I was surprised to see President Obama take a public stand supporting gay marriage this week immediately after the North Carolina landslide referendum against it. I don’t question Obama’s sincerity, but politicians never make public pronouncements without a cost/benefit analysis, which leads me to wonder whether Obama’s campaign is taking a calculated risk to bait the culture warriors into unleashing an unprecedented fury that will alienate the independent voters they have already terrified by gobbling up Obama’s bait in the contraception battle. As an evangelical Christian, my focus in all circumstances is on building the kingdom of God and sharing the gospel with everyone I encounter. Any political stances I take are strategically driven by this primary focus. So I am very worried that my fellow evangelicals are going to lunge after Obama’s latest bait and cause tremendous collateral damage to our Christian witness. As Rachel Held Evans wrote on Wednesday, if Christians get swept up again into culture wars leading up to this election, then we will continue to poison our witness and lose young Americans to the gospel. We cannot keep absolving ourselves of responsibility for our witness by blaming the “liberal media.” I’m not at all saying that we need to conform our values to whatever the secular consensus degenerates into, but the Bible is not silent about how we should conduct ourselves in the world in which our primary investment should always be our witness. And many Christians have failed to exude a Christlike spirit in our contributions to public discourse.
1 Peter 2:13-16 provides Christians with a framework for how we should conduct ourselves in the secular world: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority… For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” Peter does not let Christians off the hook for whatever ignorant things that foolish people have to say about us, let alone people who have legitimate grievances. We are responsible for changing their minds, not by coming up with air-tight arguments for our views or by pointing out our opponents’ hypocrisies, but by doing good. Furthermore, Peter exhorts his audience to honor a Roman emperor who was actively persecuting and martyring them. What does “honoring the emperor” look like when our president makes decisions that we disagree with? We don’t have to bite our tongues, but however we express ourselves should be in a way that “shows proper respect to everyone.” Christians furthermore have no business supporting the voices in our culture that speak dishonorably, regardless of whether we share their political views.
The culture wars’ greatest liability for the church lies in the thoroughly un-Christlike outrage industrial complex whose pundits, bloggers, and radio personalities deliberately use inflammatory, hyperbolic language to build their market profile. The best thing Christians could do for our witness is to completely dissociate ourselves from these outrage specialists. Rush Limbaugh for instance changed the entire tenor of the conversation about contraception when he called Sandra Fluke a slut. And then Glenn Beck completely mocked the ecclesial boundaries of the Roman church by writing “We are all Catholics now” as though his opportunistic political solidarity granted him special dispensation to partake in the sacraments of an entirely different religion from his Mormon faith. Any ability for Catholic voices to share thoughtful discourse about the sacramental theology of the body underlying their views on contraception was completely drowned out by the loudmouths of the outrage industrial complex.
Imagine how differently the contraception conversation would have gone if Cardinal Timothy Dolan had kept a better handle on his image by refusing to do photo ops with Glenn Beck and not allowing the church’s cause to be co-opted by professional agitators whose business model depends upon being the opposite of Christlike in how they present themselves. At least partly as a result of the church’s willingness to collaborate with outrage specialists, the “Catholic war against women” meme has stuck. Though the media has certainly gone for maximized drama in how it has reported on the Vatican’s conflict with the nuns and Girl Scouts, imagine how the meme might have evolved differently if Cardinal Dolan had made it a point to fly down to Georgetown for a public news conference with Sandra Fluke in support of her human dignity after Limbaugh’s astonishing attack on her.
Christians must not allow professional agitators to hijack our messaging. We should also follow Peter’s exhortation to “love the family of believers.” Conservative and progressive Christians alike must stop publicly denigrating each other. As one who falls slightly on the progressive side of the spectrum, I know that I have fallen into the trap of not even trying to understand the perspective of Christians who do not share my views. We must live and speak as if all Christians share the same fundamental goal of seeing God’s mercy reign over all the Earth, even if some of our brothers and sisters seem like they don’t. Progressive Christians in particular should be chastened by the words of Gay Christian Network executive director Justin Lee, who had this to say about his fellow North Carolinians who voted overwhelmingly against his ability to marry: “The people on both sides who voted on this amendment honestly believed they were doing the right thing. Whichever side you’re on, if you caricature those who disagree with you as merely bigoted, stupid, homophobic, sinful, or evil, you’ve greatly underestimated them as people.”
I was recently exposed to the beautiful verse of James 3:17 that describes “the wisdom that comes from heaven [which] is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” Imagine if this beautiful wisdom were what Christians exuded in how we talked about the affairs of our nation. Deflating the often legitimately earned negative stereotypes about Christianity in our culture will take millions of Christians doing good and speaking with a wisdom that is peace-loving, considerate, submissive, merciful, impartial, and sincere. At the very least, we can silence the ignorant talk that comes out of our own foolish mouths.