Respect is Not Optional
How Christians Should Approach Our Ideological Opponents
It would be hard to find someone more conservative than Cal Thomas. Once an architect of the Moral Majority, Thomas has been a longtime pundit and a syndicated columnist.
It would also be harder to find someone more liberal than Bob Beckel. Bob campaigned for Al Gore and was a left-wing fixture on cable news. Beckel and Thomas worked together for years at Fox News and, surprisingly, became close friends. When Beckel recently passed away, Thomas wrote this tribute to his friendship:
We traveled together, ate together, and got to know each other and our respective “stories” in ways that rarely happen in Washington these days. At the end of our presentation, I would say that I rejected the notion that Bob was on “the other side.” Both of our fathers were in World War II. They weren’t fighting for or against Franklin Roosevelt, but to preserve an ideal. America has always been an idea in search of the ideal. If we want to put someone on the other side, make them external enemies like the Ayatollah in Iran, or the leadership in China and Russia. Let’s not destroy each other. We are fellow Americans.
Bob would then get up and say how I had saved his life and introduced him to God and other nice things. We embraced, prompting wild cheers from the audience. People would say, “Why can’t we see more of this in Washington?” It helped that neither of us were interested in running for office, which would mean having to raise money and say things to satisfy various interest groups.
At his memorial service this week there will be Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. It will be a moment of common ground. Bob was my closest and dearest friend. His hope and mine is that our friendship will serve as an example to others of what can be and must be if we are to survive as a nation.1“Beckel and Me: An Odd Couple | Cal Thomas,” News-Herald (blog), March 6, 2022, https://www.news-herald.com/2022/03/06/beckel-and-me-an-odd-couple-cal-thomas.
Is it possible to have friendships like this, with people who don’t share your politics? It seems increasingly difficult in this polarized age. And yet Thomas and Beckel modeled something refreshing and, I dare say, biblical. So how should Christians approach people with whom they disagree ideologically?
This isn’t exhaustive, but I’d like to offer four principles of engagement:
1. Don’t be afraid of substantive disagreement
Following Christ in this age or in any age will require us to hold beliefs that are at odds, at some point, with the prevailing culture. This doesn’t mean we’ve done something wrong. Instead, it means that what Jesus said to his disciples about the controversial way of the cross is true. Christians need courage in this age to boldly speak the truth. What the Scriptures say, for instance, about the sanctity of human life, sexual ethics, or care for the immigrant is unpopular in many places.
Sometimes, in our well-meaning attempts toward civility, we can be tempted to soften some of the edges of Scripture. We shouldn’t do that. It’s not loving to speak untruth. So to be a Christian in the world will mean, at some points, we will have disagreements with those around us as we remain faithful to God’s Word.
2. Understand that Christians can be both courageous and civil
While our biblical convictions will bring us to a place of disagreement with many, we should understand that the Bible doesn’t just care about the substance of what we believe and declare, but how we say it. The Apostle Peter, no stranger to conflict, who wasn’t afraid to go to jail for his faith, nevertheless, instructs believers to “have an answer for every man for the hope that lies within you, but do it with gentleness and kindness” (1 Peter 3:15).
Peter is writing this to an early church that is facing increasing marginalization and persecution. Christians were losing jobs, losing friendships, losing cultural influence, all because they had the audacity to declare that Christ, and not Caesar, was king.
And yet he urges the people of God to both stand firm on the truth of the gospel and to treat those who disagree with them with gentleness and kindness. The rightness of their worldview didn’t excuse rhetorical sins. There are no exceptions in the New Testament for not growing in the fruit of the Spirit.
3. Recognize the dignity of those with whom we disagree
The Apostle James also has a word for the way we engage arguments. To the early church, he wrote, “With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness (James 3:9).” James is warning against speech that assaults the humanity of God’s image-bearers. Why should we respect our ideological opponents and treat them with kindness even as we disagree? Because they were made in the image of God.
Too often we are tempted to reduce someone’s whole existence down to that bad argument they make or that bad opinion, but they are whole people, made in the image of God. The opinion they hold, that belief system that anchors them is only one part of who they are.
This is where Christians can be unique as battles rage in the public square. We can show the world a distinctly Christian way of speaking, that even as we make forceful arguments, we can do it with a kind of heavenly grace, where those who hear us may not agree, but know that we respect their humanity and dignity.
4. Engage arguments and resist caricatures
Tim Keller, in his book, Center Church, writes:2“Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City – Kindle Edition by Keller, Timothy. Religion & Spirituality Kindle EBooks @ Amazon.Com.,” 376–80, accessed April 8, 2022, https://www.amazon.com/Center-Church-Balanced-Gospel-Centered-Ministry-ebook/dp/B005JSGB5Q.
Do all the work necessary until you can articulate the views of your opponent with such strength and clarity that he or she could say, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.” Then, and only then, will your polemics have integrity and actually have the possibility of being persuasive.
The temptation is to caricature the views of those we disagree with, in order to get a rise out of an audience sympathetic to our own views. So much of our public debates are not designed to persuade the unpersuadable, but signal to our own constituency that we are sufficiently mad at the other side. But if we really desire to engage, to persuade, to make arguments that those who are on the fence might believe, we need to engage arguments our ideological opponents are actually making, not straw men we knock down for sport. This is what Paul is getting at in 2 Corinthians:
Since the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments and every proud thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4-6).
We engage arguments with the truth of Scripture, in the power of the Spirit, and with genuine love for those who disagree. I want to end with this quote, from the man whose name is affixed to the center I lead, about someone on the other side of the political aisle. After her passing, former ERLC president, Richard Land, wrote this about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright:3Richard D. Land and Christian Post Executive Editor, “An Evangelical’s Appreciation of Madeleine Albright,” The Christian Post, March 29, 2022, https://www.christianpost.com/voices/an-evangelicals-appreciation-of-madeleine-albright.html.
Madeleine Albright’s life provides a truly inspiring story of the triumph of the human spirit. While, as you would imagine, Madeleine and I had significant disagreements on many important issues, I always loved and appreciated Secretary Albright’s deep and abiding love for America—her adopted country.
The example of Land honoring Albright, despite very real ideological differences, is one we should seek to emulate, especially in our outrage culture. For Christians, showing respect to our fellow image-bearers is not an option. As we entrust ourselves, and this polarized age, to our sovereign Father, we don’t need more hostility, which only leads to more division. We need more fruit of the Spirit as we seek to speak the truth in love and set our hopes on the kingdom that cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28).
- 1“Beckel and Me: An Odd Couple | Cal Thomas,” News-Herald (blog), March 6, 2022, https://www.news-herald.com/2022/03/06/beckel-and-me-an-odd-couple-cal-thomas.
- 2“Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City – Kindle Edition by Keller, Timothy. Religion & Spirituality Kindle EBooks @ Amazon.Com.,” 376–80, accessed April 8, 2022, https://www.amazon.com/Center-Church-Balanced-Gospel-Centered-Ministry-ebook/dp/B005JSGB5Q.
- 3Richard D. Land and Christian Post Executive Editor, “An Evangelical’s Appreciation of Madeleine Albright,” The Christian Post, March 29, 2022, https://www.christianpost.com/voices/an-evangelicals-appreciation-of-madeleine-albright.html.