on two binaries and devote more time to familiarizing readers with the dynamism of the chart. For example, he could briefly describe several perspectives, including some near the midpoints, and place them on different points within each quadrant of the graph.
Green’s original post mapped particular people and organizations into each quadrant of his grid, and some immediately cried foul. I greatly appreciate Green’s humility to own the mistake and revise the essay to remove these examples. Such a schematic would likely work best by beginning the conversation with a discussion of the grid and then inviting others to place themselves on it rather than hastily grouping many people together as if they all share the same perspective.
Although Green introduces the schematic as a way to categorize Christian public discourse, the discussion seemed to veer from that focus at times, particularly in the explanation of the left end of the x-axis. In straining to keep the schematic focused on Christians in particular, Green creates a leftward pole that is hard to understand. Green’s dichotomy contrasts “Civilizationists” on the right who seek to uphold the “Judeo-Christian heritage” with “Emancipationists” on the left who seek “pursuits of happiness,” which he describes as “fueled by social equality, blind justice, and the personal freedom to choose different paths, lifestyles, and cultural traditions.” One end of the axis is reasonably clear; the other end is a broad (and, for some, potentially contradictory) list that seeks to incorporate too wide a range of perspectives.
Some of the most public battles in the struggle over end goals are between those who want religious values to animate public life and those who think religion does not have a place in the public square, camps I would deem “religionists” and “secularists” or “separationists.” An x-axis that spans this religionist/separationist continuum would offer a simpler and, in my view, more accurate depiction of the most common debates in public life today.
The y-axis also has some problems. I applaud Green’s willingness to decry authoritarian tactics on the ideological right and left, but this schematic may not be the best way to call attention to the problem. The axis spans from “Whatever it Takes,” by which he means authoritarian, to “Bound by Commitments to Liberalism,” which he describes as including “essential, nonnegotiable commitments to the liberal tradition: civil discourse, open inquiry, free speech, tolerance of difference, the illuminating power of dissent, and the hope of reform through persuasion and compromise.” Although I personally commend the values presented in this long list, it lacks the focus and clarity to contend as an opposite end of the axis. A contrast between “authoritarian” and “liberal democratic” would offer a cleaner, if imperfect, alternative.
Although I have devoted much of this response to raising critiques, I would be remiss if I did not conclude by commending Green for engaging in this project toward more constructive political dialogue. I share his view that we need to find new and better ways of talking about old problems, and one crucial step in that direction is to recognize the role of ends and means in the discussion. As followers of Christ, we need to apply biblical principles to both the end goals we seek as well as the means we employ to try and achieve them. The ends do not justify any means—we must demonstrate Christian virtues in both what we seek to accomplish and what tools and practices we use to try to get there.
Evaluating ends and means is one crucial step toward civil and God-honoring public discourse. Charts with new labels may offer some help along the way. But the more I study, follow, and teach American politics, the more I am convinced that respectful disagreement starts with each of us in our own lives and communities. It begins by reaching outside our comfort zones to develop meaningful relationships across a range of social divides. It continues by engaging in long and hard conversations with friends and family who hold differing views, with the goal of learning and building relationships, not changing minds. Starting from a listening posture and asking clarifying questions helps us move beyond stereotypes and better understand the contours of other perspectives. James 1:19-20 offers sage advice: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
Amy E Black is Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College (IL). Her teaching and research interests include women in politics, religion and American politics, and Congress.