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ERLC report seeks to promote civility in U.S.

NASHVILLE (BP) — A report examining how evangelical Christians might help in healing America’s political and cultural divides was issued Thursday (Sept. 26) by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“Faith and Healthy Democracy” is an account of what an ERLC-led research team learned from interviews with nearly 50 evangelical thought leaders and a LifeWay Research survey of more than 1,300 evangelicals. See related Baptist Press story.

The ERLC plans on it being the first of many steps in the next year to help foster civility among Americans.

The report assesses the condition of public discourse in the United States, analyzes evangelical positions on various issues and offers some initial recommendations for strengthening civility.

ERLC President Russell Moore said he prays the LifeWay survey and ERLC report would be “among many initiatives that can help show us the way forward and help us learn to love one another and stand with courage in the public square.”

The 49 evangelical leaders interviewed for the report agreed unanimously that American public discourse is dead. They used such words as corrosive, demoralizing, dysfunctional, hostile, inflammatory and polarized to describe the state of the public conversation, according to the report written by lead researcher Paul Miller, professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University, a Southern Baptist and an ERLC Research Institute fellow.

“Tellingly, the single most common adjective our interviewees used was ‘toxic’: something that is actively poisonous and unhealthy even to be near,” the report says. “Such a situation is dangerous because we should engage in the public square. If the public square is toxic and unhealthy, fewer will participate than should while those who do will be sickened by it. In nearly 50 interviews with evangelical leaders, we did not hear a single positive estimation of the state of public discourse today (though some allowed that there were pockets of civility at local levels, offline, and in face-to-face relationships).”

The LifeWay survey of evangelicals also showed the divisiveness:

— More than 20 percent of all respondents — nearly half of those age 18 to 34 — believe public civility is unproductive.

— A majority believes their political foes think the worst of them.

— Only 42 percent say they have publicly disapproved of political allies for using what they consider inappropriate words or taking unacceptable actions.

— One in three acknowledges they reply by pointing to examples of wrongdoing by the other side when a person who holds their political beliefs is accused of wrongdoing.

— More than one-fourth (26 percent) admits they tend to believe that insulting personal comments from political leaders who share their beliefs are justified when made against opponents.

In an encouraging find, according to the ERLC report, LifeWay found “higher levels of agreement with the statement, ‘Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin,’ is associated with greater civility, suggesting that theological orthodoxy does help Christians’ public witness.”

The ERLC report points to the lack of interaction with people of different viewpoints as one of the problems with public discourse. The LifeWay survey showed less than 15 percent of evangelicals participate monthly in an organization other than church. Increasingly, Americans tend “to look to political tribes as a new form of community — even of religious community,” the report says.

Regarding the shape of Christian public witness, the report cites the “obvious and troubling racial and ethnic fault line.”

“White evangelicals have a different set of political priorities than non-white evangelicals,” the report says of the LifeWay survey. “White evangelicals are far more likely to list abortion, religious liberty, national security, or immigration as a top concern than African American evangelicals or black Protestants. African Americans are more likely to list helping the needy, healthcare, and racial injustice.”

The division also surfaced in the interviews with evangelical leaders. Non-white interviewees “were more likely to list prison reform, immigration, and social justice; white interviewees were more likely to list human dignity, abortion (sometimes subsumed under the broader category of bioethics), marriage, and religious liberty,” the report says.

The church, however, “can and should show the world what unity in diversity looks like,” according to the report. “The church can embody this unity in diversity because, through Jesus and by his Spirit, we have received new hearts. We represent what redeemed humanity can be.”

The report makes initial recommendations to families and individuals as well as to churches and seminaries.

To families and individuals, the recommendations include gathering news from print media, putting away smartphones when visiting with others, teaching children to interact graciously with people, decreasing isolation from human beings, becoming friends with and listening to people who differ, praying for the United States and remembering church and country are not the same.

“Debate politics with passion, but do so face-to-face with your friends, colleagues, and neighbors, not over the Internet,” the report recommends.

Among recommendations to churches and seminaries, the report urges talking and teaching about politics “with truth, grace, wisdom, and compassion” and encouraging civil society, “but don’t let it replace the Gospel.”

Among interviewees for the report were Moore; Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; author and speaker Rosaria Butterfield; Wayne Grudem, author and Phoenix Seminary professor; Tim Keller, author and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City; Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware; Bible teacher Beth Moore; Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Karen Ellis, advocate for the persecuted church; and Washington, D.C., pastors Thabiti Anyabwile and Mark Dever.

The Fetzer Institute, which is committed to “helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world,” provided support for the survey and report.

“Faith and Healthy Democracy” is available online at erlc.com/resource-library/white-papers/faith-and-healthy-democracy.