The August 8 issue of U.S. News & World Report featured a story covering the ongoing debate over religious voices in the public square. Titled "Divided, We Stand," it featured comments from both sides of the divide, with conservative voices defending the role of faith in public policy and liberal voices arguing for the primacy of secular reason.
Not surprisingly, both sides appeared firm, entrenched and determined to have their way. The reporter almost seemed to be saying that it was impossible to have a real conversation about the issue because the sides are so firmly opposed.
But at the end of the article, the reporter pointed to a model of public speech that is firm, convincing and capable of bridging the divide—Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Richard praised evangelicals for speaking out on public matters, but he also warned us to be careful not to hurt our cause by pushing too far. The article concluded by extending Richard's advice to all readers: "Folks on both sides of the divide might profitably take a cue from that caution."
As a friend and colleague of Richard's, I am thrilled to see him profiled as a model of strong and effective public speech. He understands that in order for our efforts in the public realm to be effective, we have to be deliberate. We have to be careful. We have to think clearly about the outcomes of our speech and actions. Be strong, he is saying, but be smart about it.
As the U.S. News & World Report story explains, most of the major issues facing Americans today involve religious issues in some shape or fashion. Whether we're defending the dignity of all human life, protecting the sanctity of traditional marriage, advocating stewardship of God's creation, or spreading democratic ideals, religious perspectives are at the center of today's pressing concerns.
People of faith cannot afford to be silent, because these issues hinge on our deepest core values. Indeed, to think about values is to think about public policy. So we must speak out, but we must do it in a way that causes people to actually listen. Think of Martin Luther King Jr., who was the cause of great change in America and helped that change occur because he knew how to communicate in the public realm.
While sitting in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, where he had been incarcerated for demonstrating against segregation, King opened the paper one day to see a letter signed by several local clergymen. They complained about the demonstrations, specifically upset that "outsiders" like King had come into Birmingham to fight what they felt was a local problem.
King responded with a letter of his own that he began in the margins of that newspaper. He defended his actions and position not with inflammatory rhetoric, but with an intelligent, gracious—but still firm—tone. Dr. King acknowledged that the pastors' concerns were "sincerely set forth" but explained why their position was unfounded.
With strength and humility, he defended his right to come into Birmingham to demonstrate for civil rights. "Just as the apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town," he wrote.
King defended his position, but he did so in a way that made his hearers really pay attention. He did not just yell back at them, trading blow for blow. He made sense. And, as we know, he won the argument. He changed his country.
Too often, both sides of our divided country engage public issues by developing bully pulpits. One spokesperson will use words as knives, and the other side will respond with rhetoric that is equally inflammatory. The result is stagnation, immobility and a public that loses hope in progress. Too often, it looks as if gaining real ground in the cause (helping the poor, protecting life, spreading civil liberties) is secondary to personal bias.
I'm not saying that we should seek solidarity. Unity is helpful, but it is not more important than our core values. I'm saying we should be strong but also strategic. Simply put, we need to think clearly about how we communicate our values in public. We need to communicate so that people will actually listen, grapple with our ideas and be challenged to see things differently.
Ted Haggard pastors New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the author of many books and is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.