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The Possibility of Persuasion in a Fragmented Age

April 16th, 2013 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Anne Snyder has a long column on persuasion over at Comment that is worth considering closely, especially in light of recent posts about gay marriage.  She's interested in moving beyond the pablum of "civility" for a more substantive, thoroughly Christian approach to talking with each other.  As she puts it:

[Christians'] abiding interest must be in the good of individuals created in the same image that we were, in improving the systems in which they live, in granting the tools for their navigation. This requires an insatiable curiosity about the human subjects at the mercy of any debate's winner, and the energy to keep that curiosity fed and updated. It requires empirical knowledge of the issues and the options, not just folksy winks sugar-coating ideologically driven generalizations. It requires savvy marketing, when marketing draws on beauty and empathy. And it requires a hospitable, humble posture, one that welcomes potentially uncomfortable revelations of counter-evidence and logic, one that is even willing, on some issues, to be persuaded.

This sort of thoroughly Christian approach leads, Snyder contends, to emphasizing the interlocking concerns of understanding particular, granular contexts and hospitality.  Throughout her piece is also the subcurrent that Christians primary posture should increasingly be one of listening and receiving, rather than giving and speaking. Like I said, the whole thing deserves a read.

The bit that really grabbed me, though, was her suggestion that older Christians have been afflicted by a weary resignation:

Some of the insular arrogance, I think, is a defensive mechanism triggered by feelings of victimization, though most factions would never admit this. Culturally conservative Christians, for instance, have lived for years feeling besieged by a social consensus that undercuts a moral framework that they by creed cannot dilute. Despite political recourse during the ascendancy of the religious right, the overarching sentiment among older Christians is one of abandonment and weary resignation. "The culture left us sometime in the last sixty years and now shoves everything we oppose down our throats," they all but say. "Why should we not retreat for some peace?"

I should note that the form of the essay doesn't lend itself to footnotes or expansion. I wrote a piece for the last issue, so I know that all too well. But I do wonder who she has in mind here.  There is doubtlessly a weary set out there, but it seems if anything the older crowd of "culturally conservative Christians" has kept up the sorta-good fight, while their children are mostly weary of hearing about it (though for different reasons, I suspect, than that the culture has proved hostile).

Christian Right Christian Right (Photo credit: lukexmartin)

Still, there's no doubt that the sense of victimization and defensiveness has often fueled conservative rhetoric and dispositions.  And it wouldn't surprise me at all if Anne's point proves right:  ressentiment can only take us so far, it seems, and after that the only possibility is disillusionment--if not by those who were fueled by it, then by their children.

Regardless of the means they pursue, Christians have an obligation not to let go of the possibility of persuasion.  Hope admits of no less and while hope is primarily our orientation toward the redemptive work of Christ it also has a political dimension.  If we functionally relinquish our commitment to our neighbors' life as those made in the image of God on account of their recalcitrance, we (ironically) shut ourselves off from the grounds on which persuasion is possible.  The only path forward for conservative Christians is to relearn the tools Anne is commending and to be more savvy in how we interact with our neighbors.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.