Tim Keller talks about the Church’s role in promoting civility

I just finished the April 24th, Easter episode of This Week, where Christianne Amanpour made a point to ask several of her guests about civility and changing the tone in Washington.  She seemed eager to revive a topic that has appeared to lose steam since the January attack on Gabrielle Giffords.

From the transcript:

AMANPOUR: Welcome back. One of the big issues right now is the state of public discourse; civic discourse in this country. We're going to continue our roundtable on this issue….What can religious leaders – what can you do for instance to change the tone of debate. Everybody spoke a lot about it in January after that tragic attack on Gabrielle Giffords. And suddenly, poof – gone. What should we be doing to bring the discourse together?

The most relevant parts were provided by Pastor Tim Keller, who founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church that has become quite popular in New York City and who has written about civility in the past.  Again, from the transcript:

AMANPOUR: You talk about polarization between left and right. It does seem to be extreme, at the moment, in the United States politically, socially. Is there any hope that that can change, do you think?

KELLER: It will start if we stop demonizing each other. I — my — my — my elderly mother once said that up until about 15 years ago, if you voted for a different person for president and the person you voted against became president, you still considered him your president. He said — she said 15 years ago, that changed, that if you voted against that guy and he became president, you actually act as if he's illegitimate. And I'm not sure that is a big social and cultural difference. We — and it really means the other side isn't really just wrong, they're kind of evil. And that's pretty bad.

AMANPOUR: I have to say that many would say the church plays into this highly acrimonious debate — public debate, not all church, but certainly some parts of the church. What should the church be doing different?

KELLER: At the very least, we should be creating individuals who know how to talk civilly. The gospel should create people who say, I'm loved by God but I'm — I'm a sinner. So there — there should be a certain humility and graciousness about the way in which you talk to everybody. As an institution, most of the churches have lost a lot of credibility. So I think my job is to create individuals who can participate in civil discourse.

The roundtable discussion at the end of the episode has more discussion of civility and here is a link where you can watch the whole episode, if you are interested.  Keller's definition of civility, articulated in this article, converges with the working definition we use here, where civility is defined not as agreement, but rather by how you disagree.  He talks about showing respect for the persons who one disagrees with (caritas), having humility, and not attributing opinions to opponents that they don't personally own.   It sounds like a lot of Keller's success is rooted in bridging this divide between the dogmatism of the very religious and the very non-religious as incivility on one side promotes incivility on the other side.  In social psychology terms, Redeemer provides a place where group boundaries between the religious and non-religious are set aside as the church was specifically meant to be "open to people who were seeking answers regarding their faith, and where they felt secure in bringing their friends who were skeptical about matters of faith."  I look forward to visiting Redeemer next time I'm in New York.

– Ravi Iyer