Tim Keller on political humility – can conservative Christians win public trust?
In Generous Justice, Tim Keller describes what he thinks Christian engagement in the public square should look like:
I propose that Christians’ work for justice should be characterized by both humble cooperation and respectful provocation.
Christian believers have many temptations to be neither humble nor cooperative with others. Believers have many of the criteria for a righteous and just life laid out in the Bible. How easy it would be to disdain all non-Christian accounts of justice as being useless, just as many secular people dismiss religious belief.
However, Christians’ own theology should lead them to appreciate the competing views of justice that Sandel outlines [in his book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?] in our society because they know from the Bible that they are all partly right. (158)
As John Calvin often wrote, truth comes from God’s Spirit and should be accepted as such wherever it is found. Older Reformed theologians generally talked about this principle in terms of general revelation or natural law. Contemporary Reformed theologians often prefer the term common grace. Yet the principle is one that has been obscured by forty years of culture war – forty years of the breakdown of public trust. As one gay friend described to me in a refreshingly open and honest conversation about same-sex marriage, there is zero trust in much of the gay community towards conservative Christians right now. The same, obviously, is true in reverse.
In these circumstances we need to work all the harder to build trust and find common ground with our neighbors in the public square. Why? To show that we love them, that like our Father in heaven, we seek to do good to both the just and the unjust. One way of doing this is reminding ourselves that even those we regard as our most intractable foes – pro-choice activists, fervent secularists, etc. – have insights on life and politics from which we can learn, and which we need. As Keller writes,
The implication of James 1:17 is that God scatters gifts of wisdom, goodness, justice, and beauty across all the human race, regardless of people’s beliefs. Christians see all skill in science, scholarship, crafts, government, art, and jurisprudence as being from God. This grace is called common because it is given to all, not just those who have found salvation in Jesus Christ, yet this grace ‘provides the basis for Christians to cooperate with, and learn from, non-Christians,’ as theologian Richard Mouw points out. In short, the Bible warns us not to think that only Bible-believing people care about justice or are willing to sacrifice in order to bring it about. (160-161)
For those caught up in the culture wars, I might add that the Bible warns us not to think that only Republicans or conservatives care about justice and are willing to die for it.
The point is not that we should avoid disagreements or that we should compromise our fundamental commitments. Heaven forbid. The point, rather, is that we need to work hard to conduct our disagreements, to wage our political campaigns, and to convert our cultural opponents with a spirit of love and respect – to allure them rather than to defeat them. Such love and respect involves the recognition of truth wherever it appears alongside the sort of honesty that allows us to communicate our deepest concerns. It also requires, I believe, the acceptance of the particular political virtues on which our governmental system depends – equal regard, commitment to deliberative processes, and a willingness to compromise within the constraints of basic justice and morality.
There are certainly lines we will not be able to cross. We cannot support the state’s refusal to protect innocent life nor can we endorse its moral affirmation of same-sex marriage. But even in a society in which the state stubbornly pursues such policies, we can maintain the sort of social and political commitment to our fellow citizens that makes trust possible, whether by helping to carry the enormous burdens faced by single mothers or by seeking to alleviate the fears of tyranny among those committed to the sexual revolution, whether by supporting legal recognition (and its consequent privileges and benefits) of non-marital relationships or by demonstrating to gays and lesbians our unshakeable and sincere commitment to their equality under the law.
My own experience suggests that this approach is conducive of the sort of trust that enables us to communicate the love of Christ to those with whom we profoundly disagree, as well as to those who, sometimes with good reason, feel severely threatened by us. In short, it helps us actually to communicate the gospel such that the message received is the same as the message proclaimed. And that, after all, is our fundamental task.