Civility in Conflict

Can Christians learn how to disagree without being disagreeable? As we enter the political arena, can we learn to differ without trashing those who disagree with us? The answers to these questions may determine whether or not evangelical Christianity has a future.

Negative campaigning works for politicians. They don't have to get people to like them or to believe in their causes (if they have any) to get elected. All they have to do is get people to despise their opponents.

But what works for politicians won't work for Christians. We had better learn that as we engage in political dialogue. If we lose our civility and imitate the negative campaign tactics of politicians, we will end up turning off people to the church and to the gospel.

In spite of how obvious this is, more and more evangelical leaders are willing to take that risk. In their zeal to promote their concerns, especially on "family issues," many are increasingly ready to take the low road. Instead of addressing the issues they deem crucial, they try to win political battles by destroying the credibility of their opponents. They are ready to use slander, innuendo, and distortion if that serves their purpose.

Perhaps the most blatant example of trashing a person, rather than dealing with issues, was evidenced in the ways in which the evangelical community dealt with the then-president of the United States in the mid-1990s. Bill Clinton raised an array of issues that warranted serious responses from the Christian community. It was important for us to express ourselves in response to his policies on abortion, homosexuality, welfare reform, foreign policy, gun control, capital punishment, and prison reform.

But instead of going through the laborious process of researching and developing our positions on these controversial matters, many took a shortcut and simply attempted to destroy his credibility and reputation. We added to rumors of indiscretion on his part our own distortions, half-truths, and out-and-out lies. We figured that we wouldn't have to deal with his message if we could just destroy his public persona.

In 1995, I decided to raise publicly the issue as to whether or not Christians ought to be promoting the sale of The Clinton Chronicles. This was a videotape filled with wild accusations and half-truths about the then-president. Among other things, it charged Clinton with having political opponents murdered, running a drug ring out of Little Rock, and being a drug addict himself.

Whether it would be in two years or six years, we knew at some point Bill Clinton would not be president. But we had to ask ourselves, "What did the trashing of the president do to us?" In attacking his character, did we in the church diminish our own?

Jesus tells us that anyone who calls a brother or sister "fool" is "in danger of hell fire" (Matthew 5:22). What that means is that to engage in character assassination is to take away from someone something that is so precious that we are guilty of a capital crime.

Can Christians engage in the discussion on abortion without pro-choice people calling pro-life people "fascists," and pro-life people calling pro-choice people "murderers"? Is it possible for Christians to discuss homosexuality without conservatives calling their opponents "perverts," and liberals labeling those who differ from them as "hatemongers"? Will the name calling ever stop? And if it doesn't, will we end up being done in by our own rhetoric?

In James 3:6 we read, "The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell." James goes on to warn us that if we cannot control our tongues, our very selves will be destroyed.

Tony Campolo was professor of sociology at Eastern College near Philadelphia and the author, most recently, of Carpe Diem (Word Publishing, 1994), when this article appeared.

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