Christians, Politics, & Ethical Speech

 

by Thomas Scott Caulley

When we were kids, my brothers and I argued a lot. Inevitably this degenerated into name-calling: “You dirt wad!” someone would yell. “Shut up, idiot,” was the likely response. 

Our mother was tireless in her efforts to train such language out of our vocabulary. She quoted Scriptures to us. “Do unto others” and “Each counting others better than himself” were just the beginning of her repertoire, and were among the many Bible verses we boys memorized under Mom’s watchful tutelage. To this day, many Bible passages come to mind in outdated English, even though I have not used the old translations regularly since then, more than 40 years ago.

Mom was right: Christians ideally don’t talk that way. It is a mark of Christian maturity that we learn not to mistreat others, either verbally or any other way. We kids heard many recitations of Jesus’ admonition not to say to your brother “Raca.” Verbal abuse pronounces judgment on the other, the attacker setting himself up as judge, jury, and executioner. Judgment and condemnation, however, belong to God alone.

 

PERSONAL ATTACK

In my freshman logic class we learned to recognize several logical fallacies. One of them was called “you’re another,” the practice of obfuscation by personal attack—that is, muddling up an argument and steering the subject away from the real point at hand by attacking an opponent’s character instead of engaging his argument. It is, in short, name-calling. But surely no reasonable person—and certainly no Christian—would stoop to name-calling and obfuscation to avoid serious debate. Or would they?

Sadly, Christians can be verbally abusive just like anyone else. The name-calling is often masked by an allegedly Christian agenda, but it is abuse all the same. How often do Christians use the dreaded “L” word as a slur—“Liberal!”? Once a positive term, liberal now pretty much means “infidel,” “traitor,” and “pariah,” all rolled into one zinger.

Similarly, in some Christian circles “Democrat!” is the equivalent of “Liberal!” Never mind that many Democrats are not liberals. Political liberal, fiscal liberal, theological liberal—there appears to be no distinction in the minds of those whose purpose is slander.

A generation ago, “Commie!” was often the slur hurled at an opponent. Now “Socialist!” is the preferred verbal attack against people with whom the speaker disagrees. Again, with little concern for accuracy, “Socialist!” seems to mean about the same thing as “Liberal!” Such labeling concentrates on stereotypes, not factual accuracy.

Labels not only misdirect, they also defame. Mirroring a proven propaganda tactic, the damning label is repeated, over and over, until it sticks and the victim is branded an outcast. Using labels—name-calling—works precisely because it scuttles discussion about honest disagreements and sabotages constructive debate over the issues. Such language is intended to inflame, confuse, and polarize. Name-calling is immature and irresponsible, but it is standard procedure in the political arena.

It is disappointing that otherwise well-meaning people stoop to this level of public discourse. The latest example is the controversy over health care reform. Some opponents of it have been guilty of spreading misinformation, fearmongering, shouting down the opposition, and even threatening violence. Small wonder there have been actual outbursts of violence. All of this confusion is designed to prevent meaningful debate among well-intentioned people who disagree. There is nothing democratic about such tactics, and certainly nothing Christian.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of these events is that many conservative Christians are willing pawns in this high-stakes game. Those they follow—political pundits and talk-show hosts—pay only lip service to Christian values while showing little respect for their followers’ ability to make informed decisions, and even less for their opponents’ right to be heard. Whatever their goals, the effect is to drive a wedge between Americans and further polarize an already seriously divided public.

 

ENDS AND MEANS

In my logic class we also learned that “the ends do not justify the means.” Regrettably, that truth was scrapped long ago by most Americans, including many Christians. Instead, good people have swallowed the locker room pep-talk reasoning that prevails in our society: “Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing!” Win by any means, at any cost. The only sin in cheating is getting caught. Unethical behavior is justified because it works.

As discouraging as this self-serving attitude is in sports—witness the numerous recent scandals involving performance-enhancing drugs—it is tragic when applied to other areas of life. But, sadly, justifying faulty ethics happens throughout our society—in business as well as politics. We need look no further for examples of this mentality than the recent practices of the financial community that skirted regulations and perpetrated a fraud on our country so vast that it brought the economy to its knees and sparked a global recession. No Cold War communist or socialist stratagem ever succeeded in harming us as much as our own capitalist greed.

How can the world tell Christians from non-Christians? Too often it is impossible to distinguish based on their behavior. By stooping to un-Christian behavior, we are in danger of becoming what we set out to change. Where is Jesus’ good news to the poor and outcast in this parody of the gospel?

 

FAITH AND POLITICS

Nowadays, some conservative Christians are willing to define their faith by their politics. For example, the tendency is illustrated by a well-known Christian college, identified not only by its statement of faith, but by a “strong commitment to political conservatism, total rejection of socialism, and firm support for America’s economic system of free enterprise.”1 

But Christianity must not be confused with a political or economic system. Such confusion makes Christianity a paltry thing, subject to the caprice of political fortune, trapped in a localized moment in history that has not existed very long, and in the larger scheme of things, likely will not last. A domesticated Christianity abdicates its prophetic call to confront the sins of the society to which it has sold its birthright in order to become just another civic institution.

Another danger of this caricature of Christian faith is that it threatens to turn its adherents into a cult group, without ties to historic Christianity. By focusing so intently on modern American politics and economics, this view de facto excludes most Christians in the world, not to mention those throughout the church’s history. Historic Christian faith cannot be forced into such a small and insignificant box.

One wonders what the first Christians would have thought of this identification of Christianity with modern political and economic institutions. The New Testament bears witness to the fact that Christian faith is above human systems, existing not because of them, but alongside of, even in spite of them.

Those early believers knew what it meant to be treated as outcasts, even criminals, by the prevailing political powers. Early Christians understood Jesus’ admonition not to swear (Matthew 5:37: “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’”) to have clear political ramifications—Christians do not swear the oath to Caesar as if he were divine.2 Just as the Jews of the exile came to understand their faith in terms no longer directly tied to the temple or the promised land, the early Christians in spiritual “exile” learned to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7, New American Standard Bible) while at the same time keeping in perspective the role of government: give honor to the king as appropriate, but reserve your reverence for God alone (1 Peter 2:17, author paraphrase). As those believers knew, we must not “render unto Caesar” the devotion that belongs to God.

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1Liberty University, “Liberty Distinctives” 4, www.libertyu.com.

2For example, see Apology of Phileas 5.8-9, in H. Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 334, 335.


 

 

 

Thomas Scott Caulley is director of the Institute for the Study of Christian Origins, Tübingen, Germany.


 

 

 

 

Some Things Christians Should Consider . . .  

How can Christian citizens face the thorny issues of our modern political scene? Seeking to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” let us consider the following:

• The ends do not justify the means; sin is sin. Christians should never need to be reminded to occupy the moral high ground in all aspects of life.

• “Winning” isn’t the only thing. Winning by any means, at any cost, sacrifices one’s integrity in favor of perceived short-term gains. This attitude does immeasurable harm to the church and the whole of society.

• Mature Christians practice ethical speech. Name-calling and shouting down one’s opponent might be effective political tactics, but they are evil; they torpedo the democratic process and turn us into the “bad guys.” Jesus said these actions are liable to judgment. As with all these behaviors, we will reap what we sow.

• Responsible citizens do their homework. Being Christian mandates that we are good citizens. That means we make the effort to understand the issues, including our opponents’ point of view. Consult several sources that don’t necessarily agree with each other, or with you. Beware the radio and TV talk shows that poison the mind with half-truths and character assassination. Better yet, switch off the set.

• “Here we have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14, Revised Standard Version). While we “seek the welfare” of the society in which we live, we acknowledge our spiritual exile. Take the long view, and don’t confuse Christian faith with a country, a political party, or an economic system. Rather, live in solidarity with all believers whatever their nationality, political system, or era of history.

 

• Finally, hold your leaders accountable. Demand that your elected leaders tell the truth; when they don’t, elect better leaders. Demand that those representatives engage in honest debate on real issues, not in name-calling and fearmongering, or other abuses. Yes, Mom was right. And trust me—you don’t want to talk back to my mother!

—Thomas Scott Caulley

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