Public Vice and Private Virtue

I was privileged to attend the Annual Seattle Pacific Business Breakfast yesterday and listen to David Brooks, a favorite columnist of mine from the NY Times talk about the shift in ethos that’s been occurring in our culture over the last fifty years.  In the midst of all that he said so well, one thing stood out to me.  In an after session Q&A, David noted that, when he’s on Meet the Press, he’ll chat with the appointed spokespeople from both the political left and right chosen to represent their parties for that day. He noted that there sole concern, in that setting, is to represent the “party line” accurately, and the result, these days, is a terribly predictable dialogue.  Pick any subject, and if you read the newspaper at all, you already know what the left and right are both going to say about it.

It was after, off the air, he said, that these same people would candidly admit that they knew the weaknesses of their own position.  But, though they know the weakness, they don’t talk about it – even to each other, let alone the other party, let alone the public.  The result is what Brooks called, “Public vice and private virtue” by which he means that the public personalities of our leaders are actually worse, in the sense of being more arrogant and entrenched in their views, than their private, authentic selves.

In such an environment, all thoughtful and civil dialogue ceases, because the party, and party loyalty, is everything.  And what creates the kind of loyalty that causes people to hold entrenched positions publicly, even though they might privately hold a slightly different view?  The bottom line is that they want to keep their jobs.  Many of them promised, for example, never to raise taxes. It’s become a condition of whether they, or their own party’s foe, will be funded in the next round of elections.  So they’re enslaved to the positions of the party, which spells the end of dialogue, civility, and compromise, even though we all know that’s what’s needed to make things work.

I’m not writing this to throw rocks at politicians.  I’m writing this because I wonder to what extent leaders of our faith do the same thing.  To what extent do we hold a party line because we know that we’re known for that line and that any deviation from that line will lead to a loss of influence?  Our movements are, each of them, rooted in nuanced articulations of Christian doctrine.  There are, for example, a bunch of us who believe in I Corinthians 15:1-6, which I preached about on Easter Sunday.  We buy in, wholeheartedly, to Christ’s death, resurrection, appearance, ascension, and all that implies regarding his claims to deity and his ultimate reign as king in a transformed and healed world.

But from there we depart.  Women in leadership?  The responsibility of Christians with respect to environmental stewardship?   Justice issues?  War, violence, nationalism?  The nature of the Bible’s authority?  Sexual ethics?  You can see how the road breaks off, again and again, into little subsets of believers who hold, dogmatically, to their nuanced version of the faith.

If we’d all be humble enough to say we have a “version of the faith” rather than “THE faith”, then we’d be open to dialogue, open to sharing our convictions regarding why believe the way we do, but open to really listening to the other to see if, just maybe, we need to change something a bit.  But of course, any admission of doubt regarding our positions, and we who lead might just find ourselves in a similar situation as a Republican admitting we might need to revert to the old tax structure of the early Bush years, which is now viewed as “tax increase”.  Subscribe to that as a Republican and your new title come November will be, “former congressman”.

Likewise, too many pastors are afraid to dialogue about important issues for fear of losing their jobs, or their support base, and as a result, they end up addicted to the party line in the name of orthodoxy.  Lots of them though, privately, will tell you that they’re asking questions – about science and faith, homosexuality, and other big things.  I propose that pastors and churches need to create safe places for people to ask questions, and that the safety comes from two places:

1. A good fence. By this I mean, “these are things we believe to be unchangeable with respect to our faith”.  The fence of orthodoxy needs to be clear, and I good place to start would be I Corinthians 15:1-6, and perhaps the Apostles Creed, which has been hammered out over many centuries as the foundation of our faith.

2. Civility on the playing field. Within the fence, there’ll be discussions about lots of issues.  We’ll disagree, sometimes stridently.  But we’ll treat each other with dignity, knowing that the dialogue is important in refining our views.  Biologos is doing this with respect to the science/faith dialogue here, and both the debate and civil tone are exemplary.  We need more forums like this for other issues.

It’s time our private virtue of being willing to consider the weaknesses of our own position came out of the closet so that we can actually listen to each other, love each other, and come closer to unity in the process. Too much is at stake to keep hiding in our self-referential communities.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

    Richard, this is excellent, and in fact, I have been mulling in my own head a post about something similar, so don’t take it as me copying you ;) You’ve inspired me to go forward and put what’s in my head on paper. Or screen.

    I would say there is an area where the analogy between theology and politics falls short: when it comes to some of the theological points you mentioned which become points of contention, the truth is that there is most definitely a correct position. God knows for sure whether He wants women to be pastors or not. Many of these issues, by definition, are either/or propositions. Either this way is right, or that one is, but they cannot both be.

    This is opposed to politics, where there are very few issues which have a clearly correct answer.

  • http://www.christiancivility.com Mitch Carnell

    What a great article! People are afraid to say what they truly believe and stick to the party line in religion and politics. There is no longer any room for open discussions without the name calling. Good work.

  • Kara

    James, I think you just illustrated Richard’s point perfectly, “God knows…” but we don’t. (Who has known the mind of God?). And how can we ever know if we can’t even talk about it as members of Christ’s body, be real about our questions, sometimes misgivings, without fear of judgement or worse..?

    We need to have tenderness and respect towards one another (and ourselves.) If I am called to think of others more highly than myself (Phil 2:3) doesn’t that in very essence mean considering that others may be more knowledgable in some things than I, relinquishing any belief that I, as an individual, have universally cornered the market on truth?

    I hold to the Apostle’s Creed and I hold to these: that I am commanded to equally and indiscriminately love my neighbor and that my neighbor is all men.

    • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

      Kara, the problem is that many who say, as you did, that “only God knows” about the right position on a given topic end up slamming those who disagree with them anyway. They label those who are against women in ministry as sexists or misogynist, those who are pro-choice as murders, those who are pro-life as privacy intruders, those who view homosexuality as sin as homophobes, those who view homosexuality as not sin as hedonists.
      I would disagree with your statement of “who can know the mind of God?” I mean, it’s a direct bible quote, so I cannot disagree with it exactly. But I don’t know that it applies here. We can know what is sin and what’s part of His will on several topics, as He has clearly spelled it out in scripture.

      • Lamont

        What does the Bible say about Women pastors/teachers for example?
        1 Tim 2:12-15
        “12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
        Paul is setting order in the church. He forbids women to hold the office as pastor or teacher in the church. It’s just amatter of order. As the scripture say’s “God is not a God of confusion.” (1 Corinthians 14:33)
        God is the head of Christ, Christ the head of Man, Man the head of the family/wife.
        He (paul) goes all the way back to the fall, therefore, he wasn’t referencing some sort of problem in the local culture or community. God made man first (as the verse states), then made women as his help mate.
        FYI
        Gal 3:28 is a reference to salvation, not order in the church, Godhead, or family.

  • Justin

    I like and agree with many of the ideas and questions raised in this article. However, having found myself in the gray area of some issues politically and theologically, being able to argue either side, I wonder if I have ever really made a difference at all. Is the dialog enough? Is there biblical truth or principles of dogma that I have convoluted in order to advance a political cause?I hope not, I pray not. My concern is that perhaps the conversation or dialog can erode the truth in pursuit of a compromise, and the Bible is full of uncompromising positions that are not and will not be popular in politics or certain social environments. It is conceivable that on the path to compromise we could deftly dispose of some of the greatest truths known to humanity found in Scripture. There is much more that Christians agree on than disagree on. The problem is that the issues we disagree on tend to create divisions and quarrels within the Church and outside of the Church. Even the things that we could compromise on wouldn’t be approached the same way politically. Take for example our role in being good stewards of the environment. Most Christians would agree that we should take care of the environment. We disagree politically on our own personal responsibilities and the role of the government in assuring the protection of the environment. Which is why, personally, I do not think a political position should be taken from the pulpit on this and or other issues. It creates more division and frustration than it is worth. Who cares, republican, democrat, libertarian or independent. The Bible is the word of God not the constitution. We can have these discussions, but must they be between party lines?

    • Lee

      On the contrary, if you are a Christian, Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible. The Bible might point us to God (in some cases it might not) but it is Jesus who is the Word, the living Word, of God. The church and the world has suffered because of that confusion.


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