Os Guinness, author and social critic, has written or edited more than twenty-five books, including The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It (HarperOne, 2008), which was the topic of the following White Horse Inn interview. A frequent speaker and seminar leader at political and business conferences throughout the world, Dr. Guinness has lectured at many of the world's leading universities and has often spoken on Capitol Hill.
As we think about the relationship between Christians and the public square, could you walk us through your concerns in your book The Case for Civility? In addition to your concerns, what are your suggestions for how we can improve? You're not just saying that we need to be nicer.
Civility used to be understood as a classical virtue’a republican virtue and a democratic necessity. The greater the diversity you have in a society, the more you need to know how to get on with each other, if you're to have all voices heard. The American culture wars give us two extremes, and I follow along with Richard Neuhaus in calling one extreme "the sacred public square." There's no established church in America, but many in the Religious Right believe that the Christian faith, say in school prayer, should be given a privileged position. As America gets as diverse as it is’California schools have nineteen religions in one school district’this becomes unjust and unworkable, and creates enormous backlash against itself.
The other extreme’pushed by Americans United and the ACLU’is what Neuhaus calls "the naked public square." You antiseptically cleanse public life of all religion. And that's not only highly illiberal, because most Americans are people of faith, it also undercuts the legitimacy or the moral justifications of the republic. So I propose what some of us call the "civil public square." But it's not just a matter of being nice. It's a political framework about rights, responsibilities, and so on, within which people are free to be themselves. This means being faithful to their faith, and yet knowing how to get on with other faiths peacefully.
In practical terms, how do we do that when we're faced with, for instance, the challenge of redefining the family’something that used to be taken for granted that is now being challenged? How do we as Christians make arguments in a civil way with people who don't share our convictions and our rationale, and who think that when you bring those convictions to the public square, you're not acting in the public good?
Obviously there are many things that we have to bring in. One of the key ones for us followers of Christ is persuasion, or the old term "apologetics." And the tragic fact is that many current Christians in America aren't persuasive. They know how to preach or proclaim or protest or pronounce, when they're against abortion or whatever it is; they don't know how to persuade. The apostle Paul, who speaks in the synagogue and opens the Torah, preaches the Old Testament because in the synagogue audience that is their authority and they understand it. When he's on Mars Hill, however, he quotes Cretan poets and so on. In other words, he's persuasive.
Take same-sex marriage. There have been a few distinguished exceptions, but a lot of the political voices in America I often liken to the Grant Wood painting "American Gothic"’the defiant and stark couple standing with a pitchfork. You hear people say, "I believe in one man/one woman marriage!" and the pitchfork is stuck in. It doesn't persuade anyone. We have got to be persuasive, and it's sad that Jewish voices like Dennis Prager are genuinely persuasive on these issues and Christians aren't.
One of the marks of when Israel abandons the ways of the Lord is seen in the Old Testament when Joshua is afraid and says, "You can choose whom you like’the gods back in Egypt, or the Canaanite gods’but as for me and my house," and so on. You could take Samuel protesting the rise of the kingship, or Elijah on Mt. Carmel challenging the prophets of Baal. They don't say, "Come back or Israel is going to fall apart." Elijah says, "If Baal is God, follow Baal!" He can say that because he knows Baal is not God, and the fastest way for them to consider coming back to the Lord is by hitting their heads against a wall trying to follow Baal. Samuel is in a tougher situation. He says, "The kingship is wrong; you're rejecting God"; but he also says, "You choose; these are the consequences. This is what kingship will do to you, and if you choose, you are culpable." Looking back a thousand years, the Jewish monarchy was a desultory affair, and everything Samuel predicted was right. But in that case, they went ahead’unlike in the time of Elijah’and they chose the wrong way.
I think we need something of that prophetic stance. In same-sex marriage, say what it will lead to: "You choose. These are the consequences, and you will be culpable. But as for me and my house, we will stick to the way of the Lord." The tragedy is that we're complaining about the culture's way of life, and we ourselves are hardly different from the culture.
This sounds like a similar point Paul made to the Corinthians: "By the way, when I said don't hang out with the publicly immoral and swindlers and so forth, I didn't mean outsiders, people outside the church, for then you would have to leave the world. I mean clean up your own mess in the church." We do the very opposite today, don't we? We try to clean up the world while our churches are often in disarray.
I read a recent poll that said that the state of marriage among atheists is better than the state of marriage among evangelicals. Or you read of evangelicals whose view is no longer that Jesus is the only way to the Father and so on. We have been affected by the relativism and the lifestyle of the world around us. Evangelicals are tragically worldly.
What about reviving the old natural law tradition in Christianity? Or at least acknowledging the common grace inscribed in all people by virtue of being created in the image of God? What role does that play in the Christian's assumptions as we pursue civility in the common realm?
My experience is that particularly our Roman Catholic friends, who use the natural law argument, tend to suggest that if people really thought well and reasonably (in other words, the way they think), then we'd all come to this happy common mind. It doesn't happen. People aren't as reasonable as many proponents of the natural law suggest.
My own version would be common grace understood in the Reformed way by default. I just gave you the example of Elijah. He doesn't say, "If we think this through, you'll see what I'm talking about in terms of the law." No, he knows that if the Lord is the Lord, Baal isn't, and that the quickest way for them to see that is to be pushed out. Peter Berger uses the word "relativism." He says that the first argument against relativism is to relativize the relativizer. In other words, they cheat. They're relativistic about us, or the past, or the Bible. They're not relativistic, however, about the things they hold precious. So our tactic is not to say, "Now, come on, let's be reasonable," but to say, "All right, you're insisting on relativism; go the whole way with your relativism." And that's what Samuel and Elijah do. To me, that is sort of common grace, but it's taken in the negative form by showing that the negative doesn't work; then you get people to come back and consider what might be a better way.
When you talk about appealing to people and what they find relevant for their lives, isn't that a problem for us in bringing the gospel to people? How will they see the life, death, even purported resurrection of a Jewish rabbi who lived a thousand years ago having any relevance for their lives today?
The gospel is relevant to every human heart and to every age; we all believe that. But our challenge as disciples is to find the point in which it really meets the need of the person we're talking to, and it's as different as the people we're talking to are different. In Scotland they have these dry stone walls with neither cement nor mortar; there's a type of stone with a fault line that will just fracture at a certain point if you tap it, which creates the shape you want. I've always thought of that as an image of apologetics. We've got to start by listening. Too many Christians talk too much. You've got to listen to discern. Our Lord could answer immediately because he knew human hearts. We don't, so we listen and pray: Lord, where is the treasure of this person's heart? What is it that's really at the core of his resistance to you? And only after listening do we direct what we see as the good news of Christ directly to them.
I'm told by a friend who works among Muslims that one of the strongest things in the Middle East at the moment, where it's incredibly hard to witness to Muslims at all, is the notion of "Abba, Father." There's no intimacy in the remoteness of the Muslim view of God, and that "Abba, Father" intimacy is extremely powerful. We've got to listen in order to have some sense of where the person is, and then direct the gospel to him.
All of those roads you're mentioning lead to Christ; it is the same answer, but in a thousand different ways.
That's the challenge. Jesus never spoke to two people the same way. And so we who are evangelicals should start by junking all formulas, which are highly modernistic. If something works, you rethink what you did, and then you can reduce it to a method, and that's very dangerous and becomes mechanical, and you don't need the Holy Spirit for that. But we need the Spirit for discernment because people are so different. But of course, it's the same gospel at the end of the day.
As far as the lack of civility goes, who worries you more: the hard left or the hard right?
The two of them together are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Each side deserves the other; each side reinforces the other. In 1988, when I was involved in the Williamsburg Charter, an ACLU member said to me, "There's a simple reason why we will always win. We have more lawyers." And in those days, they did. But if you look back over the last twenty years, the conservatives’Christians, Jews, and others’now have huge amounts of money and an incredible array of lawyers. So now each side is kind of like World War I with their embattled positions, armed to the teeth, and dug in their trenches. You see endless liti-gation and controversies.
Do you think we are living in a post-Christian culture?
I think people mean by this that the old Christian consensus has broken down. In other words, America was never formally, officially established as a Christian nation. But there's no question that most of the people in 1776 and most of the ideas that made 1776 were Christian. For a long time’until the 1950s when Will Herberg talked about Protestants, Catholics, and Jews’the consensus was broadly Christian, and people who weren't themselves Christian could understand the consensus. But all this went in the 1960s. And now, although Christians are still in the heavy majority’80 percent or so’the rest of the culture rejects any notion of the old Christian culture. So definitely in the sense of the collapse of the Christian consensus, we're in a post-Christian culture.
Isn't that both good and bad?
Exactly. I think it braces Christians. We can't swim with the tide or rest on our oars’pick your metaphor. Today, we have to go back to square one. I have to say for myself: this God is my God. I know whom I believe in. I know why I believe in him. I know what it means to believe in him and to follow him, and so on. Each of us has to have that personal strong conviction, and then know how to go out and engage people of different faiths. Some will understand us, and some will not’but we should feel comfortable. The early church was born in a deeply pluralistic climate and had no problem. They didn't betray their faith; they would rather die than say Caesar was Lord if Jesus was Lord. Yet today you see relativism eroding Christian faith. We've swung from an easy Christian consensus to this post-Christian culture, which appears hostile to many Christians and so they weakly cave in.
That easy Christian consensus historically has never really done very well for the clarity of the gospel and Christian witness, has it?
No, it makes it shallow; but then the faith gets used when it's in the majority for things that are less than admirable’such as justifying slavery and racism in the South. So when the Christian consensus goes, and you're in a post-Christian culture, people can see only the evils and the excesses. I call this the ABC moment. When cultures are in decline, they kick out the old faith, whatever the old faith is. In the West, the old faiths are the Jewish and Christian faiths. So it's anything but Christianity today in a lot of areas. When people think of Christianity, they think only of the inquisitions, the crusades, racism in the South’only the evils.
When a culture shifts and kicks the old religion out reminds me of the occasion of Augustine's penning The City of God, when he was trying to explain that there are two cities, and that the Christian faith cannot be identified with any of the kingdoms or regimes of this world. But it seems that these books are written to distinguish the two kingdoms because the world is biting the hand that wants to rule them. But a majority religion no longer seems to occupy a lot of space in the public square, which is when things get really ugly and people like Augustine have to say that the church isn't the Roman Empire.
He wrote the book over fifteen years. He started when Rome fell in 410, and he published the final bits in 425. The first part of his book is not great apologetics; it's almost a kind of tit for tat. You're saying Rome fell because there were no pagan gods? Your own people said this, Livy said this, and Sallust said this, and so on. The early arguments are not that original. But as he continues, he develops his mature argument about the two cities. He wasn't just talking to the pagans; there were many Christians who confused Rome and the church’Eusebius of Caesarea lorded the fact that Jesus was born in the same lifetime as Augustus. So the first great Caesar and our Lord were together, and he's the beginning of those who were marrying the church and the empire; and as the empire spread, the church would spread.
So Augustine asked Christians which city they were in. The City of Rome was passing, and the City of God is unconquerable. And in a way, that is the tough challenge to Americans today. Because the church and America have been so closely identified, as we move into a post-Christian culture, people feel they are betraying their own patriotism to challenge certain things that are going on. I don't think we have to go to the extreme of our friends at Duke University, in an Anabaptist direction, but we need to have a responsible two-city understanding. All of us who are followers of Jesus need to say that while we are in the City of God, we also happen to be American citizens or British citizens. The City of Man is second, and the City of God is primary.
I'm reminded of the comment Augustine's colleague Jerome made: What is to become of the church now that Rome has fallen? Don't you think that is a question being posed by a lot of conservative Christians today?
Exactly. In European history, there have been the rise of various Christian powers, and when each one failed, there was another one. When the British Empire failed, there was the United States. Or as people put it another way: if you launched the Mayflower today, it has no place to sail to. In other words, we've reached the end of the line of the Western countries that have been the center of the gospel. I'm not sure what the reason for this is under the Lord's sovereignty, but thank God for the strength and explosion of the church in sub-Saharan Africa and China, where I was born, which is the center of the house church movement and the fastest growth of the church anywhere in two thousand years. In the nineteenth century, Anglicans took the gospel to Uganda and to Nigeria, among other places. Now the Anglican Church is in a desperate state with all the Episcopal heresies and apostasy, and it's the churches in Uganda and Nigeria riding to the rescue of us in the West.
We have more Reformed Christians in Nigeria than in North America. In a lot of cases, students that we've had in our seminary who are Reformed pastors from Nigeria have been astonished at how a lot of churches in America that would consider themselves conservative, confessional, Reformed churches are more American than Reformed. If anything, they're a little bit more orthodox than we are about being Reformed. So to see Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, evangelical bodies outside of the West is sort of taking Britain and the United States out to the woodshed.
But I'm afraid that's a good thing. On the other hand, one has to say to them gently: Your turn is coming. In other words, we've been done in by modernity, and modernity is coming to you.
And already with the prosperity gospel.
I was speaking in a group with a lot of African leaders this summer, and I was asked to give them this argument about modernity coming to them. After that plenary session, we went to a communion service, where I sat in a row with about ten African bishops. Then in the middle of the Communion service, I noticed that four of them were texting. Here is the highest and holiest moment of Christian worship, and they were not there. Presence is one of the most precious Christian witnesses today. As Jim Elliott said, "Wherever you are, be all there." And in our BlackBerry culture, many Christians aren't. It's that sort of thing that comes into the West. They look at us and say, "How can you have bishops who are homosexuals? We'll never go that way." But they don't understand that it's coming in through things such as radio, television, technology, cell phones, the Internet’things we think are neutral.
It's easy to be Gnostic in this information culture. What are some of the ways that Christians have related to culture in this country that have been problematic?
Most people in answering that question look at Richard Niebuhr: Christ against culture, Christ over culture, and so on. I think Peter Berger has a much better framework. He says that as Christians we're called to be in the world but not of the world. So that gives us two extreme stances, and one in the middle. First, those who want to be in the world but not of it take a position of what he calls "cognitive" (your mind) and "cultural" (your lifestyle) "defiance." Now that is very difficult in the modern world because the modern world is so powerful. It's almost impossible to get away from. There's very little culture-denying stance among the church anywhere, compared to when I was a boy. When I was a boy people talked about worldliness. In the 1960s, people said, "Don't drink, don't dance, don't smoke." But people today don't talk about worldliness at all.
The other extreme is what Berger calls "cognitive and cultural accommodation," which you can see with the liberals beginning with Schleiermacher. They take on assumptions in the world and then adapt to those assumptions and eventually sell out to them. You can see liberal theology is the tail, and the dog is always current philosophy ahead of them. The tragedy, if you look at it like this, is that in the last generation many evangelicals have become the new liberals. They're adapting to the truths of the world with our postmodern friends who are evangelicals. Often they're adapting to the techniques of the world and the insights of the world like marketing, but evangelicals are becoming the new liberals, and that's the tragedy.
It's incredibly difficult to maintain the middle position, which Peter Berger calls "cognitive and cultural negotiation." I think a better biblical word would be discernment’testing the spirits and always judging. But the world is happening so fast. The rate of current events is like a tsunami. How do you think through everything? You've just thought through cell phones, but then they're out of date and you're onto something else. Each of us needs a little group of friends, such the White Horse Inn, who constantly wrestle with the issues, so that we're not all taken and are abreast of the latest’with our thoughts captive to Christ.
The foundational concern you and I share is that we profoundly need a revival and reformation in the church. We're simply not as Christian and as biblical as we should be in all sorts of areas. I've said in my lectures that the tragedy of the Christian right is that it's actually subverting many of the ways that the followers of Christ are supposed to be. In the Gospels, Jesus tells us to forgive without limit, to do good when people do wrong to us, and gives us the supreme challenge: Love your enemies. People say that's utopian, idealistic, impossible, or Pollyannaish. But look at Wilberforce. Wilberforce was the most vilified man probably in the world. Twice he was physically attacked by his opponents, but he was always gracious. He was never ungracious. He also happened to be witty, but he was very loving. When one of his worst enemies died, he immediately ensured that the man's wife had a pension. Talk about love for your enemies. None of the stereotyping came from his side. If you look at the Christian right, who does the demonizing and the stereotyping? Read their direct mail and what's underlined in red. It appeals to hatred or fear. This is all sub-Christian. I hope with the dismal performance of the Religious Right and the recent election, we can really call for reformation again. The Christian right's time is up. Let's engage differently. We need to be politically engaged, but without being politically equated with any party or ideology.
How can we become more persuasive?
If you examine Scripture where people are open, such as when the Philippian jailer comes to Paul and says, "What must I do to be saved?" The jail is broken down and his life is in chaos; he's open. Paul is simple and brief: "Put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you're saved." The Four Spiritual Laws guys wouldn't have even finished the first law. Paul was finished. He taught the good man later that night; but he was simple because the man was that open.
But if you look in Scripture when people are opposed, there are all sorts of ways to use questions’what's called reversals, such as the Beati-tudes, the parables, dramatic ploys. I describe them as creative subversion. Take Nathan with David. Nathan doesn't tell a parable because he's afraid to confront David and wants to save his own skin. He's aiming for the about-turn of the repentance and conviction we find in Psalm 51. But what's interesting is that the about-turn is in the parable. So the parable draws you in, and you end up living it. But then the punch line turns everything: "You are the man."
The parables of our Lord work like that. Of course, in our Lord's case, he also says there are people who see and people who will not see, just as Isaiah prophesies. In other words, the parables leave the scribes and the Pharisees convicted: they've seen, but they still won't bow. So even at the end of good communication, you can turn on your heels as easily as fall on your knees.