“Without debate, without criticism no administration and no country can succeed and no republic can survive.” ― John F. Kennedy

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” 1 Peter 2:12

To maintain a free society, there has to be an open and public exchange of ideas. For the Christian, living as exiles in the world (1 Peter 1:1), who are born again to a living hope (1 Peter 1:3), called as a people to know God and make him known (1 Peter 2:9-10), the way we engage in public debate is as important as the debate itself. We are playing the long game.

Political debate has two aspects to it: 1) Argument and 2) Attitude. It is a matter of substance and delivery. Argument is the content of my ideas. Attitude is the way I present them: my tone, demeanor, and the way I treat those with whom I debate.

It is a matter of substance and delivery. Argument is the content of my ideas. Attitude is the way I present them: my tone, demeanor, and the way I treat those with whom I debate. Click To Tweet

Argument

You don’t have an argument if you don’t have an idea (this may be news for some of you). You don’t form an idea without friction. The tension of other ideas pressing on your own unique thoughts, opinions, passions, and observations births new ideas. When it comes to engaging in political debate, you only enter the arena if you have a sense that someone else’s idea is more wrong than your own. As a matter of course, you enter that arena with a “What if you’re wrong?” argument. Your argument is built on a “What if you’re wrong?” foundation. No one likes to hear “What if you’re wrong?” but I think if we look at this dispassionately, we can recognize that this is a good thing. We should all be able to critically think and suggest our own views, challenging each other’s positions. That is the heartbeat of living in a free republic, and that’s why we hold the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution closely.

Politics is a full contact sport with no actual referees. There are many people who perceive themselves referees in the arena of public debate, but we easily grow tired of the false humility and smug sanctimony that it takes to wear a striped shirt on Twitter. Politics, at its heart, is a power struggle. Good ideas on their own don’t always win. Some may say they hardly ever win. The way they are presented (marketed, really) is at least as important as the ideas themselves. On the political battlefield populated by sinners, anything goes. Selling well is important, but so is making sure the other guy can’t or won’t. It’s a war of attrition, and though we talk about splitting the baby, splitting the atom can be far more effective.

Attitude

Attitude is not the same as argument. While political argument is built on a “What if you’re wrong?” platform, attitude has a choice. It is possible for attitude to diverge from argument, even if it not expedient. If you channel your argument through your attitude, your attitude will also rest on a “What if you’re wrong?” foundation. This is the most efficient way to argue in the political arena. Your idea says, “What if you’re wrong?” and so does your tone. If you’re witty, and especially if you have good ideas, you will win more than you lose if you can get good at this. My only warning would be that at the end of the day you may also lose your soul.

Many years ago, one of my favorite preachers—his name is Sam—preached a sermon on 1 Peter 2, the passage that contains the verse above. I’ll never forget his thesis. “When in Rome, don’t live like a Roman.” His point was that as Christians we can (and indeed should) live differently than the culture around us. Because we have been set free from our sin, we don’t have to be self-righteous. Because Jesus paid our debt, we don’t have to self-justify. We are so amazingly free that we can be kind. We can honor others without losing anything.

The most unfruitful debates I have ever been a part of are the ones where a “What if you’re wrong?!” argument is teemed with a “What if you’re wrong?!” tone and attitude. The older I get, the more I long to engage the public debate without losing my soul. This requires that my attitude rests on a different foundation than my argument.

I believe the way to argue politics as a Christian is to present a “What if you’re wrong?” argument with a “What if I’m wrong?” attitude. This means sharp ideas that cut like a knife presented with sincere humility that heals like a balm.

If you’re looking for quick knockouts and a shot at the title, this is probably not the best method. Kindness doesn’t usually win political arguments. A digital roundhouse to the face is much more effective than the willingness to listen to ideas you don’t share. Honor isn’t as effective of a quick counter punch as character assassination or misinformation. But I have a strong feeling it will win the long game. In a culture that has become so obsessed with the rhetoric of virtue, I think when Christians legitimately exhibit the real thing in the public arena God will get a lot of glory in the end.