Eight years ago, I listened to Os Guinness speak on the topic of faith and political engagement at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. His lecture was entitled The Case for Civility and he argued that Christians need to learn the art of faithful persuasion if they want to be taken seriously in the political life of a pluralistic democracy like the United States or Canada.
Guinness’ main point is this: in a pluralistic democracy where citizens are expected to live together in spite of their deep ideological differences, it simply will not do to quote the Bible as an authority on matters of public policy. Even if the Bible is true, it has little to no validity for those outside the faith or for members of other religions – and insisting that the Bible be recognized as such only serves to impose the Christian worldview onto others.
Christians who think that public policy should always cohere with biblical revelation need only consider what it would be like to have other religious worldviews imposed on them. Wouldn’t they object if Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs expected public life to be dictated by the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran, or the Guru Granth? If so, then Christians should not try to turn the public square into a sacred arena where the voice of biblical revelation trumps all others.
So what should Christians do instead? Should they keep religious ideas private in an effort to respect the ideological differences of the citizens they disagree with? Should they turn the public square into a secular arena where religious viewpoints are silenced? Not at all! The Christian can still engage in political life by engaging in what Guinness calls “the art of faithful persuasion.” This art has at least two facets.
First, the Christian needs to defend her biblical convictions in the public square on the basis of sources that most people hold in common – namely, the sources of human reason and experience. This means that biblical mandates like care for the poor, corporate accountability, environmental sustainability, and the protection of the unborn are welcome in the public square as long as they can be defended on non-religious grounds – which, arguably, they can. Appealing to reason and experience will not resolve all political disagreements, of course, but it will provide a common starting point for debate that respects the deep differences of all parties involved.
Second, the Christian can draw from the nuggets of truth contained in opposing worldviews to persuade others of her ideas. This strategy is powerful because others will be less resistant to the biblical position if you convince them on the basis of their own values and beliefs! This facet of persuasion is also a powerful way to build consensus without having to resolve every disagreement. [Not surprisingly, this strategy seems to have been adopted by St. Paul’s when he appealed to the Torah to evangelize his Jewish listeners; or when he quoted from Stoic philosophers while sharing the gospel in Athens.]
To sum up, Christians living in a pluralistic democracy need to learn the art of faithful persuasion by (1) defending their arguments on the basis of common reason and human experience and (2) enlisting useful insights from the worldviews of their opponents. No doubt, it takes hard work to learn this art, but it is crucial for Christians – especially those in wish to be effective in politics – to do so.
To conclude this post, I have included a brief video from Os Guinness himself on this topic, for your listening enjoyment!