Our nation’s political discourse has become increasingly toxic in the past two decades. Consider the uncivil and even caustic demeanor of many radio show hosts, cable TV pundits, and opinion writers. Think about the degrading and demeaning language used in the comment strings of media sites, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages.

Consider the bipartisan nature of the incivility. Many on both right and left perceive the politically “other” as morally reprehensible, persons in whom no good can be found. Then they leverage that assessment to justify degrading, demeaning, and misrepresenting those persons. Finally, consider that we—evangelical Christians—often engage in political discourse in ways that reflect the broader culture rather than the gospel.

Evangelical Christians often engage in political discourse in ways that reflect the broader culture rather than the gospel.

Despite the temptation to answer antagonistic political opponents according to the same measure of their willingness to malign and misrepresent us, as gospel-changed people we must conduct ourselves in the more excellent way of love to which Paul calls us (1 Cor. 12:31). In pursuit of helping Christians consider this more excellent way of engaging the public square, we propose three diagnostic questions to help us identify the primary issues that underlie our responses.

Perhaps these three questions will help us provide a more compelling defense for our positions and remind us that such engagements are not merely defenses of the gospel and its implications, but also opportunities to embody and share it.

Primary Lens: Political Preference or Gospel Concern?

One of my (Matt’s) first teaching assignments was a class called Urban Missiology. The class spent significant time discussing the multiethnic makeup of most large North American cities. During one class I argued that, of all society’s institutions, the church is best equipped to guide racial conciliation because Christians operate from a conviction of essential human unity. Clearly agitated, one student raised his hand and accused me of promoting leftist propaganda.

This tendency to see contested public-policy issues—such as those concerning immigration, religious liberty, or economics—through the lens of modern political ideologies and party platforms before seeing them through the lens of the gospel is problematic. This proclivity to politicize every social issue is especially evident on social-media platforms such as Twitter, where Christians who actively confront certain injustices are accused of being in uniformity with a given political party.

Such deference to political categories demonstrates that we have ceded our ethical concerns to the artificial binaries imposed by America’s two dominant political parties. In light of this unfortunate penchant, therefore, it is incumbent on Christians to ask themselves a salient question: “Am I more concerned to argue this position as a gospel-changed person, or as a proponent of a given modern political ideology or party platform?”

Primary Audience: Strawman Opponents or Image Bearers?

A second question that needs to precede our engagement with the politically other is, “Am I speaking to this person in a way that reflects my conviction that he or she is made in the image of God?” Too often our political discourse dehumanizes or demonizes our opponents by impugning their motives, or unfairly categorizing and then dismissing them with labels such as
“ethno-nationalist” or “Marxist.”

This type of engagement is judgmental and unfair, and rarely allows for clear communication or persuasion in regard to contested ideas. Instead, these ad hominem attacks are the adult equivalent of a grade-school name-calling. Certainly in the political sphere there are ideas that need to be laid bare and exposed as corrupt and immoral. But we—as gospel-changed people—should be careful not to treat the proponents of these ideas as manifestly bad-willed or stupid.

Indeed, even if their ideas are antithetical to the gospel, we can’t engage politically “other” persons in ways that are less than Christlike without maligning the gospel we stand for. Even if your opponents are defeated by public opinion, you’ve lost any opportunity to witness to them by attacking or purposefully humiliating them.

Primary Message: Gospel Demand or Gospel Proclamation?

And finally, in a pluralistic nation, are we asking for room in the public square to argue for the beauty of the gospel, or are we demanding that all implications of the gospel be legislated for us so that our nation will conform to the standards of the New Jerusalem? Some biblically revealed truths are also naturally revealed and applicable to all of society, while other such truths are not. While the pro-life cause, for example, certainly applies to all of society (rather than merely to Christians), the command to honor the Lord’s Day shouldn’t be legislated for everyone.

Consider the example of religious freedom. While as Christians we don’t hold the same doctrinal convictions as Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus, we should be willing to share the gospel—and the truth that the gospel is freely given and freely received—in how we stand up for religious liberty, rather than merely demanding our freedom.

Indeed, God intends for the gospel to transform us so that we’re not merely concerned with our own well-being, but also with the well-being of others. By linking arms with non-Christians in support of religious freedom for all, we show the others-focused attitude that should correspond with our proclamation of gospel grace. Though these are political discussions, they can easily turn into evangelistically fruitful relationships as we seek the good of our neighbors and have opportunity to give a word of defense for the hope that is within.

Truth without grace makes us political bullies and jerks. Grace without truth makes us political non-entities and wimps.

In light of the degraded nature of our nation’s public discourse, therefore, evangelical Christians must model the “more excellent way” to which Paul refers (1 Cor. 12:31). This more excellent way goes beyond the mere intellectual evaluation of political ideologies and policies. It also includes the practice of convictional civility.

Instead of degrading the people on the other side of the political aisle by demonizing them, questioning their motives, and caricaturing their arguments, the Bible instructs us to speak the truth in a way that communicates Christian concern and respect. We should represent our debate partners accurately, not misrepresent them. We should recognize the good in their lives and their arguments, not glorify ourselves and demonize them. In other words, we must cultivate a public demeanor that is worthy of the Lord whose name we carry (2 Cor. 4:10).

If the gospel message is true—and if it truly transforms—then gospel-minded Christians should expect to be radically different in every arena. As those convinced of the gospel’s truth, it is right and proper for us to defend it in public. However, the manner in which we defend it can either defraud or reflect its truth. Truth without grace makes us political bullies and jerks. Grace without truth makes us political non-entities and wimps.

But Jesus’s powerful combination of truth and grace exemplifies for us the more excellent way of convictional civility. With confidence, then, we must stand firm in our convictions—but do so winsomely in ways that honor the Christ whose gospel we cherish.