The Quality of Public Debate Is Strained


Francis Schaeffer wrote, in “The God Who Is There”, “There is nothing more ugly than an orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.” I hold firmly to that view. Recently, I fear, the public debate in our country has demonstrated an ugliness that calls for an avowedly Christian response.

That response finds its inspiration in 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” This urging, from the pages of the New Testament, has applicability whatever the nature of the debate or the discussion for the gospel touches all aspects of our lives. Moreover, the use of the word “everyone” underlines the importance of interacting with both Christians and non-Christians alike in a respectful way. Jesus did.

In John 4, as Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus was associating with someone who was far from acceptable in Jewish society. Yet it is most notable that while He fully told her the truth, he did so in a kind, compassionate, and redemptive manner.

Recently, it was my privilege to co-facilitate a book club focused on the first part of the Book of Daniel and “Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism” written by John Lennox. The well-known story of Daniel and his friends can be seen as a call to our generation to be courageous; not to lose our nerve nor to allow the expression of our faith to be squeezed out of the public space and made ineffective. While anyone who has spent time in a Sunday-school classroom will be familiar with the biblical story of Daniel, John Lennox brilliantly mines this classic historical account to encourage cultural bravery in Christians trying to find their voice in a postmodern society. This encouragement could not be more timely. Of course, not every Christian is called to live lives of extraordinary faith in God at the pinnacle of executive power. Yet many of us are challenged today to go beyond simply maintaining our private devotion to God. Daniel and his young friends rose to the challenge of maintaining a high-profile witness in a pluralistic society that was highly antagonistic to their faith. Eventually, they were forced to face the possibility of paying the ultimate price for their convictions.

John Lennox proposes that their story carries a powerful message for us today as Christians living in a society that tolerates the practice of Christianity in private homes and in church services, but increasingly deprecates – and in some cases even punishes – public witness.

There are weighty requirements upon any Christian who does step into the public arena. Certainly, as apologists we too need to speak truth boldly in the public square, but we need to do so as Christ’s representatives, bearing the fruit of His Spirit (Gal. 5:22–26). This means refraining from insults, name-calling, and excoriation not only in theological discourse but also in political debate. There is, as Schaeffer observed, a devastating ugliness about “orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.” The Christian should aspire to the highest standards of understanding, grace and ethical communication in the knowledge that, in the public square, more nonbelievers are likely to be observing us than in church.

Having a graceful impact on the quality of public debate is possibly more vital now than it has been for many years. For the quality of political discourse appears to have drowned in a cauldron of perpetual outrage. Though the worst vitriol may be found in the comment sections of blog posts it is now true that public discussions of many types and even parliamentary debates are seething with acrimony. Perhaps this collapse owes its genesis to the growth of, largely anonymous, commentary on blog posts and the emergence of BOTS in social media, all of which allow the most vicious and personal vitriol to be expressed from behind a cloak of anonymity?

Last century, able young Christians were encouraged to consider vocations in political and public service. It was widely recognised that there was considerable need to encourage and to support Christian people who felt such a call. It was commonplace for churches, of all denominations and none, to pray regularly for Christian leaders in public life and there was widespread agreement about how to conduct productive public conversations. Influenced by Colossians 4:6, Christian debaters on all sides of an argument often, not always, recognised the value of letting “your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” On this foundation, debate focused on ideas and avoided attacks on the opponent. This avoidance of personal attacks was motivated by obedience to Christ and a recognition that demolishing the opposition’s person achieves nothing.  We can’t influence people if we’re busy launching vicious insults. Not for nothing was Dale Carnegie’s book entitled: “How to Win Friends and Influence People”.

Whilst our words have always had consequences, today it is possible for more people to “appear in print” and be heard more frequently. It appears that each generation needs to learn that the tongue, though small, has a disproportionate impact, like a ship’s rudder, on the direction of the craft’s direction, stability and, in extremis, even the health of the crew! As Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. ”It feels to me to be essential just now that we (not least in our roles as parents, would-be influencers and leaders) are very careful about how we use our words.”

John Evans