In a culture that define itself by conformity to one of two political parties and views those who hold differing views as the enemy, how can we even talk to each other, much less be in church together? (Illustration Credit: Timothy R. Butler)

We Can't Stand Discussion

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 12:31 PM

Who would have thought a National Review alum who has been a long-time Evangelical voice on politics, known for arguing for civility, would be a controversial choice to appear on a panel about politics in a conservative, Evangelical denomination? A few years ago, that’d have seemed absurd. Oh, for a few years ago.

I am talking about David French, former member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and current conservative New York Times columnist. French may not be exactly the same on every point as he was in his National Review days, but by any measure someone might have looked at a decade ago, his membership on a panel in the denomination he had previously attended would have been non-news.

Indeed, French may have nuanced his views for a variety of reasons, including his family facing vile racism against his adopted daughter from all sorts of realms — including his church. His wife speaking out on that racism present at their church, was an unforgivable sin to some. But, even before that he had been vilified, despite his works today sounding very much like what would have graced National Review a decade ago.

French, like my good friend and present OFB colleague Dennis E. Powell, who also previously contributed to National Review, has stayed firm while the cultural conversation has changed dramatically. Look carefully, and it is the publications who have changed.

And so too the people of the Church in America, sadly.

I’ve never had the privilege to speak with French, but he and I share a common status as former members in the PCA. And, likewise, we both are former members because of the dysfunction we saw within.

The panel he was invited to speak on could have been an encouraging and redemptive moment. Ahead of the church’s annual national meeting, the General Assembly, it was to discuss how polarized our culture has become and how we can deal with that within the Christianity. Keeping in mind David French’s mainstream center-right-libertarian positions, his contributions to civil discussion on politics, and that related polarization played a role in driving the Frenches out of the PCA, asking him to the panel made a great deal of sense.

Except including French evoked a massive uproar amongst certain corners of the PCA and Evangelicalism. Uproar isn’t exaggerating: usually planning these meetings is the stuff of “inside baseball,” but this became a national newspaper-level discussion.

As a pastor, a conversation on ministering in a polarized society is exactly the sort of panel I could benefit from. Almost every pastor I talk to would agree: trying to minister when everyone thinks in a political dualism of “political ally” and “deadly enemy” is challenging. How do you get people who may not share the same politics to love one another and focus on Jesus?

The panel was not stacked with French clones, so if they carried their task off well, it would have modeled what we need more of. But even one French was too many, for he is now “the enemy.”

His great sin? Not capitulation to “the other side,” but being unwilling to move as his “side” went from being conservative to MAGA populist. For this, he is unfit now to speak at a church — not political — function. For this people regularly distort his words and read them in the most uncharitable ways possible. For this people regularly suggest he isn’t Christian at all.

(And those are some of the nicer comments certain folks within the church post publicly about him.)

The seeds have been sewn for some time. I remember growing up hearing from a guy who was in a youth Bible study with me that some people he knew weren’t Christian. They went to church but they were Democrats. As a teenager and a bit of an aspiring political geek, even then this struck me wrong. While I could have been a card carrying youth member of the Moral Majority, I knew to say people who belonged to the “wrong” political party were, for that reason, not believers was contrary to everything we preached. We spoke of being saved by God’s grace given by believing in Jesus and how we couldn’t earn salvation. Political affiliation tests were utterly incompatible with that.

I knew that was wrong then and our present situation is only worse. Today, it isn’t even enough to belong to the “right” political party. One must be fans of the right people within the Party. Little of what French says is particularly controversial to conservatively minded Christians in the United States, but for his insistence that character matters so much he couldn’t support President Trump when he ran for office. The way many who would have previously praised his “brave conservative Christian libertarianism” have acted, though, you’d think he’d denied Jesus’s Resurrection.

I was right as a teen: politics still don’t save a person. Nothing the angry folks who have now forced the cancelation of the political polarization panel discussion allegedly confess theologically even implies otherwise.

What they did do was ironically demonstrate how desperately such a panel discussion is needed: we can’t even get relatively ideologically close voices together to talk about polarization. The slightest lack of political — not theological — conformity is worthy of shunning.

A watching world takes note. The PCA has always had an outsized presence for its small base of a few hundred thousand members. Here in my city of St. Louis, one of the state’s two United States senators and the area’s congressman were both counted among its ranks not long ago. Around the nation, major Christian authors, musicians and others with large platforms belonged.

That’s notable because this Panelgate has created ripples taken to speak of Christianity, not just a small subset thereof. The message? “Small political differences are a bigger deal to us than our shared faith in Jesus.”

Forget the redemptive opportunity between a man who had to leave his church to protect his family and the denomination he left. Just as the denomination has landed flatfooted on a whole series of abuse scandals (full disclosure: I transferred my ordination as a pastor out of the PCA in protest to how it handled, or rather essentially ignored, abuse for the sake of protecting the abusers), now it has embarrassingly yanked the welcome mat out from under a voice of civil dialogue who was willing to come back to where he and his family had been mistreated. Why? To quell the enforcers of political purity.

The church should be modeling something better than society at large, but here it merely shouts our society’s great weakness: we can’t stand discussion of ideas.

Those who argue for political conformity for the sake of “fixing society” might want to take note of how they have adopted the form of the worst elements of that society they claim to want to transform.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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