Debate tactics for embattled Christians: retreat, engage politely, or take the offensive?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 01, 2016

My theme for today is debating tactics. What is the most effective way to challenge the reigning liberal/secular ideology, at a time when Christians are being steadily pushed toward the margins? Should we retreat into protected enclaves? Or continue to insist-- politely but forcefully-- on our right to engage in public affairs?

  • Mary Eberstadt takes the polite-engagement route in her important book, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies. She sounds a warning about the progressive intolerance of Christianity, which, she says, now resembles a witch-hunt. But in a review for First Things, David Goldman argues that she doesn’t go far enough. It isn’t so much a witch-hunt as an Inquisition, Goldman contends.

    From the perspective of the secular ideologue, Goldman explains, Christians are heretics, and therefore a threat to the public order. “The liberal establishment lives in terror that the people will rise in revolt,” he writes, and so cannot allow for the circulation of dangerous ideas that might undermine the secular hegemony. So when they seek to force Christians to remain silent, or to violate their own consciences, liberal secularists are not really violating their own principles, Goldman claims; they are acting consistently to strengthen their intellectual hegemony. “There are no reasonable liberals to whom Christians might appeal in the name of fairness and free speech,” he warns us.

    If that is the case, what can we do? “Your alternative it to counterattack,” Goldman suggests. Polite debate becomes increasingly difficult, as Christian conservatives are bullied. The more effective option is ridicule, he says. Expose hypocrisy; deny the liberals their claim to moral superiority. Don’t ask for fair treatment, because you won’t get it. Attack.

  • Writing in a somewhat similar vein for Public Discourse, Josh Craddock identifies Three Failures and Opportunities for the Pro-Life Movement. The failures, he argues, reflect an excessive willingness to compromise, a naïve faith that Republican presidents will appoint judges who will restore respect for life, and an enduring confidence that our constitutional system will prevent untrammeled rule by the judiciary. Craddock, too, counsels Christian conservatives to seize the offensive: to fight against abortion across the board rather than on the margins, to demand principled political leadership, and to encourage all public officials to resist unjust judicial decrees.

  • The arguments advanced by Goldman and Craddock highlight the enormous gap that has emerged between some Americans—in this case, conservative Christians—and the liberal elites who effectively form a ruling class. In many ways the startling success of the Trump campaign can reflects the depth of this divide. In Europe the “Brexit” vote could be seen the same way. Writing for Catholic World Report, Samuel Gregg remarks that it is simplistic to see the “Brexit” victory as simply a reaction against immigration. More to the point, he suggests, it was a rejection of the European Union’s “top-down approach to public life, its stealth supplanting of national laws, and, perhaps above all, the sheer arrogance of its political-bureaucratic leadership.” Gregg goes on to show how the German economist Wilhelm Röpke, writing in the 1950s, anticipated the problems of the EU today.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rdennehy8049 - Jul. 06, 2016 1:27 PM ET USA

    The only hope that I can see is if the Archbishops, Bishops and Priests refuse any sacraments to some of our so-called political leaders until their actions match their "I am really pro life" speech.

  • Posted by: shrink - Jul. 02, 2016 10:14 AM ET USA

    With a few more years of Pope Francis at the helm, envision for a moment, that if you live in San Diego and use strong debate tactics against the sexual progressives, that you will risk excommunication for hate speech from the likes of Bishop McElroy.