When the apostle Paul wrote his landmark letter to the church in Rome, he made a point of emphasizing both the common humanity and the common fallenness of both Jews and Gentiles (3:9-10). In stressing our individual and collective failings before God, Paul emphasized something thoughtful Evangelicals would do well to ponder as we think about persuading our generation: the universality and permanence of the God-given conscience.
This is especially pertinent given the rifts in our cultural landscape and worldviews. In a penetrating piece in the March 18th Baltimore Sun, political scientist Thomas Schaller describes the profound divide now deepening in our country across political, theological, and even regional (city v. suburbs, neighborhoods v. counties) lines. “The American divide has widened into a chasm,” he writes. “The American states have cleaved into red and blue subsets. In all but three – yes, three – of the 49 states with bicameral, partisan state legislatures (Nebraska is unicameral and non-partisan), one party controls both chambers.”
Schaller is, in my view, dead right. The basic disagreements about life and values that are roiling opinion and political action, as well as personal conduct and family life, in our country are unmistakable. One substantial group of Americans believes that truth is revealed and fixed. Another group finds this notion primitive, even frightening, and insists on developing their own code of ethics as they go along. There’s not a lot of common ground between them.
But one thing that cannot be blurred or erased is the conscience. In his thundering declaration about human sin and divine judgment, Paul writes that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (1:18).
The Greek word for “suppress” is a compound of two words meaning “down” and “to hold.” It’s the idea of someone holding another person tightly and preventing him from speaking. It’s the notion of simultaneous gagging and restraining. Taken in context, what we’re being told is that we all share a common conscience, a sense of right and wrong on the basic issues of life that some of us succeed in smothering quite effectively.
We all “suppress the truth” that God has revealed to our minds and hearts to some degree. Yet that truth, “the law written on the heart” (Romans 2:15), is hard to silence permanently. Even the most avowed secularists with what conservatives would consider radical political views love their children, care about safe streets and want to have a decent standard of living for themselves and their families.
This means that believers in the Bible and the Bible’s God and social conservatives committed to a Judeo-Christian vision of public life can appeal to their opponents not only with wisdom and compassion, but resonance and insight. When we talk to those who disagree with us about marriage, for example, most people concede that children need not just two caring adults but a mom and a dad. This is a “self-evident” truth that most of us “get” without sophisticated reasoning or explicit teaching.
Similarly, people understand, instinctively, that reasonable rights of conscience should be respected and that coercion and repression have no place in a free society. That’s why, for example, a recent Rasmussen poll shows that 85 percent of Americans support the right of a Christian photographer to decline participating in a same-sex “wedding.”
These points should not be made with hostility or an eagerness to defeat or even humiliate an opponent. If we care about the people on the other side of the cultural chasm, and if we really want to persuade them that our understanding of right and truth in the public square is beneficial to all, we need to find areas where, intuitively, we as human beings care about the same things, have the same desires, and share the same concerns.
Will we persuade everyone? No. But, like Paul, we should seek to persuade those who will listen, for their sake, our country’s, and our Lord’s.
Rob Schwarzwalder is senior vice president at the Family Research Council.
Publication date: March 21, 2014