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How Do We Speak about Our Political Opponents?

In 2015, I wrote a blog post about the uproar surrounding the newest candidate to enter the Republican Presidential primary. The man who would become the 45th President of the United States exploded into the GOP primary. In the speech announcing his candidacy, he insulted immigrants crossing the border from Mexico. A few weeks later, he attacked the Vietnam service of Senator John McCain. What concerned me was not the insults themselves but how I saw Christians respond to them. Conservative Christians seemed so starved for political wins and fed up with what they see as oppressive political correctness that they were willing to embrace ungodly actions to accomplish what they saw as godly ends. In the post, I quoted multiple Proverbs about the wisdom that should mark the Christian’s speech and questioned how we could cheer as someone repeatedly insulted other people made in God’s image. That post, like this one, wasn’t about Donald Trump but rather about how embracing Trump’s rhetorical strategies changes us.

Now that we are on the other side of the Trump presidency, the situation is not improved. In fact, those who want to court the votes of Conservative Christians are in a race to the bottom to see who can launch the most over the top and vicious assaults on their political opponents. Whether they are speaking of Progressives or Republicans who are not deemed to be sufficiently loyal to President Trump, GOP politicians score points with religious voters by hurling untrue, unfounded, and uncharitable accusations. This cannot continue.

The way that Christians speak to and about our political opponents matters.

If we accomplish our temporal political goals by abandoning everything Scripture says about how we treat people, then our words will undermine all of the good that we seek to accomplish.

Somewhere along the way, Christians fell for the idea that showing basic kindness was somehow the same as kowtowing to political correctness. Instead of listening to pastors, theologians, or public thinkers who engage in wise and winsome speech, Christians fell to charlatans whose whole schtick is built on “owning” their opponents. This usually involves mocking and critiquing a caricature of what our opponents believe rather than engaging in a good-faith analysis of their positions and worldview.

In a recent post at The Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor quoted renowned Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer as he talked about his posture towards those he disagreed with. Schaeffer’s approach involved helping someone to see the presuppositions behind what they believed and leading them to see the “logical conclusions” of their presuppositions. Schaeffer said, “I need to remind myself constantly that this is not a game I am playing. If I begin to enjoy it as a kind of intellectual exercise, then I am cruel and can expect no real spiritual results. As I push the man off of his false balance, he must be able to feel that I care for him. Otherwise, I will only end up destroying him, and the cruelty and ugliness of it all will destroy me as well.”

Schaeffer reminds us that we are after spiritual results, even in our discussions about temporal political matters. If we act as if the people who disagree with us are anything less than image-bearers of God, we destroy both ourselves and others in the process. In making this point, Schaeffer echoes the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 2:22-26. He said, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”

Kindness is not weakness. Kindness acknowledges that those who disagree with us still bear the image of God, no matter how despicable their political positions may be. We respond to them, not with insults, but by showing the inherent weaknesses in their positions. Our goal is not to “own” them but to persuade them.  In this sense, we aren’t just convincing people to change their minds, but their lives and basic worldview. We cannot accomplish this through insults and tearing down strawmen. We do it with truth and grace. This is how Christians speak, even to those with whom we disagree.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

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Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”