Restoring Political Civility: An Evangelical View
Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics. He is the author of Uncommon Decency.
August 18, 2011
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Richard Mouw is a leading evangelical educator and thinker. He is conservative on the charged issue of same-sex marriage. And he is a leader in challenging his fellow conservative Christians and the rest of us to civility and humility in public life. This hour, as part of the Civil Conversations Project, we gather his wisdom on navigating fear — and the temptation it brings to distort the truth about those we see as enemies.
MR. RICHARD MOUW: The fact that our kids are going to school together, that we are in the same parking lots, we are in the same supermarket aisles, we’re driving the same freeways; that there’s a common life. And beneath all of that, there’s something that binds human beings together that politics can’t create and it shouldn’t be able to destroy. And we really need to be thinking as people of faith, how is it that our common life can flourish?
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: American public life feels as fragile and divided to many of us as at any time in recent memory. There are chasms between us, open questions on subjects both intimate and public, that will not truly be resolved any time soon. And conservative Christian voices are prominent in our most heated debates. So this hour, for our Civil Conversations Project, I draw out a leading Evangelical thinker and educator, Richard Mouw. Twenty-five years ago, he wrote a book called Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. Since that time, he has pursued real relationship with people who differ from him. This includes LGBT individuals and groups, though he is conservative on the charged issue of same-sex marriage. Richard Mouw believes that the measure of Christian fidelity is as much about how one treats others as about the positions one takes. And he insists that we all must find whole new ways to be in relationship with different others, even while holding passionate disagreements. He offers historical as well as spiritual perspective — on navigating fear, and the temptation it brings to distort the truth about those perceived as enemies.
MR. MOUW: For Christians who take the Bible seriously, it isn’t that we’ve these convictions and then we also got to try to be civil, but the truth element of civility is itself one of the convictions.
MS. TIPPETT: From American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being: “Restoring Political Civility — an Evangelical View.”
Richard Mouw is a Christian philosopher by training. Since 1993, he has been president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. This is one of the largest centers of Evangelical higher education in the world, with more than 4000 students from over 100 denominations and 70 countries. Richard Mouw himself has long been a kind of bridge person in U.S. Christianity — insisting that Christian virtue must be measured by how people are treated as much as by the positions one takes. Mouw himself became estranged from the church for a number of years in his early adulthood in the 1960s. At that time, he was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, on which he felt his church had been sinfully slow to engage. He came back to an Evangelical tradition that he experienced as a contrast to the fundamentalist intolerance with which he was raised.
MR. MOUW: The kind of Evangelical fundamentalist Christianity that formed me early on had a very strong streak of incivility. We were people that — we not only had enemies, but we felt that it was essential to our spiritual identity that we have enemies, you know.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, because it was about defining yourselves over against, right?
MR. MOUW: Yeah. I’ve been thinking about this lately in terms of the pope going to Scotland [laugh]. You know, the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian denomination to which I belong, they revised it, they put it all on a footnote. But that Westminster Confession of the Reformation era says that the pope is the antichrist. And I was raised in a world in which it was important to look out for the antichrist, you know. I mean, you know, that number in the Book of Revelation, the number of the beast, six hundred and 66, people had this wild stuff…
MS. TIPPETT: You know, my grandfather also believed that the pope was the antichrist.
MR. MOUW: Yeah. And then really Vatican II kind of made it more and more difficult. And really into the ’50s, you got a very strong anti-communism with Joe McCarthy and the like and pretty soon it was Stalin, you know.
MS. TIPPETT: So you think the antichrist has changed across your lifetime?
MR. MOUW: Yep, yep. So we hated communists. And I noticed right around 1980 that it began to shift to Islam.
MS. TIPPETT: Really? That early?
MR. MOUW: Yeah, and you’re getting a lot of today overtly anti-Muslim stuff. It’s almost as if we’ve always got to have somebody that we feel legitimate about really hating. And that’s, I think, intrinsic to the kind of fundamentalist Christianity, with conspiracy theories and antichrists and beasts and all the rest. So, you know, to all of a sudden start thinking about civility and not allowing yourself to get into that kind of thing has been a kind of a shift for me spiritually.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You know, you quote a couple of lines of Yeats, which maybe this is a kind of an extreme version, but it certainly is a way that it can look — looking at this issue of incivility that the lines are, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
MR. MOUW: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And then you take a phrase that Martin Marty coined that what we need is convicted civility. And that’s really a thesis that you’ve carried forward and developed. So I want to know what you mean by convicted civility.
MR. MOUW: Yeah. The larger context there was that Marty said, you know, a lot of people today who have strong convictions are not very civil, and a lot of people who are civil don’t have very strong convictions, and what we really need is convicted civility. And it’s that — you know, how do we look at people with whom we have real disagreements, serious disagreements, and at the same time treat them — you know, the Biblical term — there are two wonderful terms. They’re in the Bible in the Old Testament, Jeremiah, says, “Seek the Shalom” — the welfare, it’s usually translated — but “Seek the Shalom of the city in which you are — God has placed you because in it’s Shalom, you will find your Shalom.”
And how do we look at what was in that context, you know? Hebrew people in exile trying to figure out how in the world they’re going to relate to a pagan culture. And then God says, seek their Shalom, seek their well-being, you know, even if you disagree radically with them. And then in the New Testament, the Apostle Peter says that we have to honor all human beings and have a regard for their well-being. I take those to be sort of different ways of getting at a very common Biblical theme. What does it mean for me to honor the Muslim, to honor the Mormon, to honor people of unbelief who are hostile toward Christianity? What does it mean to honor them? And then I think we need to work at the theology there, you know. How do we view other people?
MS. TIPPETT: I want to just test something out on you that I’ve thought about a lot over the years, that as American culture has started to become genuinely pluralistic, around the 1960s, the virtue that was put forward — the civic virtue that we started to learn and educate into our children was the virtue of tolerance. And I’ve always felt that, for religious people, for all kinds of religious people, tolerance is not nearly a big enough word.
MR. MOUW: No, it’s not.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s a cerebral word. I mean, to me, it doesn’t stretch to compassion, to honoring, you know, as you just said.
MR. MOUW: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: So I’ve wondered if we really are now at the beginning of learning what those virtues are that we need for our common life and that maybe in fact religious people, right, theology should have a very rich role to play in that.
MR. MOUW: Yeah, and I think you’re absolutely right. I think that tolerance, toleration — you know, you say, well, you know, my neighbor next door practices her tuba every day for two hours and I get sick of it, but I tolerate it, you know.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. MOUW: Well, tolerate there is just easier. You know, tell her how angry you are.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And the medical term tolerance is like how much can you take before you get sicker or you have a bad reaction… (laughter)
MR. MOUW: That’s right, exactly right.
MS. TIPPETT: …which is actually the way it’s functioned.
MR. MOUW: Right, and it really gets to — it has to do with the virtues. I’m glad you used that term because, you know, to be civil comes from “civitas” and it means learning how to live in the city. The origin with a guy like Aristotle, the ancient philosopher, who said early on, as little children, we have a natural sense of kinship. We have strong positive feelings toward those who are blood relatives, my mother, my father, sisters and brothers, cousins and the like. And then as we grow up, we have some of those same positive feelings that develop toward friends. So we go from kinship and we build on that to a broader sense of friendship where you have that same sense of bonding or something like it that isn’t just based on blood relative stuff.
But he said to really grow up, to be a mature human being, is to learn in the public square to have that same sense of bonding to people from other cities, people who are very different than yourself. And that’s not just toleration, but is a sense that what I owe to my mother because she brought me into this world, what I owe to my friends because of shared experiences and memories and delights, I also owe to the stranger. Why? Because they’re human like me and I’ve got to begin to think of humanness as such as a kind of bonding relationship.
MS. TIPPETT: What you just said is powerful and then, at the same time, I’m not telling you anything new. I mean, you are an Evangelical educator, philosopher, leader and you also know that Evangelical Christians and some other forms of Christianity have been very closely associated with incivility in recent years, especially in American political life. Now it’s not the whole story of Evangelical Christianity or Christianity, but that association is undeniable. So partly what I want to do is I want to try to get your sense of the big picture here. I would say right now as you and I are speaking, a lot of Americans may have the sense again anew that there are some really vitriolic and damaging religious sentiments and voices that have become very vocal in our public life. And I want to know what you think this does and doesn’t have to do with the evolution of Evangelical Christianity in public life.
So, you know, we’ve talked about this a lot on this program in the last few years. In the early 20th century, in fact, it was the people we would today call Evangelical Christians who pretty much withdrew from public life and said we will care about private morality and personal salvation. At the end of the 20th century, Evangelical Christians reemerged in public life and in electoral political life. President Bush was in office, which may be the apex of that development. Then I think a lot of people felt like Evangelicals got pretty quiet in the last couple of years. And then there is this surge of, I don’t know, Tea Party, Glenn Beck, anti-Islamic sentiment, that often has religious overtones. So I just want to ask you, from your vantage point, is this a new stage? You know, how would you describe this as part of the big picture?
MR. MOUW: See, I think that Evangelicalism constantly goes back and forth not only from — between sort of alienation from the culture to a kind of takeover mentality, but back and forth between two sort of theologies that bear on that. All of those decades in the 20th century when Evangelicals said, you know, this world is not our home. We’re bound for heaven and our main job is to get other individuals saved so that they can go to heaven with us. And to try to change society is like trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. I mean, this is a sinking ship. That was undergirded by an apocalyptic theology, a theology that the world is getting worse and worse.
MS. TIPPETT: And also that was the early 20th century. You had world wars, you had global economic depression, right? I mean, there were reasons to look around and say that.
MR. MOUW: Yeah, but also a tremendous sense of loss. I mean, Evangelicalism in the 19th century, for a good part of the 19th century, was the American religion, you know. You know, God bless America, Oh, beautiful for sacred dreams, and all this stuff. But as George Morrison, the historian, pointed out, that going from the 19th to the 20th century for many Evangelicals was like an immigration experience. It was a spiritual immigration. Suddenly they looked around and said, they’ve taken away my nation and I do not know where they have laid it, you know. It was suddenly a strange country that we were in. We no longer felt at home here. But something happened around 1980 and Jerry Falwell and all that…
MS. TIPPETT: Moral Majority, Christian Coalition.
MR. MOUW: Yeah, right there, very interesting. For 80 years, they had seen themselves as a moral minority on the edges of culture waiting for the whole thing to blow up. Suddenly in 1980, they announced that they are the Moral Majority. I mean, what went on there? I think, for one thing, there was a class shift. My wife and I were traveling across the country one time and somebody asked Phyllis to take pictures of churches along the way for a kind of dictionary of American Christianity. So we’d be going across Highway 80 in Nebraska and we’d get off the road and go into this little town. It typically went like this, that the Presbyterian and Methodist, Episcopal churches were at the center of town. And then over across the tracks, there was a Pentecostal, a little kind of shack-type church, you know, or a Nazarene church. Well, today those churches own the best real estate in town, you know.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, and they have brand-new big buildings.
MR. MOUW: Yeah, and they are the megachurches and we’ve seen this tremendous decline of mainline Protestantism. So Evangelicals suddenly around 1980 were feeling a new leverage, a new cultural power, and they were very upset about the sexual revolution and what that was doing, to what their children were being taught in schools, and what they were seeing on local magazine rack displays in the local grocery store and all the rest. They suddenly decided we’re going to take this country back.
And then there was a lot of disillusionment with that. You know, Falwell died and Pat Robertson made some really strange (laughter) pronouncements and there was a lot of embarrassment with Ted Haggard and others and there was a kind of quieting. But somehow, you know, the Glenn Beck phenomenon and some other things have — and the anti-Islam stuff has revived that sense that they’re taking something away from us and we got to get it back.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today: “Restoring Political Civility.” I’m speaking with Richard Mouw. He’s a prominent Evangelical educator and Christian philosopher. Across the years, he’s helped lead evangelical dialogues with Jews, Mormons, and Muslims. He’s also engaged proactively with LGBT individuals and groups, though he does not support gay marriage. Among his many books, in 1992 Richard Mouw published Uncommon Decency, with the subtitle Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. This was rereleased in the fall of 2010, an election season marked by dueling versions not merely of values, but of history, and of facts. I spoke with him at that time.
MS. TIPPETT: I think one element here that feels very dramatic and troubling to a lot of people watching this is it’s not just conviction, but there’s a sense in which the issues that are being taken up now and the spirit in which they’re being taken up now plays fast and loose with the truth.
MR. MOUW: Yeah. You know, you’re getting at something that I’m just really deeply disturbed about — that, for Christians who take the Bible seriously, it isn’t that we have these convictions and then we also got to try to be civil, but the truth element of civility is itself one of the convictions. I mean, if our repertoire of convictions includes this, that God tells us we must not bear false witness against our neighbors, then how can we be so fast and easy and loose with telling the truth about others? Making these blanket statements about Muslims? I mean, you and I know Muslims who do not fit any of the stereotypical caricaturing kind of claims that are being used these days. And yet people think nothing of just saying, you know, the Qur’an is an evil book and anybody who’s devoted to the Qur’an is just an evil person and we might as well just…
MS. TIPPETT: Writing off a billion people, yeah.
MR. MOUW: Yep. Yep.
MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I do want to name the fact that you write very seriously about the potential downside to civility, or civility superficially imagined, right? I mean, relativism or some kind of superficial idea of accepting and affirming everything, that’s not where you want to go with this, that’s not where you think it’s good for us, even as a culture, to go when we hold different views about the territory we’re navigating. Where does the example of Jesus come in? I mean, how do you think of Jesus in terms of avoiding relativism while being civil, while being there for others? How do you?
MR. MOUW: Well, I mean, I think that, you know, I do think that Jesus is a model of civility, of convicted civility. I mean, you know, the murmuring against him that we read about in the Gospel accounts is that this is a person who associates with harlots and with corrupt tax collectors and, you know, other “sinners” in the culture. And yet it’s very clear that Jesus did not approve of prostitution or of compliance with the economic practices of the Roman Empire, you know. So it is a clear case where Jesus reached out to people, but in none of that was he sacrificing convictions about what is right, what is good, what is true. And some of his harshest judgments were for people who were very condemnatory toward other people and not aware of their own sin, not aware of their own shortcomings, you know.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. In some of your — I want to talk as we move forward about some of the descriptions and prescriptions you have in your book for a gentler Christianity, and one of them, for starters, concentrates on your own sinfulness and the other person’s humanness.
MR. MOUW: Yeah, yeah. You know, actually, I get that from John Calvin (laughter) who probably a lot of people, if they know anything about the great 16th-century reformer or have at least heard something about Calvinism, do not think of Calvinism as a model of civility (laughter). You know, Calvin said that a political leader who’s thinking about going to war — and he was not a pacifist, so he would say, you know, sometimes we do need to go to war. But before we go to war, he said, we need to go through two exercises, and the one is to test out our own motives to make sure that we’re not being carried away by some, you know, evil motive in ourselves, like just a desire to grab land or uncontrollable anger or spirit of vengeance. And then he says, and we also have to reflect on the humanity of the other person. It’s a kind of what I call a hermeneutic of suspicion toward yourself and charity toward others.
MS. TIPPETT: Here’s something that feels important to me to name, that we have a culture of fear, right?
MR. MOUW: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And we know that when human beings as creatures — I mean, we know this from brain science now. You know, that when we’re acting out of fear, we are not — people are not probably capable of asking those self-aware questions that you just posed even if they are deeply religious and believe themselves to be acting in a Christian way. So how can and, I mean, how do Christian leaders like you and people at Fuller Seminary, how does theology respond both maybe to that fear in order to make that other kind of self—awareness possible?
MR. MOUW: Yeah, that’s interesting because I’ve been talking to some of my friends about, you know, some of the stuff recently. I’ve got to say to you, Krista, you know, when I talk to people who really like Glenn Beck — in my part of the world, I run into a lot of folks like that — I’ve got to be honest with you and say one thing I can say to them is, you know, some of the things he’s concerned about, I’m concerned about too. I do worry about what’s happening in our culture. I do worry about the ongoing, I think, very bad effects of the sexual revolution, about a lot of the stuff that we see on television and in film, and the kinds of things that are shaping our young people.
I think it’s important to not just to say to people, ah, you’re all wrong and you shouldn’t be carried away like that, but to say I share a lot of those concerns and what are we going to do about that? We have to be very careful that we not sin in the process of expressing and acting upon those concerns. You know, I’m pretty conservative about a lot of these issues, and I think it’s very important for a leader to approach people who are having a hard time controlling their fears. First of all, to identify to the degree that we can with integrity, to identify with those fears. I mean, it’s sort of what all of us who’ve been through therapy and all the rest. You know, the therapist doesn’t say, oh, that’s a stupid way to feel.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You tell somebody who’s afraid how stupid they are and you back them into a corner. I feel like that’s one of the dynamics of our political life now, right? Of this incivility?
MR. MOUW: Yeah. So I think it’s important for us to empathetically approach the people that we’re trying to influence and trying to serve and try to point them to a better way of dealing with those issues and, at the same time, a more truthful assessment of the issues because it’s so easy when you’re afraid to kind of create an enemy that may not be the enemy that you think the person is.
MS. TIPPETT: Coming up, we’ll explore Richard Mouw’s prescription for starting a new kind of encounter and conversation among people on both sides of the issue of same-sex marriage — which he opposes. Producing this interview with him led to impassioned exchanges on our production team. For some of my colleagues — and perhaps for some of you — there is a question of whether religious views condemning homosexuality — however civilly expressed — inevitably fuel hateful, even fatal, behavior. While we were in production on this show, Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide. At that time, he was the latest in a string of suicides by gay youth. In that climate, and with Richard Mouw’s perspective on my mind, I was struck by the tone in which the Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler published a kindred open response to those suicides. He reiterated his unwavering theological conviction that homosexuality is a sin. But in words that echo Richard Mouw’s search for a new way of “convicted civility,” he declared, “Much of our response to homosexuality is rooted in ignorance and fear.” And he asked, 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?” Find Mohler’s letter in its entirety on our blog. Also read a report by Mormon journalist Joanna Brooks about a cathartic meeting between a senior Mormon elder, and LGBT Mormons. That’s all at onbeing.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. This is the Civil Conversations Project from On Being. Today “Restoring Political Civility.” My guest, Richard Mouw, believes that the measure of Christian integrity is as much about how one treats others as about the positions one takes. And he insists that we all must find whole new ways to be in relationship with different others, even while holding passionate disagreements. He’s worked on this in his circles of influence for decades, finding models for civility amidst difference at the heart of the Bible and in the life of Jesus. Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary — that’s one of the largest centers of evangelical higher education in the world.
MS. TIPPETT: What gets onto the radar, what makes it into the news, are the very extreme moments and the extreme strident statements. I want to ask you, though, are there discussions happening in the larger universe of Evangelicalism and charismatic Christianity, which is also represented at Fuller? I mean, you have a lot of denominations at Fuller, and you have a conservative liberal span as well. So is there soul—searching? Is there leadership of the kind you talked about happening that’s not making the news, that the outside world is not privy to?
MR. MOUW: Yeah, I think so. I mean, what I’m experiencing with the younger generation of students at Fuller and I also, you know, travel to a lot of Evangelical college campuses, is that there’s a younger generation coming up right now that is embarrassed by the image of Evangelicalism as intolerant, mean-spirited. There even have been some Barna surveys that have put some numbers on this. And if you take something like sexuality, for example, and all the debates over same-sex relations, a lot of younger Evangelicals who may very well agree with the basic theology and the kind of understanding of biblical teaching that many of us have, you know, they got sisters who are lesbians, though. They went to high school with kids who came out of the closet and they just see this in much more relational terms. And the blanket angry judgmental caricaturing of the gay—lesbian community just doesn’t fit their sense of who these folks are. It doesn’t mean that there are different convictions, but it does mean that they interpret the overall reality in very different terms.
So I think there’s a good dialogue going on in the younger generation of people who are wanting to think differently and especially when we have an opportunity in classrooms at colleges and seminaries to kind of sit back and talk about these things. I mean, there’s something wonderful about the gift of leisure in higher education, that we can actually sit back in a classroom, have people read things, expose them to different points of view and then really try to work through what a sensible assessment of all this really comes to.
MS. TIPPETT: And then, I mean, I suppose you — I mean, you are training people who are going to be out in churches who will take the fruits of that leisure.
MR. MOUW: Mm-hmm. And I think, you know, we can learn a lot from the past. I mean, you know, you and I both knew an American culture that was very racist, very segregated. You don’t have as strong memories of that as I do, but it was really there. A lot of our friends and loved ones, we were among the sort of intellectual community where we were socialized to be sensitive to this kind of thing and then we’d go home to family and friends and they didn’t quite get it, many of them. Yet today there are significant changes in attitudes within those subcultures. I think a lot of it had to do with patient people in pulpits and in teaching roles and other kinds of leadership positions who were willing to not just angrily denounce, but try to tell the stories and probe some of the spiritual concerns that were at stake. I think we need to be doing that today on many of the things you and I are talking about here.
MS. TIPPETT: I’d like to — in that spirit, I’d like to ask you — you know, I’ve kind of made a list of some, again, some descriptions and prescriptions that you have and I’d like to just ask you about the biblical and theological underpinnings of these. Following on what you just said, you wrote, “God has a gentle and reverent concern for public righteousness.” Tell me where you see that. How do you know that?
MR. MOUW: Well, I can go right to Bible verses, you know. In I Peter, the first Epistle of the Apostle Peter, a verse that gets used all the time among Evangelicals, “Be ready at any time to give a reason for the hope that lies within you, of anyone who ask it of you.” We’ve always had that. You know, we’ve always got to be making the case. We’ve always got to be defending our beliefs against people who disagree with us. But we seldom go on and quote the next part of that verse, which is, “And do so with gentleness and reverence,” you know. I’ve often thought how different our theological and even our interreligious disagreements would get played out if we constantly said to ourselves, I’ve got to treat the other person with gentleness and reverence.
MR. MOUW: You know, I’ve experienced this in my own relations over the last decade or so with the Mormon community. The three religions that I take very seriously for dialogue are Judaism, Islam, and Mormonism. Those are ones that I’ve chosen to concentrate on. So in the case of the Mormon community, I just decided that I was going to listen. I was going to ask them, “What do you really believe?” and to try to get at an understanding of Mormonism, which, you know, I have real disagreements with a lot of things in it. But I wanted to be sure that what I was disagreeing with was really what they believed. It’s been a wonderful experience for me and that’s really helped me to get at a better sense of where the real differences are. I don’t want to get into all of that here, but I do think a gentle and reverent approach to people with whom we disagree is simply going to them and making sure that we understand them, you know.
I mean, I tell this story of being in a parking lot. I saw a parking space in this mini mall and I had to go into a grocery store. So I pulled into the parking space and I heard somebody honking. This woman, she was in a car and it was obvious that she had been waiting for that space. I hadn’t seen her and she gave me the finger and, you know, angry gestures and went on. I got out of the car and I thought, “I’m going to find her.” So I went and looked and, sure enough, I found her parking in a more distant place on the lot. As she got out of the car, I just went up to her and I said, “You know, I took a parking place that you were waiting for and I didn’t realize it and I just want to tell you I’m really sorry. I’m really sorry. I don’t blame you for being angry with me.”
She started to cry and she said, “You don’t know what kind of day I’ve had,” and she just stormed away. Then after a little while, just a few steps, she turned around with tears streaming down her face and she said, “Thank you,” in a very gentle tone, you know. I don’t usually react that way, but that was a case — and I don’t mean to make myself look like this wonderful person — but that was a case where I responded to somebody’s anger with a gentleness and a reverence and it paid off for me.
MS. TIPPETT: And it paid off for her.
MR. MOUW: Yeah, yeah. I just think that, you know, you can go through the biblical teaching and find all sorts of ways in which — you know, G.K. Chesterton once said, you know, it’s bad to have false gods, but it’s also bad to have false devils.
MS. TIPPETT: On our website, you can read Richard Mouw’s short reflection titled “A Civil Hug” — which contains the story he just told about the parking lot encounter — and another story about an argument over a fee that resulted in an unexpected embrace. Find that at onbeing.org.
I’m Krista Tippett On Being — conversation about meaning, faith, ethics, and ideas. Today we’re exploring the role Christians—all kinds of Christians—might play in restoring political civility. My guest is a leading Evangelical educator and Christian philosopher, Richard Mouw.
MS. TIPPETT: So here’s another statement from you about just an essential Christian truth, which is, “In affirming the stranger, we are honoring the image of God.”
MR. MOUW: Yeah, yeah. That’s right. I mean, going back to that Aristotle idea that, you know, we all understand kinship and then we understand friendship, but then there’s this person who is neither kin nor friend, but we have encountered them. And what is it that links me to them if it isn’t just a lot of good feelings that I have about people like that? What the Bible teaches is that every human being is created in a divine image. And this means that every human being is — you know, this is where I’ve been thinking more about this lately — is a work of art.
Seeing other people is a kind of exercise in art appreciation. I find that very powerful. I come across a person who isn’t just a stranger, but maybe represents a strangeness to me that initially I might feel very alienated from that person, and then to think this is a work of art by the God whom I worship, that God created that person. And it doesn’t come easy. I’m kind of aesthetically deprived, so I have to work at it, but it’s a very important exercise to engage in.
MS. TIPPETT: You have been very clear and open across the years, for example, about your theological opposition to gay marriage. I could imagine that someone who is homosexual might hear what you just said and feel that in fact that doesn’t find expression when you look at them.
MR. MOUW: Well, and — and it should. I have really tried to emphasize the fact that even in expressing our disagreements — and this is a very complicated thing — but that we’re dealing with people who are precious works of divine art. You know, I have argued on a number of occasions and actually gotten some very positive response from folks in the gay—lesbian community that maybe — I even wrote a Newsweek piece on this.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. MOUW: You know, maybe it’s time to stop yelling at each other and accusing each other in public and maybe we ought to just sit down and turn the agenda into something like this where I would ask my gay and lesbian activist friends, “what is it about people like me that scare you so much? And that you in turn would listen to me when I say, what is it about what you are advocating that worries me so much about the future of our culture and the world in which my grandchildren are being raised? And that we talk about hopes and fears rather than angrily denouncing each other as homophobes or as people who are engaged in, you know, despicable behavior, but could that shape a very different kind of discussion.” As we move toward — the really important question is how are we going to be able to live together in this pluralistic society with at least some better understanding of what motivates us beneath the angry denunciations and things?
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You know, I just want to read a bit of that piece you wrote in Newsweek. This was in January of 2009 and it was around the Prop 8 controversy. You wrote: “Can we talk?” — this is a plea to your fellow citizens on both sides of this divide over sexuality — “Can we talk? I ask this as someone who has been one of the angry ones, angry about things that have been said about people like me. I’ve been on talk shows where people phone in to call me a fascist or equate me with those who burned accused witches at the stake. One remark that hit especially close to home was made by the editor of this magazine, Newsweek. He wrote that anyone, anyone who tries to make a scriptural case against same—sex marriage is guilty of ‘the worst kind of fundamentalism.’ That hurt. I have spent several decades of my life trying to spell out an Evangelical alternative to the worst kind of fundamentalism. My friends and I have argued that the Bible supports racial justice, gender equality, peacemaking, and care for the environment, views that often draw the ire of the worst kind of fundamentalists. But none of that seems to matter to folks who don’t like our views about same—sex relations.”
Then you did end with this plea for people. You said you want to hear from people who worry about your views. Tell me, did people come back to you? Did you get that? Did that talking start?
MR. MOUW: Yeah. I got hundreds of responses. They divided into three groups. One was just some other Christian folks who happened to agree with me, people saying thank you for saying what you did. The vast majority was angry stuff. But I got some wonderfully poignant people who said, “OK, you’ve asked for it. Let me tell you my experience, you know, I was raised in a Southern Baptist home and, at a certain point, I realized that I was a lesbian.” The cruelty that they had experienced, it was very gratifying that some people really took me up on it.
MR. MOUW: I think a growing yet, sure, minority segment of the Christian subculture on the more conservative side of the spectrum of people who are really willing to think some new thoughts about how we deal with people, how we relate to people with whom we disagree. I think some of it has to do with just the telling of stories. I spoke to a group of more conservative people in a mainline denomination. And we were — you know, they know that I’m on the same side they are in terms of ordination questions and performing of same-sex civil unions and marriages and the like.
This couple came up to me afterward and thanked me and, you know, what’s happening to our denomination and the like. I finally just felt I had to say something to them. I said to them, “At the same time, we need to deal with this in new ways. I mean, there’s just a lot of folks out there who are really being hurt by the angrier of things.” All of a sudden, she started to cry. They looked at each other and it was like they gave each other permission and then they said to me, “Our son is gay. He recently came home with his partner and we just decided that we want to stay related to our son and it meant that we had to accept the two of them into our home. They actually agreed to go to church with us on Sunday. At the end of the service, they said, ‘We’re glad we were with you today.'” They said, “We realize that we need to think some new thoughts and do some new things on this.”
There are a lot of people out there right now who are just trying to figure out how they’re going to deal with this pastorally, in family relations, friendships. It’s not enough just to be standing on street corners holding up angry signs. It’s not enough. It’s even wrong to be…
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MR. MOUW: [laughter] …standing on street corners and holding up angry signs. Nor is it very helpful when people who disagree with way more conservative types simply constantly yell at us that we’re homophobes and fascists.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, one thing you wrote is “Being civil isn’t just trying to be respectful toward the people we know. It is also to care about our common life.” You know, that mean seem like a really simple sentence, but those words “our common life” which you italicize, jump out at me because that phrase has almost become foreign in the American cultural discourse.
MR. MOUW: Yeah. Isn’t it amazing? I mean, my Catholic scholar friends, some of them have written on the whole idea of the common good, you know. It’s a biblical idea. I mean, going back to that Jeremiah passage. You know, seek the welfare, the Shalom, of the city in which I’ve placed you. We ought to be — and then when we think of a common life, you know, that the fact that our kids are going to school together, that we are in the same parking lots, we are in the same supermarket aisles, we’re driving the same freeways, we’re attending the same churches and synagogues and mosques and all the rest. And there’s not just a political bond, but that beneath all of that, there’s something that binds human beings together that politics can’t create and it shouldn’t be able to destroy. That we really need to be thinking as people of faith how is it that our common life can flourish? Even if it isn’t going to be perfect and it isn’t going to fit all of our convictions, how can we have a flourishing common life together?
MS. TIPPETT: Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. His many books include Consulting the Faithful; and Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.
MS. TIPPETT: So, can we build a flourishing common life, even while holding deep disagreements on intimate, difficult issues? This is a core animating question of this Civil Conversations Project — ideas and tools for healing our fractured civic spaces. Find this conversation with Richard Mouw and other voices of wisdom, poetry and practicality at onbeing.org. They include the civil rights elder Vincent Harding. He describes how Martin Luther King’s vision might speak to our current domestic confusions and divisions. With a long lens on history, Vincent Harding also shares how lessons of that time can be powerfully useful for the young of today.
Use these shows and transcripts as resources for new conversations in your family and community, and tell us what happens. Find it all at onbeing.org. And, consider joining the rich community of dialogue on our Facebook page at facebook.com/onbeing. Or follow us on Twitter; our handle: @Beingtweets.
This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Our Web developer is Anne Breckbill.
Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.