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The Duty of Political Speech

  • T.M. Moore BreakPoint
  • Updated Sep 25, 2009
The Duty of Political Speech

The political atmosphere these days is charged with progressive electrons.

Everything seems to be flowing toward one end of the political spectrum, and those who raise a hand or voice to offer a contrary opinion are ignored, scorned, or attacked by those who are supercharged with the temper of the times. It can be rather intimidating to express one's views about matters of moment in the public square, unless those views harmonize with the newly dominant progressive mindset.

Elihu must have felt a similar wariness about speaking up in the situation involving Job and his friends. Each of Job's friends and counselors had reached a similar conclusion about the sufferer's dilemma and how it should be resolved. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar all agreed: Job must have sinned in some way, and if he would only ‘fess up to his transgression, the Lord would quickly restore his well-being. These were long-time friends of Job, and wise old heads at that. What could a young man possibly add to this discussion, especially since he was prepared to reject the counsel of his elders and turn the conversation toward a new focus?

Elihu may have felt somewhat intimidated, but he insisted on his right to speak into the situation. In Job 34:16-27 he offered an analogy to justify expressing his views, one that he was certain all parties would agree with, and which would therefore allow him room to voice his opinion.

It is this analogy, a brief for the duty of political speech, that concerns us here. We want to consider Elihu's analogy for what we can learn from it about speaking up on matters of public moment in our own day, when all the loudest voices seem to be blowing and blustering in a direction that many of us may not find to our liking.

The priority of political speech

Elihu's premise in this analogy is that no one is going to object when someone who sees injustice in the public square raises his voice to protest (vv. 16-19). Indeed, even the wisest among them would acknowledge that men must not simply stand by while unjust rulers pursue wicked policies, showing partiality to special interests in order to pad their own wellbeing. The duty of speaking up, even in the bluntest of terms, would be agreed upon by all.

Nothing has changed since then. "We the people" are the ultimate political power in this democracy, but if we forfeit our twofold duty of vigilance and voice, then the wheels of our democracy fail to work smoothly, and the gears of special interest will redirect the nation on a course that veers from the trajectory of the Founders, a trajectory based in and motivated by principles agreeable to a Christian worldview.

Many would say this is precisely what is happening in our day. In the face of that prospect, voices are being raised all over the nation, objecting to policies and courses of action that strike many ordinary Americans as out of sync with the nation's purpose and character. They have been greeted by scorn and vilification from the mainstream media and those in charge of the progressive agenda, but, at the moment, they seem to be standing their ground like Elihu, demanding to be heard. They are only doing their public duty.

The prerequisites of political speech

But before one ventures to raise his voice in the public square, certain prerequisites must be met. Otherwise his protests will be easily deflected and destroyed, and his voice effectively silenced. What are those prerequisites?

First, they who would participate in the public square must keep informed and vigilant concerning the issues of the day and the people who are pressing them. Elihu took for granted that anyone who would speak up about matters of public policy must know both what issues are on the table and who is pushing the agenda.

Here there is no substitute for reading, conversation, and searching out all sides on any particular issue, so that we gain the best insights from all quarters and can weigh them in a thoughtful and discerning manner. At the same time, we must become informed about where particular politicians stand and how we may contact or otherwise communicate with them in the most effective manner.

A second prerequisite for political speech is that we must be clear on the terms of justice. In biblical terms, justice has five facets, each of which is but an expression of the just character of God.

Preventive justice involves the precautions we take to make sure that our actions don't harm others unnecessarily.

Obligatory justice requires that we keep our word, be faithful to our contracts, and represent the truth in all matters of public or private concern.

Restorative justice requires that, if we in any way have brought harm or damage to a neighbor of his property, we must be prepared to recompense him accordingly, in order to restore his wellbeing to the status quo ante as much as possible.

Retributive justice metes out punishment against those who willfully violate the persons or property of their neighbors.

And distributive justice requires that citizens express concern and take care of those in need in their community, sharing from their resources to help those who find themselves in want.

Whenever political leaders fail to take account of the Biblical requirements of justice, or consider actions that either violate those canons or seek to expand them in unbiblical ways, it is the duty of citizens to raise their voice in protest. But we will not be able to do this unless we begin to be more careful and informed about the requirements of justice and the ways it is, or is not, being practiced in our day.

A third prerequisite may be glimpsed in Elihu's reference to "him who is righteous and mighty" (v. 17). We must not allow anything in our character of manner to be a hindrance to what we wish to speak into the public square. Christians are called first to be witnesses (Acts 1:8) before they assay to speak a word of witness to others. If our manners, demeanor, or conduct can be dragged out for all to see in ways that shame us or the Truth of God, then we will have effectively forfeited our place in the forum of public speech.

The final prerequisite for political speech is that we remember that those who lead us in the political arena are only men like ourselves, and we must not chary to confront them boldly and bluntly when the situation requires (v. 18). It can be daunting to stand up to a political figure, naming names, indicting injustice, and calling for changes in a direction more in line with Biblical principles. Whether we do this in a public meeting, a letter to the editor, or merely in conversation with friends, there will always be those who object to our frankness and seek to shout us down. But we must not be cowed by such tactics, nor must we allow ourselves to think, as some seem to believe, that certain political figures are beyond reproach or correction, simply by virtue of office, tenure, or other factor.

The perspective of political speech

It is important that believers who seek to participate in the public square not check their faith at the door as they begin to engage the secular world. Elihu reminds us that there is a larger, overarching perspective and framework within which all political speech occurs, and, while we may not parade all the details of this landscape before our fellow citizens, or include them in our speeches, we will certainly want to keep them in mind as we proceed.

We may summarize this perspective as follows: All men and women, regardless of their beliefs, convictions, or views, are the image-bearers of God, and are ultimately accountable to Him (vv. 19, 20). We are not deists: God, we know, continually watches the ways of men and weighs their actions, moment by moment, on the scales of His justice (vv. 21-23). They can expect to know the favor of God, and, thus, continuing tenure in public service, who seek policies in line with what He regards as just and good (vv. 23-25); those who insist on transgressing His ways can expect that He will bring them to judgment, both now—through a variety of means—and in the great day of His wrath (vv. 25-27).

Knowing this, love for our neighbors demands that we speak up to help guide the ship of state in the safe waters of divine favor, lest by veering from His course we shipwreck on the icebergs of foolish choices and unforeseen consequences or the shoals of unacknowledged dangers and hidden reefs. We can make our arguments for following the ways of God on prudential grounds, showing the wisdom of following Biblical truth, without resort to preaching and Bible-thumping before those whose minds would automatically close at the first sound of such a tactic. The Word of God is good and wise and profitable to equip us for every good work. The challenge to those who want to persuade their neighbors of this truth is to discover words and ways of conversing that will keep their interest, open their minds, arrest their affections, and, thus, make room for the Holy Spirit to persuade each in a manner consistent with the degree of his or her readiness. Public speech is not evangelism, and, while we must always be prepared to give a witness to our risen Savior, sometimes, when the ship of state is at risk, the best counsel is prudence only—yet not without being willing to make our general framework and worldview known (Acts 26:21-38).

The practice of political speech

Finally we must say a few words of application based on Elihu's brief. How do we actually take up the practice of political speech as a normal part of our everyday conversation as believers? I will suggest four practices.

First, we must diligently study the Word of God to discover its teaching on matters of public policy. The Bible may not spell things out in terms specific to our times; however, the principles of God's Law, the warnings of the prophets, and the teachings of Christ and the apostles can be applied to any situation in life. Our duty is to learn to see the world through the lens of Scripture, allowing the Bible to shape our thinking and guide our actions in the public square, as in all of life. For this, we will need to be more careful and diligent students of God's Word.

Second, we must keep abreast of matters of public moment and consider how each of them intersects our Christian worldview. Here we will need to do some wider reading and to find Christian friends with whom we can share our thinking and refine our views.

Third, we must discover the avenues along which our thoughts and concerns may be most effectively conveyed to the people we hope to influence. Do we have the addresses, emails, and phone numbers of our elected officials? Do we know how to engage relevant websites? What opportunities for participating in public forums are schedule for our area? How do I craft a letter to the editor? How can I use my home as a forum for engaging others?

Finally, we must practice Biblical principles of speech in all our political speech, at all times. This means learning to be a good and thoughtful listener, guarding against becoming angry or defensive or stooping to merely ad hominen arguments, being clear and persuasive in our speech, showing respect to our opponents, and encouraging others who agree with our perspective to participate in a similar manner. If we hope to affect and shape matters of civil policy, we shall not be likely to do this through uncivil speech. We cannot expect the blessings of God when we choose to do things by the ways of the flesh.

Does this mean there is no room for confrontation? No place for blunt speech? Firm disagreement? Not at all. But even these must have solid ground beneath them and be constructed in ways that keep our manner of speech from being a hindrance to the careful consideration of our message.

Let the wary be willing

This is no time for those who are wary of the shifting ground of our political foundations to stand by and say nothing. A duty of political speech is incumbent upon everyone who cares about the Truth of God and the wellbeing of his neighbor. Let us study and pray to discover the best ways of fulfilling our responsibilities in this important area of civic life and Christian calling.

For reflection

What opportunities for practicing political speech are available to you at this time? How might you improve your ability to talk about matters of public policy from the perspective of your Christian worldview?

T. M. Moore is dean of the BreakPoint Centurions Program and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. Sign up at his website to receive his daily email devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition, or sign up at the Colson Center to receive his daily study, ViewPoint, studies in Christian worldview living.. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Hamilton, Va.
This article originally appeared on BreakPoint. Used with permission.

Original publication date: September 15, 2009