As we draw toward the end of this two-year experiment called Faithful Citizenship with the November election, I'm reflecting on a lot of the things I've learned in the process of trying week by week to do fresh theology about faith and politics. (Don't worry—I'm also preparing some final columns on current issues, recent books, and sex in America. Honest!) In the process of researching issues, I have spent hundreds of hours reading articles, essays, blogs, books, tweets, and Facebook posts, and I can only conclude that our discourse about policy and about faith is often as badly broken as the political process I talked about last week.
Those of us communicating don't seem to know how to hold our beliefs sincerely and express them gently, and audiences seem to prefer fire and vitriol, not measured responses.
I've known this for a while—one can't watch cable news, listen to radio talk shows, read opinion pieces, or open Facebook without noticing—but it truly came to a head for me a few weeks back over Chik-Fil-A and gay marriage. Even some of my colleagues at Patheos—"hosting the discussion on religion," remember—seemed to find it impossible to discuss this civilly, and in strongly expressing their faithfully-held opinions, they got angry.
They offended each other.
And I thought, if even we at Patheos find it difficult to have discourse on these issues, who can?
I've observed that inhabitants of both sides of issues often play the victim card—or the offense card. But when I am angry, offended, or feel victimized, where is the possibility for dialogue?
When one side or the other is or perceives itself as being persecuted and circles the wagons, who is going to talk across the divide?
I can't pretend that this is my original insight. When I began the book Faithful Citizenship, I started the process by asking my Facebook friends what they perceived as the most unchristian thing in American politics today, and the answer that came back more often than any other was this very thing—the lack of civil discourse, the inability to communicate with each other, not the advocacy of any particular policy.
And yet our writers and broadcasters—secular, liberal, conservative, and religious—often encourage this circle-the-wagons mentality about particular policies because it appeals to their audiences. Why wouldn't it? They aren't forced to think outside their convenient categories, aren't asked to lose their righteous anger, and aren't encouraged to be anything but the victims of the Others Who Have Got It All Wrong.
Colin Cowherd, a sportscaster on ESPN, likes to say that people don't want information; they want affirmation. Although he says this in the context of sports, I believe this to be true across the board. I observe it daily, and I also know that as an audience member, I am guilty of seeking only affirmation of my views when I'm not conscious of my duty to examine questions fully.
I also know it because as a writer and speaker, I have been trying to inform and to open dialogue, not to pretend that I and other progressive Christians have seized the moral high ground.
My editor on my book Faithful Citizenship ruefully told me that it would sell a lot better if I were throwing bombs, and don't I know it. My most-read column at Patheos, my theological dismantling of Joel Osteen and his prosperity gospel, is also my most-read writing ever. Tens of thousands read it on my old Christian Century blog The Other Jesus, shared it virally on Facebook, or read it in two runs on Patheos, and a big part of that popularity, I fear, is that the column was one of the least-loving and most-assured attack pieces I've ever written.
People read it, most of them having already agreed to agree that we don't like Joel Osteen, and they praised it to the heavens. I got calls from the media, looking for a face-off, a slap-down, wondering if I'd heard back from Mr. Osteen. If I'd written a book on Mr. Osteen adopting this same aggressive strategy, I don't think I would be checking my bank balance with such timidity today.
But on reflection, I don't feel good about even this gently dismissive if theologically-based put-down of another human being and his preaching and teaching.
Although I was an outstanding high school debater and have often appeared on TV and radio as an author and public intellectual, I am not comfortable with our out-shout each other model of public discourse.