Review: Uncommon Ground

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Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference, edited Timothy Keller & John Inazu. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020.

Summary: Twelve individuals from different walks of life discuss what Christian faithfulness and the pursuit of the common good looks like in a deeply divided culture.

How are Christians to live in this time where we seem deeply divided about everything from wearing masks to the status of an embryo in the womb to the seriousness of the changes we are witnessing in the world’s climate? Not only are divisions around these and a host of issues deep, but engagement between those who differ seems nearly impossible. So what is a Christian to do? Many have decided that the only options are to “go to ground” and talk about vacations and share cute cat memes. Others have concluded that you must side up on one side of the divide and “unfriend” all those one disagrees with. How is a Christian to live if one cares about the common good and about faithfulness to a kingdom-of-God-shaped life that anticipates the peaceable kingdom and beloved community of the world to come.

These are the questions addressed by the twelve people who contributed to this book edited by Tim Keller, whose Redeemer Church has had a redemptive influence in New York City, and John Inazu, a law professor from St. Louis engaged in a program called the Carver Project whose stated mission is framed in these terms:

We empower Christian faculty and students to serve and connect university, church, and society. We work toward uncommon community, focused engagement, and creative dialogue.

Joining them are theologian Kristen Deede Johnson, InterVarsity/USA president Tom Lin, social entrepreneur Rudy Carrasco, writer and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren, songwriter Sara Groves, rap artist Lecrae, Christian college network leader Shirley V. Hoogstra, psychiatrist Warren Kinghorn, African American community engagement leader in the Southern Baptist Convention Trillia Newbell, and Pastor Claude Richard Alexander, Jr. a peacemaker in Charlotte, North Carolina, leading a multi-site, socially engaged church, The Park Church.

Some essays are more inward looking as is Tish Harrison Warren’s describing her discovery of a calling as a writer, that of naming reality through words. Tim Keller traces his calling from a rural pastorate to New York City and his sense that the gospel critiqued both rural conservatism and urban secular culture, and the sense that in planting a church, Redeemer was called to be salt and light in the city, citizens both of an earthly and heavenly city with the latter taking priority.

Others think more about the terms of engagement of Christians with a divided and pluralistic society. John Inazu advances the virtues of humility, tolerance, and patience as he seeks to translate between the church and the university. Warren Kinghorn talks about walking with the psychologically wounded. Both Trillia Newbell and Claude Richard Alexander, Jr. explore what it means to be reconcilers, peacemakers in a racist society.

Keller and Inazu tie up the strands of the different essays by calling attention to one of the most significant works on Christian engagement written in the last thirty years, James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. They single out Hunter’s idea of faithful presence and articulate four themes from the essay of what it takes to find “uncommon ground” in our culture while living faithfully to Christ:

  1. Christians should not overidentify with any particular political party or platform.
  2. Christians should approach the community around them through a posture of love and service.
  3. Christians should recognize that the gospel subverts rival stories and accounts of reality.
  4. Christians should reach out to others with humility, patience, and tolerance.

My one hesitance with the language of faithful presence is that it needs more definition to avoid being reduced to a life of service, integrity and niceness. Particularly considering the issues of justice roiling our culture with women, people of color, immigrants and more, is there something more to be said about Christians stance with those on the margins? Perhaps that is implicit in the idea of a subversive gospel. Several do touch on this. Lecrae talks about the narratives that color our perceptions around race and the necessity of telling different stories. Claude Richard Alexander, Jr. gets closest to “edgy” in stating that “[m]aking peace and striving for justice are intimately intertwined.”

I’ve always wanted to be in the place of reconciling differences, of finding the common ground, even if it is a third way shaped by the gospel. What I wrestle with is knowing when it is not possible to find common or uncommon ground. Are there things with which we cannot reconcile–for example white supremacy? Are there “brightline offenses” that must be called out and resisted without equivocation? What does it mean to love across these kinds of differences? How does one do this without becoming a partisan?

At the same time, the writers cast a vision for being very different Christians from what the world expects, and what is often portrayed in the media. The use of personal narratives helps us identify different examples of what it looks like. Yet this is not engagement “lite.” Most of the writers couple theological frameworks with personal stories, offering us rich fare for thought and community and life. Keller and Inazu not only contribute substantive essays but set up the collection and tie it together well. Even more, they created a conversation among the contributors, who often play off each other, giving the work a coherence not often found in a collection of essays. This was an “uncommon” conversation on “uncommon ground.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Is This The Religious Liberty We Need?

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President Donald J. Trump displaying Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

Last Thursday, May 4, two significant government actions dominated the news. One was the narrow passage in the House of Representatives of the AHCA, legislation designed to roll back a number of provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The other was the signing by the President of an Executive Order on Religious Liberty, surrounded by religious people of various faiths.

As a religious person, I do care about religious liberty and think the First Amendment protections in our constitution important to uphold, and indeed strengthen, because of the long and global history of religious persecution. We do not do it perfectly but we have a system that allows an incredible diversity of religious expression in our country and works hard not to privilege any one over the others. This is a relatively singular occurrence in human history that is a mark of American greatness.

One thing that is important to note about the executive order, available to be read on the White House website is that it is a directive to federal agencies that does not repeal laws but only addresses the approach taken to enforce them. Only a new law can repeal a law. Only court decisions can overturn laws. What is significant, from what I can read in the executive order, is it suggests a disposition on the part of government to defend religious liberty rather than undermine it. Section One on policy says:

“It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.  The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government.  For that reason, the United States Constitution enshrines and protects the fundamental right to religious liberty as Americans’ first freedom.  Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government.  The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.”

These are broad statements that amount to saying that the executive branch will uphold the Constitution, which is in fact what the President says he will do in taking the oath of office. But to go on record in this regard is heartening.

Much has been made of Section Two. Contrary to popular belief, it does not repeal the Johnson Amendment banning the endorsement or opposition to political candidates by churches or other 501 (c)(3) organizations. David French (a lawyer I had the chance to work with on a religious liberty issue), writes in The National Review:

In fact, a lawyer will commit malpractice if he tells a pastor or director of a nonprofit that this order allows a church or nonprofit to use its resources to support or oppose a candidate. Even if the Trump administration chooses not to enforce the law, a later administration can tear up Trump’s order and begin vigorous enforcement based on actions undertaken during the Trump administration.”

What may be the case is that this will presumably make some feel bolder in talking about political issues or even endorsing candidates because they need not fear enforcement. French’s warning is, “for now.” I certainly wouldn’t use this as a warrant to endorse candidates not supported by the current administration!

Section Three concerns conscience exemptions to the preventive care (read contraceptive) mandate. It says that several government agencies “shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate.” In fact, this has already been mandated by the Supreme Court during the Obama administration.

French makes an important point in his article–executive orders are no substitute for law-making. At best they are only a start. John Inazu, in his book Confident Pluralism, articulates three areas where substantive law-making is needed to protect religious and speech freedoms in the public square (summary is quoted from my review of his book):

The Voluntary Groups Requirement:

“Government officials should not interfere with the membership, leadership, or internal practices of a voluntary group absent a clearly articulated and precisely defined compelling interest” (p. 48).

The Public Forum Requirement:

“Government should honor its commitment to ensure public forums for the voicing of dissent and discontent. Expressive restrictions in these forums should only be justified by compelling government interests. Private public forums that effectively supplant these government-sponsored forums should in some cases be held to similar standards” (p. 64-65).

The Public Funding Requirement:

“When the government offers generally available resources (financial and otherwise) to facilitate a diversity of viewpoints and ideas, it should not limit those resources based on its own orthodoxy” (p. 79).

French notes in his article the attacks on religious groups in universities that infringe on the first and third of these requirements and the attacks on dissenting views that would infringe on the second.

I would argue that the protections Inazu talks about include but are broader than just religious liberty. They protect the freedom of conscience and associative and speech freedoms of all citizens, not just religious citizens. I would argue that these are the liberties for which we need robust protections, not simply in executive orders but in law.

There is one other religious liberty I long for. I have written often about the way the American church has offered itself as a voluntary captive to the political process. Actually, one of the concerns I have about the relaxation of enforcement around political speech in pulpits is that in so doing, I think the government is helping the church dig its own grave. Perhaps it is anecdotal, but I am watching not only younger, but also older evangelicals angered by this political captivity, leaving evangelical churches, even churches not overtly engaged in this kind of behavior.

I long for the day when churches cast off the chains of partisan politics and repent for how they have alienated people from the gospel of Christ that unites people across all the divides of our contemporary politics. I long for a church that speaks prophetically to both left and right (currently it seems only late night television is doing that). This is the kind of speech for which you actually need religious liberty protection.

I have to admit to being troubled by the setting in which this order took place. Religious leaders are gathered around in the Rose Garden celebrating the protection of their own liberties while down the street the party of the President is passing legislation to make the protection of one’s health increasingly difficult for the most vulnerable in our society to obtain (“the Unaffordable Health Care Act”?). I’m torn. I’ve had to advocate against real attempts to undermine religious liberty. Yet I was telling a friend recently that religious liberty concerns me less than the attack on the liberties of the poor, children, the elderly, the most vulnerable in our society. Perhaps the only way to reconcile this is the idea that all liberties are important and that the attack upon the liberty of any of us is in fact an attack on the liberty of all of us. Might we agree upon that?