As cultural debates continue to roll regarding the sanctity of human life, validity of same-sex marriage, the acceptance of infanticide, genetic modification and--coming to a theater near you--whatever is next, it is crystal clear that many self-identified Christians are ill equipped for public debate. This is not to say they should be forbidden from the arena; this is America. You do not need a reason for your opinion, good, bad or ugly. We are constitutionally protected to hold almost any position for almost any reason or no reason at all.
Having an opinion, however, is not the same as convincing others of its truth or value. Christians are really adept at the first. On the second? The phrase "clanging symbol" does spring to mind at times.
Innumerable online conversations degenerate into shriek-fests with political or moral opponents calling each other names, casting aspersions on motives, questioning an opponent's heritage, doubting their IQ or missing the point. Slightly fewer start there. Sadly, Christians are not always leaders in the way forward.
This is written for self-identified followers of Jesus Christ, though unbelievers are more than welcome to read and comment.
Here are three simple things Christians should remember about public debate:
First, A growing number of unbelievers no longer accept what the Bible teaches about any given subject. If your best arguments all begin with "The Bible says such and such" you are probably losing the debate without realizing it. You can and should expect non-believers to, well, not believe. We interact more and more with people who are unsettled on any one belief system. We are foolish and slow of mind to expect them to be convinced of our position(s) simply because we invoke what in their minds is one of many "sacred books." In decades gone by most Americans had a sense of what was right and wrong. It is safe to say most lived within an overarching Christian worldview even if they were not aware of it. This is not to say most were Christians; most were not. But, even unbelievers, generally, held to a basic moral code influenced by centuries of Christian thought. Today, to stretch the metaphor, the arch has fallen. Increasingly, if you want to invoke God in public debate you must defend why faith has a place in the marketplace of ideas, how to distinguish between faith and philosophy, why many secular arguments are actually built on faith not detached rationality, the limits of religion on the constitution, and on and on. If followers of Christ are not willing to learn beyond the narrow constraints of talk radio's right-wing, televised spin rooms and online "news," our arguments will remain poorly constructed and ill informed.
Second, A growing number of Christians do not know what the Bible teaches about any given subject. This has never been truer than in the debate over same-sex marriage. Throw "mixed garments" or "eating pork" or "forced marriage" and the only response mustered is, "That doesn't apply today." When "man lying with a man" is then introduced into the argument, silence can be expected or a default to the problems with number 1 above. Or shrieking. If a pastor wants to know how most of his church comprehends the Bible all he need to is spend a few hours on Facebook, Twitter or blog comment threads. It will be obvious how many American believers are unable to explain what they say they believe about God and the Bible. Forget nuanced theological debates. Try finding the "big picture" of the text; the story of God and His redemptive plane. An alarming number of our people are biblical imbeciles. They have not grasped the enormous differences between the Old and New Covenants and fall prey to every attack no matter how erroneous. I am not placing blame for the causes; I am pointing toward a reality to be addressed.
Third, Standing for "our way of life" is not "earnestly contending for the faith." Over the last 400+ years Christianity has been wrongly and grievously interwoven with the American Dream. So much so many Christians believe being patriotic is necessary to be a good Christian. I do not push too far to suggest "mom, baseball and apple pie" stand equal to "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" across the land. This is true even in churches. Exhibit 1? Talk to pastors who have attempted to move the American flag off the pulpit area or out of the auditorium altogether.
This unhealthy, unholy hybrid of Christianity and hyper-nationalism has cheapened the former and lent unwarranted authority to the latter. When a church baptizes converts under the American flag--as I personally witnessed one July 4--it is Christians, not unbelievers, who have more than their toes in the waters of blasphemy.
We stand for the unborn, for instance, not because we are the land of the free and home of the brave. We stand for the unborn not because the Declaration of Independence embraces a right to life. We stand for the unborn not because we want America to be a shining light for the nations of the world. We stand for the unborn because the Bible teaches humanity was created in the image of God giving people intrinsic value. We stand for the unborn because, though marred by sin, that image remains.
This is a distinctly Christian position that others may or may not embrace. It is not an American issue, but a biblical issue in an American context. The same is true in China, Russia, or Kenya.
In the days ahead we can either grasp tightly an illusory America that, for the most part, never was, or we can hold tightly the Kingdom Jesus introduced. We may choose one, we may choose the other, but we cannot choose both.