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Is the Church a Sucker for Political Buzz Words - The Three Languages of Politics

Posted by thethousandmarch on August 21, 2013 at 11:20 PM

I often find myself having political, or even theological conversations where I make an argument which I think is irrefutable, but which seems to fall on deaf ears. And I must admit that I in my own turn sometimes dismiss the concerns of those I’m debating because I feel they are irrelevant, or invalid. Why is it that intelligent, generally kind and honest people can argue over an issue, but don’t even seem to be arguing about the same issue? Worse the debate can quickly turn to personal attacks and accusations, and we end up writing each other off as either stupid, or bad. Not just wrong, but morally bad.


A few weeks ago I listened to a very fascinating interview with Arnold Kling on an Econtalk podcast called Kling on the Three Languages of Politics The basic idea is that Progressives, Conservatives and Libertarians see the world through their own particular ideological lens, and each attempts to make every issue a fight between good and evil as framed by that ideological point of view. For progressives it’s the oppressed vs. oppression; for the conservatives it’s civilization vs. barbarism; and for the libertarians is freedom vs. coercion. By framing each issue in their own particular way each group vilifies all those who do not see the issue as they do. If you are not on the side of the oppressed as the Progressives see it then you must be on the side of the oppressors; if you are not for fighting for the preservation of established institutions then you must be a barbarian trying to destroy our way of life; and if you are not for freedom you must be for tyranny – it is not considered that you may be viewing the issue from a different perspective. Each group judges the others based upon their own particular perspective; and if you are not with us you must be against us.


Now Kling contributes much to our understanding of political discourse simply by identifying each group’s particular axis. When we judge others according to our axis, they can often end up on the opposite end of the continuum from ourselves and thus we consider them our enemy. However, our opponents see themselves as being on a completely different continuum with different axis points, one in which they of course are on the side of right. Kling’s next point is even more insightful, that when we resort to framing our rhetoric in this fashion it is not done to persuade outsiders. It is done to quickly identify who is on our side and exclude outsiders. Such political language is not in any way meant to lead to meaningful civil discourse. So, when those of us who are trying to have a civil debate whip out our favorite trump card which proves that our position is right, not only does it NOT trump theothers argument it often infuriates our opponent.


Now I know that many people will hear this and say, but my perspective is the right one. Maybe it is. But if we want to actually have a conversation with those we disagree with, and if we ever hope to persuade them we must consider our opponent’s point of view. And we must learn to frame our arguments in a way that make some sense to those we are trying to persuade. But if they’re wrong shouldn’t they be the ones who need to consider our perspective, some may ask. You can’t control how other people think, you can only chose to change your own behavior. If all we want to do is rally the troops and incite them to fight, then keep on using the same insular rhetoric. If we want to have a civil conversation with those outside of our camp, we must learn to recognize how we frame arguments in ways that either demonize or belittle those we disagree with; we must stop, and instead we must learn to recognize and deal with the concerns of our opponents. This idea can go way beyond the “Three Languages of Politics”. I have noticed there are many ways in which we can, intentionally or not, dismiss our rivals by framing the conversation in such a way that we assume they stand diametrically opposed to our own values, thus demonizing and dismissing them.

What makes this particularly interesting to me is how this impacts the Church. If you hear someone say something like “America’s in trouble and we need to return to our biblical foundations”, you can be sure you are hearing a conservative who views the situations through a conservative civilization vs. barbarism perspective. Now this does not discount the possibility that America may be going to hell in a hand-basket, and it is certainly a fact that some people would very much like to see our way of life destroyed, however not all progressives may be out to destroy America. Some of them – at least in principle – are concerned about helping those they feel have been oppressed by the “system”. And injustice and oppression are certainly two things which the biblical God is concerned about. It’s a wonderful thing that the Church in America is growing more aware of this fact. Yet I fear that we may be buying into Progressive policies simply because they use the language of injustice and oppression. Those policies which may actually help the poor and oppressed may not always be the ones championed by those who wish to be their champions. We must look beyond the rhetoric. It is not enough to side with those who claim to and may in the most well intended way are striving for truth, justice and the preservation of a free and righteous society. We as Christians must be about the mission of the Church.


Categories: Politics, Being Missional