“Restoring Political Civility: An Evangelical View” with Richard Mouw was as hard as any show in my memory to produce, edit, script — and even to justify, as news unfolded while we were creating it.
I have known Richard Mouw for 15 years and interviewed him on this program in its early days. Other Evangelical Christian leaders have been more visible in American political and media life: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard, James Dobson, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and on the more progressive side Jim Wallis and Richard Cizik. I have followed them, but I have also always kept my ear and eye on quieter figures like Richard Mouw. As president of Fuller Theological Seminary, with more than 4000 students from 70 countries and over 100 denominations, he is training generations of Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors and global leaders.
And in this political season, in which values have once again — and with a new edge of hysteria — come to be a rallying cry for viciousness, I wanted to speak with him again. A book he first wrote in 1992, Uncomon Decency, has just been released in a revised version with the subtitle, “Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.” Mouw has long been a kind of bridge person — theologically conservative on some issues and more progressive on others — but he most fervently insists that the way people are treated is a greater measure of Christian virtue than the positions one takes.
I’ve wondered rhetorically how our political life would have evolved differently if the Christian re-emergence into politics in the late 20th century had modeled a practical love of enemies. My own deepest despair at present is not about the vitriol and division per se — as alarming as they are. It is about the fact that we seem to be losing any connective tissue for engaging at all, on a human level, across ruptures of disagreement. Across the political spectrum, many increasingly turn to journalism not for knowledge but to confirm individual pre-existing points of view. What we once called the red state, blue state divide is now more like two parallel universes where understandings of plain fact are no longer remotely aligned. This leads to a diminishing sense of the humanity of those who think and live differently than we do. And that is the ultimate moral slippery slope, for everyone on it and for the fabric of our civic life.
Richard Mouw lays out the imperative to all kinds of Christians for gentleness, reverence, humanity, and “honor” of the different other at the heart of the Bible and the life of Jesus. But this is not a feel-good plea for harmony. Even as he calls for civility and gentleness, Mouw reasserts his public and private opposition to gay marriage and civil unions. The civility he calls for would not minimize difference, at least at the outset, but would create a different space for discussing and navigating it — indeed for bringing differences into public life with virtue and vitality of expression. Picking up on a phrase coined by Christian historian Martin Marty, Richard Mouw builds upon this idea of “convicted civility.”
We had impassioned and difficult discussions on our production team about his ideas, and the complications and contradictions they present. When he says that, as a Christian, he sees other human beings as “works of divine art,” can that genuinely apply to a person whose sexual identity he defines as fundamentally wrong? And then, in the thick of creating this show, the Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide — one of a string of suicides of gay youth. This sharpened a question of whether religious views condemning homosexuality — however civilly expressed — inevitably fuel hateful, even fatal, behavior.
With all of this on my mind, I was struck by an open letter the Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler wrote in direct response to those teen suicides. Though Mohler is to the right of Richard Mouw theologically and culturally, his letter takes an unexpectedly kindred tone. Mohler leads the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, and one of the most conservative. He spends the first few paragraphs of his statement reiterating his firm theological conviction that homosexuality is a sin. But in words that echo a search for a new way of “convicted civility,” Mohler confesses, “Much of our response to homosexuality is rooted in ignorance and fear.” And he asks, of the faithful and of his church leaders, “What if Tyler Clementi had been in your church? Would he have heard biblical truth presented in a context of humble truth-telling and gospel urgency, or would he have heard irresponsible slander, sarcastic jabs, and moralistic self-congratulation?” I read in Mohler’s statement a profound shift of tone, if not of position — and an opening to new ways of being.
This all drives towards a question I pursue in so many of my conversations: How does social change happen? We will not all be “on the same page,” as Americans like to be, on sexuality or many other issues for generations to come. The 21st century has opened up questions Western civilization thought it had put to rest. Some of them are intimate and raw, terrifying in every life at some point and therefore all the more unsettling when we are forced to ponder them out in the open together. Same-sex marriage is but the tip of an iceberg of human redefinition: What is relationship? What is marriage? What is friendship? What constitutes a family? In this messy moment, we retain our rights and responsibilities as human beings and citizens to discern our truths and live by them. But we have no choice, at the same time, if we want this to end well, to search for new ways to discern our multiple truths while living together.
Richard Mouw suggests that we need to start some of our conversations again from the beginning, certainly the conversation about sexuality. He believes that only by naming our hopes and our fears, articulating them among ourselves, revealing them to each other, can we begin to recreate something called a common life, which can contain, and not be destroyed by, our differences. I want to believe him, to believe that this is one answer to the question of how social change happens. If I didn’t believe that a new kind of conversation can also be a starting point for walking forwards together — living together, differently — I would not do what I do.
And yet, maybe another reality we have to live with is that these critical new conversations will start small, in many places, compelling us to connect dots for a while in lieu of convening the sweeping dialogue we might hope for. I’d point to a few that we’ve pulled together at onBeing.org with this show, including Albert Mohler’s letter in its entirety as well as a Religion Dispatches report about an historic meeting between a senior Mormon elder and LGBT Mormons.
We’ve also posted a piece we admire by fellow journalist Sasha Aslanian titled “Sex, Death, and Secrets” — featuring an interview with two lesbian pastors who’ve experienced a roller coaster ride of discernment within their own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
And we’ve posted another kind of contribution to civility, an act of care for “despairing LGBT kids who are being bullied and harassed, kids who don’t think they have a future” — a video project called “It Gets Better” that was created by syndicated columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry. Both come from families with conservative religious roots, and we see photographs that bespeak the embrace they’ve both received as members of these families. They are photographs of love that has overcome convictions — or chosen to live in a gracious, loving tension alongside them. This too is possible. Please add your thoughts, stories, and pictures — your dots, if you will — to this difficult, dispersed, essential conversation.