Michael Craven Christian Blog and Commentary

Politicized and Polarized

Okay, I knew it was going to happen. I even prefaced last week's commentary on public education by granting the fact that "this is a dicey issue that can get you into a lot of trouble very quickly." However, my appeal was couched in terms of inviting examination of the issue from a thoughtful Christian perspective (given education's enormous role in shaping our children) and "wrestling" with the answers—honestly and intelligently—because our faith demands serious self-examination when it comes to our engagement with the changing world around us.

If you read the article, then you know I never criticized or attacked anyone for any decision they made relative to educating their children. I didn't call public education "evil" or suggest that Christians working in the public schools were being "bad Christians." I merely offered an exploration of the institution's philosophical history and not the individual actions of teachers, administrators and the like.

For those who homeschool or choose private Christian education, the article was edifying. For those whose children attend public schools, the article was deemed offensive and not surprisingly, the reaction was significant and occasionally extreme. Some charged me with disagreement with "the words of Jesus." One reader who introduced herself by saying, "I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior at the age of 7" wrote, "you have absolutely lost your mind," adding I was "absolutely ignorant!" Another writes, "It is unfortunate that this article was published and these Un-Christian views are put forth." And so it went.

My concern is not so much with the fact that some folks assumed a different view of the topic but with the manner and content of their disagreement. Every person responding professed to be a follower of Jesus and yet they showed no reluctance in attacking a fellow Christian, going so far as to accuse me of being "Un-Christian" and contradicting the "words of Jesus." Such charges are tantamount to calling someone a heretic—a denier of the faith. Others were content to be condescending and uncivil, as if I were an enemy.

This is by no means my first time to encounter this manner of reaction from fellow Christians. However, this lack of civility and love toward one another should warrant serious concern on the part of every Christian (see John 17). However, I am equally concerned by the content of those rebuttals, which are frequently unrelated to the specifics of my message. Few ever address the actual argument but instead assert emotional opines and editorials that are rooted in personal experience rather than serious study. Many are just angry rants that neither appeal to the facts nor reflect any serious consideration. And I rarely receive a rebuttal that begins with a humble inquiry such as "What do you think about…?" or "Are you saying…?" The disposition to listen is often superseded by a temperament to attack.

I have been a syndicated columnist, author, and speaker for nearly ten years now and I am regularly baffled by the apparent inability (or unwillingness) of people to either comprehend the central thesis of an argument or to thoughtfully analyze the content of the text. 

I am concerned by the pervasiveness of these conditions and so I want to understand the forces responsible. I have been carefully reading James Davidson Hunter's groundbreaking new book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010) and I think he offers insight into one possible factor contributing to this condition.

Hunter contends that "in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn toward politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity." Read this slowly! I think what Hunter is saying is that due to the disintegration of common values, worldviews, and the like that now animate our pluralistic culture, our society is increasingly polarized as competing interests seek to establish their respective views as the right view. As a consequence, persuasion is thought to be an inadequate way of competing; in order to defend our view, we resort to forms of power, namely political power, which is inherently polarizing.

In the absence of intelligent and reasonable discussion of contentious topics, special interest groups have arisen that seek the power of the state (legislation) to advance their cause. (Make no mistake, both conservatives and liberals embrace this strategy.) The consequence is that "every area of civic life has been politicized to one degree or another and strained by ideological conflict" (Hunter).

One practical effect of this, I would argue, is that we surrender critical inquiry into the matter and opt instead for politicized inspections of content, persons, organizations, and so forth. In other words, we try to determine where someone stands first, inhibiting any thoughtful examination of their words and ideas, looking instead for clues to their ideological category. Are they conservative, liberal, centrist? For example, if I said I watched Fox News, you would likely assume that I am politically conservative. If I said MSNBC, you would assume I'm liberal. Even the reference to Hunter's somewhat controversial book may lead some to conclude that I oppose Christian political activism, when I've said no such thing. You see how much we can assume from so little?

Within the church we do this as well, using theological labels. Are they Protestant or Catholic, Calvinistic or Arminian, mid-trib, post-trib, no-trib, Covenantal or Dispensational, and so on? In other words, what "tribe" do they belong to? And if they aren't in my tribe then I have nothing to learn from them. The church, like the culture, is equally politicized. In reality, culture and people are not reducible to political categories. The world is far more complex than this.

This approach is so deficient in so many ways. For one, you'll never learn anything beyond what you already know. Hunter adds that "politicization provides a framework of expectations and action and very little substantive content." As a result, I think the whole of society is dumbed down and we lose the ability and/or inclination to wrestle with tough questions and discover intelligent responses to issues. The larger, more meaningful questions of life (or theology) remain ignored. Everything gravitates to the pursuit of power in order to impose one's vision for the world, either because we feel ill equipped to persuade or too lazy. And here the church—the living body of Christ—is often playing by the same rules. However, this conception of "power" to change the world is drawn from the broader culture and not from Christianity.

Ours is a power greater than that of the world—but it is often a paradoxical power that is strong when we are weak, is greatest when we are the least, is first when we make ourselves last. It is a power only given to the humble. This is the power that can change the world, but unfortunately our flesh is inclined to the world's view of power, coercive power, both corporately and individually.

If we maintain this thoughtless and politicized posture, we'll never be able to effectively relate to others with whom we disagree and we'll only marginalize the church's witness.  We won't listen to one another, learning from the community of God's people. We'll continue to divide the body of Christ through rancorous contentions. In essence, we become the worst enemies of the kingdom that is characterized by love, unity, and peace.

Can we disagree? Of course! But we must abandon the cynicism and skepticism toward others that keeps us entrenched in our personal political categories. We should approach one another in the spirit of Paul's letter to the Corinthians. We are patient and kind toward one another. We are not arrogant or rude; we do not insist on our own way. We are not irritable or resentful. We do not rejoice in the flaws or failures of one another. We bear all things; we assume the best of others, we hope for the best in others, and we endure every conflict and disagreement; we work together to grow in our faith and understanding and we never quit on each other (see 1 Cor. 13)!

© 2010 by S. Michael Craven Permission granted for non-commercial use.

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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit: www.battlefortruth.org