Contending for cherished ideals in the American culture has never been free of vitriol, beginning with the 18th Century Founding Fathers to a 21st Century deeply partisan and divided electorate. On the healthy side of debate the father of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, pressed for, and secured, the presence of an opposition party, believing that vigorous debate over important ideas would be the best approach to securing an ordered liberty for all. At Williamson College we contend that a liberal arts education, especially from a Christian worldview, helps one understand, not only themselves but others as well. This is critically important in Williamson County, Tennessee, where we face several complex issues in a rapidly growing community.
Tragically, we’re experiencing the resurrection of free speech violations, both in a regulatory environment as well as the broader culture. As liberal commentator Kirsten Powers states in her recent book, The Silencing, “Any person who dissents from the illiberal left’s settled dogma is viewed as an enemy to be delegitimized, demonized, and dismissed. Once political and ideological opponents are viewed through the lens of a ‘take no prisoners’ mentality then no type of character assassination is off limits” (2015, p. 21).
Neither are conservatives without sin when it comes to wielding a loud and obnoxious megaphone. It’s not unusual to hear talk-show hosts denigrating individuals and creating sensational stories out of context. Much news (on the right and left) has become entertainment. And, a naive listening audience is ready to imbibe.
Our country, and community, would do well, at this juncture, to rehearse some principles in the art of civil discourse. This is not an appeal for silence or passive and sugary debate. On the contrary, in the spirit of the first amendment, everyone should have the freedom to contend for their ideas in the public sphere and do so vigorously. The freedom to argue and debate those beliefs is an enduring pillar of this nation’s distinctive place in the world.
A person of faith might start with 1 Peter 2:17, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor” (HCSB). Many Bible scholars believe Peter was writing this when Nero was the Roman emperor, one of the greatest persecutors of Christians in history. Regarding discourse with others, Peter also advises “Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. However, do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:15-16, HCSB).
Hmm. Honor. Gentleness. Respect. Probably a good starting point for genuine civil discourse.
Ed Smith, Ph.D., is President of Williamson College, a liberal arts Christian college located in Williamson County, Franklin, Tennessee.
Powers, K. (2015). The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing.