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A Commitment to Kindness Does Not Mean Surrendering Your Convictions
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A Commitment to Kindness Does Not Mean Surrendering Your Convictions

What civility is and is not.

The hearing was set for Friday, October 13, 2000, and I was not optimistic. My client was the Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF), a Christian student group affiliated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a national Christian student ministry. The issue was whether TCF could stay on the Tufts University campus. The previous semester the Tufts student judiciary had expelled it from campus in a late-night “emergency” meeting without providing TCF with notice or an opportunity to be heard. 

What campus crime did TCF commit that required an emergency expulsion? It had applied its statement of faith to exclude a gay student from leadership because she did not agree with the group’s traditional Christian stance on sexual morality. They didn’t exclude her from leadership because she was lesbian—they’d known about her sexual orientation and included her in the group from the first days of her freshman year—but because she did not share’s the group’s theological views about sex. 

To put it plainly, TCF—like any expressive organization—wished to be led by people who shared its values. This is a fundamental, bedrock principle of expressive association. Should campus regulations require an LGBT group to be open to leaders who, for example, oppose gay marriage? That would be absurd.

But if I was defending a bedrock principle of expressive association, why was I pessimistic about the hearing? Tufts is a private university. The First Amendment did not protect TCF. Our task was to persuade a student judiciary that TCF had not violated the university’s rules and to appeal to the university’s commitments to diversity and academic freedom to convince them to keep TCF on campus. 

Even worse, the student judiciary was an elected body, and many of the candidates had run on the platform of tossing TCF off campus. Tensions were high, hateful anti-Christian “chalkings” had covered the sidewalks, and we knew that we were walking into a protest outside the hearing room doors. 

I was not, however, prepared for what happened next. TCF had dozens of members, but the group’s student leaders asked them to stay at a house off campus and pray rather than walk with them to the hearing. We didn’t want to exacerbate tensions. Instead, I led a small band of students—four leaders and one witness—into the student center and towards the hearing room.

Everything was dark. Protesters had turned out the lights. They filled the halls. Some had candles, some just stood in the darkness. Several walked up menacingly to the TCF student leaders and glared at them, their faces inches away. We tried to hurry through the crowd to get to the hearing room, but when we tried to enter, we were told to leave. The student judges weren’t ready yet.

So we stood outside the room, huddled in a corner, in the dark, surrounded by a wall of angry protesters. I tried to act unconcerned, but it was a deeply intimidating moment. One of the young TCF leaders started visibly shaking. 

When we were finally allowed in the hearing room, the proceedings immediately felt like a kangaroo court. The case against TCF was full of falsehoods. The judiciary broke its own rules to permit activists to speak against the group (only actual witnesses were supposed to testify). By the time Jonathan, TCF’s student leader, stood up to speak, he’d been through an ordeal. He’d walked to class through anti-Christian chalkings, he’d just endured physical intimidation, and now he’d heard an avalanche of false claims.

How did he respond? I’ll never forget the moment. He turned to the student who brought the claims against TCF and said that TCF would not say one word against her. He said that the leaders loved her and mourned their lost friendship. They harbored no bitterness against her. He then turned to the student judiciary and in a quiet but firm voice said that TCF had not violated university policy, and that he would defend TCF’s place on campus—that if Tufts’ commitments to academic freedom and diversity meant anything, they meant including a group committed to the principles of the historic, orthodox Christian faith.

Now, let’s talk about civility. Again.

Two weeks ago I wrote a Sunday newsletter defending my friend Tim Keller from the charge that the time for his “winsome, missional, gospel-centered approach” had passed. The culture had changed too much. It was too hostile. Now, in the words of one of his critics, “offense is unavoidable, and sides will need to be taken on very important issues.”

I called this attack on Keller part of “The Great Rationalization,” the Christian right’s effort to excuse and justify its inarguably dramatic turn away from valuing personal character in political leaders and towards supporting (or at least permitting) cruelty and malice as instruments of political and cultural conflict. 

The conversation hasn’t stopped. Indeed, it’s only accelerated. My friend Rod Dreher has written piece after piece after piece after piece over at The American Conservative opposing Keller’s approach (and mine) to the present cultural moment. The conversation has continued at First Things, on Substack, in The American Reformer, and all over Twitter. These links capture only a fraction of the debate. 

Time and again I read about how bad things are now, how vile the left has become, and how a commitment to “winsomeness” or kindness is simply inadequate to the moment. Even worse, it’s sometimes seen as evidence of weakness or fear—an effort curry favor with people who hate you. 

But the conversation consistently misconstrues what commitments to civility and decency do and don’t mean—that civility is somehow a shorthand for surrender on matters of deep conviction. It is not. Or that a commitment to civility implies an aversion to conflict and a timidity in the face of opposition. It does not.

I worked on my first religious liberty case all the way back in 1993, when I was still a law student. I volunteered as a student researcher in a lawsuit challenging a school’s refusal to allow religious students to opt out of a remarkably sexually explicit public-school “safe sex” program. (Read the facts of the case. The conduct was outrageous.)

By the time I hung up my litigation spurs, I think I may have sued more colleges and universities for violating the free speech rights of students and professors than any other lawyer in the United States. (Although I’m sure my record has been passed by now.) Shortly after I returned from Iraq, I was a keynote speaker at the Students for Life Conference, where my legal team and I pledged to represent—for free—any pro-life student anywhere in the country who faced a violation of their First Amendment rights. We kept that promise.

And—by God’s grace—we were remarkably successful. American law and policy has measurably changed as a result of our legal efforts. To take just one example, tens of millions of students have passed through universities more free from state censorship because we substantially diminished the speech code regime that previously dominated American campuses.

Throughout this entire period, our intentions were clear. We attack positions, not people. We speak the truth. We seek legal equality, not legal superiority. And we never, ever forget the humanity of our opponents. As best we could, this was how we tried to navigate the triple interlocking commands of Micah 6:8—to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. 

By defending our liberty, we attempted to imitate the Apostle Paul, who asserted his rights as a Roman citizen to stop a brutal beating and initiated a series of legal appeals that ultimately took him to Rome. By refusing to demonize our opponents, we attempted to imitate Christ, who told us to bless even those who curse us. And by defending the First Amendment for all people, we preserved the essential humility of our classical liberal system, a system that recognizes that truth can be found in many voices, and those voices should be heard. 

I can’t say we did all those things perfectly. I know I failed in my own commitments more than once. Yet even when I failed, I was aware of two fundamental truths.

First, a commitment to kindness does not require surrender on matters of conviction. Look back at the Tufts case. I’m sure the students could have ended the conflict on campus merely by surrendering. They could have quietly left campus or they could have relented to the university’s demands and changed their statement of faith. There are some who would have even called such surrender “civil.” But that misunderstands what kindness is, and it is not a synonym for harmony. 

This is particularly true when your convictions relate to matters of fundamental justice. The nonviolent civil rights movement dramatically disrupted life in the South, but life in the South needed to be disrupted. The clear and present injustice of Jim Crow should have been intolerable to every Christian in America. The beauty of the movement is that it looked injustice in the face, declared “Here we stand; we can do no other” and did so without malice and with an overwhelming amount of forbearance and forgiveness.

Second, a defense of your convictions should never require or permit cruelty. Can we please be honest about the circumstances surrounding the debates about civility? They’re taking place against the backdrop of a right-wing Christian political movement that was intensely devoted to one of the most cruel and dishonest men ever to sit in the Oval Office. It’s taking place within a larger right-wing media culture that delights in personal insults. 

Every day and night Christians by the millions listen to pugilists who stoke rage and hate, and who delight in calling opponents “morons,” “groomers,” and worse. We are not talking about a Christian political culture where the fight is over whose essay is too sharply worded. The present alarm over Christian cruelty has little to do with First Things, and a lot to do with Fox News. It has little to do with The American Conservative and a lot to do with Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, Alex Jones, and the angry, vicious mouthpieces who reach (and teach) American Christians by the millions. 

My friend Tim Keller is immensely influential in the church. So is my friend Russell Moore–who is also constantly attacked for being too “winsome” for the moment. Did you know their combined social media followings are dwarfed by the man below, a man who screams that Democrats are “demons” and a “bunch of devils” who are not welcome at his church? Who says “you ain’t seen an insurrection yet”?

He has 2.2 million Facebook followers. I’ll say it again. The Christian civility wars aren’t about competing essays crafted by the tweeting elite. They’re about the emergence, amplification, and valorization of an actual culture of conspiracy and cruelty on the Christian right. 

Earlier this month Tim Alberta wrote a deeply reported piece on politics and division in the American church. As part of the piece, he profiled a pastor named Bill Bolin who leads a church called FloodGate in Brighton, Michigan. He grew the church from an attendance of 100 per week to roughly 1,500 per week in part by defying COVID regulations. 

Alberta wrote that Bolin sometimes includes a segment in his worship services called “Headline News.” Here’s a sample:

“On the vaccines …” he begins.

For the next 15 minutes, Bolin does not mention the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, or the life everlasting. Instead, he spouts misinformation and conspiratorial nonsense, much of it related to the “radically dangerous” COVID-19 vaccines. “A local nurse who attends FloodGate, who is anonymous at this time—she reported to my wife the other day that at her hospital, they have two COVID patients that are hospitalized. Two.” Bolin pauses dramatically. “They have 103 vaccine-complication patients.” The crowd gasps.

“How about this one?” Bolin says. He tells of a doctor who claims to know that “between 100 and 200 United States Congress members, plus many of their staffers and family members with COVID, were treated by a colleague of his over the past 15 months … with …” Bolin stops and puts a hand to his ear. A chorus of people responds: “Ivermectin.” Bolin pretends not to hear. “What was that?” he says, leaning over the lectern. This time, they shout: “Ivermectin!” Bolin nods.

This is terrible stuff. And Christian public intellectuals are spending their time and space engaging the threat of . . . kindness?

Let’s finish the Tufts story. After Jonathan’s brief presentation, a TCF student leader named Nicole spoke next. She fought back tears and, like Jonathan, she first addressed the complaining students. She expressed deep regret for the division and pain. But she also turned to the student judiciary and expressed deep convictions that the university should respect her faith and her freedom. Every student leader did this. Every TCF witness did this. There was never a syllable of malice or anger addressed at the student who was attempting to toss them off campus.

The hearing lasted almost eight full hours, and as the hours passed by, I could see a visible change in the student judges. They went from stone-faced or scowling at the TCF students, to confused, and then somewhat irritated at the activists opposing TCF. 

Not everyone softened. As the campus activists watched the case slip away, they got more angry. Some shouted. Their closing arguments were angry and contemptuous. The Tufts Evangelicals were bigots, and bigots had no place on campus.

The student judges rendered their decision on Monday. I had left Tufts and was back home in Ithaca, New York (I taught at Cornell Law School at the time.) I’ll never forget Jonathan’s phone call. He read the decision to me on the phone. We won. The judiciary convicted the group of a minor, technical violation of campus rules but then voted unanimously to keep TCF on campus. It even said that TCF offered a “valuable” campus voice. 

I’m not telling this story to make the case that kindness always “works.” Indeed, it didn’t “work” to win over TCF’s opponents. Moreover, it would have been imperative for TCF to treat its opponents with respect and decency even if it had lost. Kindness isn’t a tactic. It’s a command. 

But I tell this story to demonstrate that civility and decency aren’t incompatible with “taking sides.” It doesn’t require anyone to fold in the face of angry opposition. Kindness doesn’t conflict with conviction, and our commitments to kindness are biblically inseparable from our commitments to justice. We aren’t to choose between them, we’re to embrace them both. 

One more thing …

In this week’s Good Faith podcast, Curtis and I spoke to Chuck Mingo, a pastor at Crossroads Church in Ohio, about Great Replacement theory, immigration, and his efforts to heal America’s racial divides. We also shared our reaction to a recent and incredibly moving trip to Tulsa to see the site of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Chuck’s fantastic. I think you’ll enjoy hearing his thoughts.

One last thing …

It’s been too long since I ended with a Sandra McCracken song. This song is marvelous, a beautiful call to steadfast, patient faithfulness. Enjoy.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.