Reforming Political Discourse

The political climate surrounding both the Obama and Trump presidencies has been marked by a hyper-partisan attitude of “we’ll do this without you” from the majority party and an attitude of “if you’re for it, we’re against it” from the minority party. Every available political tool is wielded to defeat what the other side wants to accomplish. News sources are so polarized that the preferred party is presented as doing no wrong and the opposite party nothing right. The news from the right and left often seems to be covering different planets, with people listening only to an echo of themselves.  Policy discussion is marked by talking points that inflame one side and caricature the other. As this melee teaches us how not to communicate with each other, families and communities are so divided that political discussion and life together becomes increasingly uncomfortable and sometimes impossible.

Do Christians have resources for working together across political differences that offer an alternative to the current appalling state of political discourse? This electronic conversation will point to such resources by:

  •   Proposing a Christian Perspective on Political Discourse
  •   Discussing the Strengths and Weaknesses of the proposed Christian perspective on Political Discourse
  •   Modeling the proposed Christian perspective on Political Discourse by discussing The Nature of Politics and selected contentious public policy issues.
  •   Discussing a possible Way Forward for Christians

 


 

Subtopic 1: Talking Past Each Other or Worse (September 2017)

In preparation for a conversation about the possibility of a “Christian Approach to Political Discourse” (subtopic 2), we will first analyze the current dismal state of political discourse, as illustrated by the reactions of two conversation partners to two reports (click here) on or related to a recent political news story: One report from a left-leaning commentator and one report from a right-leaning commentator.

Leading Questions:  What are the goals of these reports What audiences are they appealing to? What rhetorical tools are being employed? What do you find to be helpful in these reports? What do you criticize in these reports?

Conversation Partners:

  • Jeff VanDerWerff, Professor of Political Science, Northwestern College, Iowa 
  • Kim Van Es, Chair, Sioux County (Iowa) Democrats 

 


 

Subtopic 2: A Proposed Christian Approach to Political Discourse (October 2017)

Leading Questions:  What are the reasons for the current appalling state of political discourse that often leads to demonization of the other, name-calling, questioning of motives and broken relationships? What are the characteristics of a constructive political discourse from a Christian perspective? What does it mean for Christians to love their enemies in politics?

Conversation Partners: 

 


 

Subtopic 3: Are There Limits to Free Speech and Civil Discourse? (November 2017)

Leading Questions: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed Christian perspective on political discourse (Subtopic 2)? Are there ideas so repugnant and dangerous that they shouldn’t be allowed to be uttered in public? What is wrong, if anything, with passionate speech? Are there limits to civility? Is the call for civility a means of control by those in power? Is the call for civility a means to marginalize those “who have no voice?”  

Conversation Partners: 

  • Micah Watson, Associate Professor of Political Science, Calvin College 
  • Julia Stronks, Professor of Political Science, Whitworth University 

 


 

Subtopic 4: The Notion of Politics (December 2017)

Leading Questions: What does “politics” mean and what are its aims? What are the characteristics of a well-functioning political system? Is our current political system functioning well? If not, why not and what can be done to address the current dysfunction? What distinguishes a Christian political engagement and how can such engagement contribute to a well-functioning political system?

Conversation Partners: 

  • Harry Boyte, Senior Scholar, Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg College 
  • Jim Skillen, former President, Center for Public Justice 

 


 

Subtopic 5: Party Politics and Beyond (January 2018)

Leading Questions: What are the political priorities and values of the Republican and Democratic parties in the early 21 st century? How well do these values and priorities comport, or not, with Christian values? If not, what changes in priorities and values need to be made? Should Republicans and Democrats transcend their particular ideologies?  If so, how?

Conversation Partners: 

  • Michael Wear, Public Square Strategies 
  • Doug Koopman, Professor of Political Science, Calvin College 
  • Kevin den Dulk, Executive Director, Henry Institute for the Study of Religion and Politics, Calvin College 
  • Angela Cowser, Professor of the Sociology of Religion, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary 

 


 

Subtopic 6: The Role of Money and Special Interests in Politics (February 2018)

Leading Questions: How have money and special interests influenced politics, for good or for ill? What is your position on the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court? Should the role of lobbyists for special interests be restricted? Should there be stricter conflict of interest rules? What are the implications of your position for President Trump’s “negotiating a deal” approach to politics?

Conversation Partners: 

  • Kimberly Conger, Assistant Professor of Political Science & Public Administration, University of Cincinnati 
  • Frank Hill, Director, The Institute for the Public Trust, Raleigh, NC 

 


 

Subtopic 7: Immigration (March 2018)

Leading Questions: Are current immigration laws and deportation practices just? Is so, why? If not, why not and what changes should be made? Is there a way for Christians and Christian churches to respond to undocumented immigrants that will avoid harm to both undocumented immigrants and citizens?

Conversation Partners: 

  • Matthew Soerens, U. S. Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief 
  • Robert McFarland, Associate Professor of Law, Jones School of Law, Faulkner University 

 


 

Subtopic 8: Wealth and Poverty in America (April 2018)

Leading Questions: America is increasingly divided between rich and poor. What are the root causes of poverty and wealth disparity in America? Is there a connection between wealth disparity in America and disparities in the rest of the world?  Is there a biblical and Christian ideal for the distribution of wealth, both nationally and globally? How should Christians respond personally and politically to national and global poverty and wealth disparity?

Conversation Partners: 

  • Kelly Johnson, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, University of Dayton 
  • Steve McMullen, Assistant Professor of Economics, Hope College 

 


 

Subtopic 9: Healthcare in America (May 2018)

Leading Questions: Is healthcare a public good that everyone has a “right” to (and therefore government has a role to play in securing that “right” for everyone) or is healthcare a private good; a “privilege” that is primarily the responsibility of each individual with minimal governmental assistance? What are the problems with the healthcare system in America? How can the present healthcare system be improved? Is there a Christian perspective that can inform such improvement? 

Conversation Partners: 

  • Clarke Cochran, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Texas Tech University & Former Vice President for Mission Integration at Covenant Health in Lubbock, Texas 
  • Jeff Hammond, Associate Professor of Law, Jones School of Law, Faulkner University 

 


 

Subtopic 10: Case Study Conversations Regarding Political Discourse and Political Action Within Churches and Christian Para-Church Organizations (June 2018)

Case Study #1: Kalamazoo (MI) Mennonite Fellowship – A church that encourages its members to become involved in social service ministries that serve persons in need (e.g., the homeless, the hungry); that has church-wide social service ministries; but does NOT take church-wide political positions or initiatives (whether or not it encourages its individual members to be politically active).

Leading  Questions: What kind of social service ministries does your church provide? How do you encourage your members to become involved in social service ministries? Do you encourage your members to be politically active, and why? What are your reasons for NOT taking church-wide political positions or initiatives?

  • Conversation Partner: Will Fitzgerald, Senior Pastor, Kalamazoo (MI) Mennonite Fellowship 

 

Case Study #2: First Congregational Church – Kalamazoo (MI) – A church that encourages its members to be politically active and involved in social service ministries that serve persons in need (e.g., the homeless, the hungry); that has church-wide social service ministries; and SELECTIVELY takes church-wide political positions or initiatives.

Leading Questions: What kind of social service ministries does your church provide? How do you encourage your members to become involved in social service ministries? What are your reasons for selectively taking church-wide political positions or initiatives? What types of issues have you selected and on what basis did you make that selection?

  • Conversation Partner: Nathan Dannison, Senior Pastor, First Congregational Church - Kalamazoo

 

Case Study #3: Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Action – A Christian para-church organization that believes that reforming/redeeming the political realm is an important activity for Christians; that Christians should carry out social justice ministries that persons in need; and that provides resources and others assistance to help its church constituent members and their congregational members to carry out these responsibilities.

Leading Questions: How do you encourage individual Christians and your church constituent members to become involved in political activities that reform/redeem the political realm and in social service ministries that serve persons in need? What kind of resources do you provide for such individuals and churches? What has worked well? What hasn’t worked well?

  • Conversation Partner: Kris Van Engen, Congregational Justice Mobilizer for World Renew and the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice