The Loss of Civil Discourse

By Scott Keith

A few years ago, Dr. Rod Rosenbladt retired from Concordia University in Irvine. Rod’s retirement gave him the occasion to give a final public lecture, which I attended. I had Rod as a theology and philosophy professor and considered him a “theological” colleague. It seemed natural to expect that Rod’s lecture would be on a topic of theology, and I settled into my seat ready for just that. The lecture was not at all what I expected. Knowing Rod for as long as I have, I have come to expect the unexpected. Rod’s lecture, “Education, Gospel, and Freedom,” was more or less on the state of education and the disintegration of academic discourse.

In his lecture, Rod relied quite a bit on C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. In the book, Lewis uses the two authors of something called the “Green Book” as his foil, which was, Lewis assures his readers, an actual book written for the purpose of educating the young in the art and science of using the English language to express ideas. Lewis criticizes modern attempts to debunk “natural” values (such as those that would deny the objective sublime beauty of a waterfall) on rational grounds.

I admit that I do not remember Rod’s entire argument. But one part struck me and has stuck with me. In fact, I can remember it word for word. Rod reminisced that when he was in College, it would have been acceptable for any one of the student interest groups to invite the leader of the KKK to come on campus and give an address. Rod pointed out that they would have all thought that the KKK and its leader was crazy and would have debated his hateful ideas, but he could have been invited.

Having spent several years in a middle-leadership position at a Christian university, I can say that I honestly believe that such a thing would no longer be possible. Today, I think we feel that speech by people like the leader of the KKK is so hateful that it ought not to be given a forum for the propagation of the hate-filled ideas. But in evolving toward the methodology of forcing those who hold “wrong ideas” to remain silent, have we done ourselves a disservice? I think yes.

What is needed is civil discourse. As I understand it, civil discourse attempts to put forward a set of ideas based on evidence as objectively as possible. This prepares for an equally objective response from those that disagree. Civil discourse can be passionate and may at times even use “explicit language.” Yet, those who participate in civil discourse try not to diminish the moral worth or good judgment of those who hold opposing views. In turn, practitioners attempt to avoid hostility and direct antagonism of their opponent. In civil discourse, ideas are on trial, not the holders of said ideas. Thus, it requires modesty and an appreciation for the other participant’s ideas and line of reasoning so long as that argument is not blatantly fallacious.


I fear that this type of discourse is lost, even in my own church. Civil discourse has been replaced by labeling, name calling, and at times, even borderline libelous attacks on personal character and integrity. Perhaps it is the ease of online communication that has caused this in the church community. The quasi-anonymity provided by the screen may be what emboldens some of us, and at times all of us, to shout down ideas like ranting teenagers protesting Trump on college campuses. But perhaps we have just become accustomed to deciding that certain ideas ought never be debated because they are too dangerous to the “public good.” Sadly, I think it is the latter more than the former.

Allow me provide an example. Not long ago, my friends over at Virtue in the Wasteland interviewed (episodes 196 and 197) a former LC-MS pastor who now identifies as a woman. It should be noted that  the hosts merely wanted to investigate a situation that didn’t fit neatly into either the prevailing progressive or conservative positions on the matter. They wanted to understand the perspective of someone who was unwilling to join a liberal church body for reasons of principle, and likened gender dysphoria to a tumor, but nonetheless remain married and desired to maintain membership in an LC-MS congregation.

The hosts attempted to approach this sensitive situation with the guidance of the LC-MS document on the matter, which urges people to first seek to understand an individual’s situation before making pronouncements about the morality of the issue. Despite their genuine interest in exploring a current subject they found perplexing, they have been denigrated, shouted down, and accused of being subversive supporters of a subversive transgender agenda. They have both faced personal attacks and threats to their livelihood and personal wellbeing, all for doing an interview that provided a forum for someone with whom many, including me, disagree. Why? Because civil discourse is no longer respected and has been replaced with a culture that desires the elimination of contrary ideas.

I leave you all today with some questions. Are we all so insecure in the truth value of the positions we hold that we believe those ideas cannot stand questioning by the other side? Is it necessary to engage in moral attacks on our opponent’s character to debunk them and their ideas? Do contrary views to ours need to be eliminated, or can our beliefs handle the honest repartee of a good debate?

I would suggest that all ideas and beliefs worth holding can stand against the elocution of ideas which either seem or are contrary to those we personally hold. What is good, right, true, and salutary should always be defended vigorously, but civilly. We all need to refrain from simple name calling and labeling. We need to remember that labeling a thing does not make it that thing. If an idea is wrong, it needs to be proven to be so by good evidence and sound reasoning; labeling it as such is not enough.

Perhaps we in the Church can lead the way in this effort. If we can, thanks be to God. If we can’t, God protect us from ourselves and our sinful ways. In the end, thanks be to God, who gives us the true victory on account of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


11 thoughts on “The Loss of Civil Discourse

  1. Scott,

    First of all, I really like what you say here. This certainly syncs with my own orientation when it comes to dialogue. When it comes to dealing with persons one-on-one especially, I agree wholeheartedly (and we should try to deal with persons one-on-one as much as we can, I think).

    On the other hand, when it comes to the formalization of such conversations – for the consumption of the public, I think there are valuable nuances to be made.

    Is it possible, for example, that the President of a Christian University would determine that it is a bad idea to even have a public discussion when it comes to this or that issue? After all, as is often the complaint about public debates for example, if one “side” is granted a platform with another, the impression may be given – at least to some – that each “side”‘s case is as legitimate as the others (should we have debates on Christian campuses, for example, about whether or not adultery is really always a bad thing? I am sure that some persons, after all – with academic credentials even – will make the case that it is not – this is surely the case with gay marriage….)

    Perhaps the universities who will no longer allow KKK speakers do so because they realize that this is, or will more often than not, be the the case (i.e. the impression of some real legitimacy will be given – particularly if the speaker is unopposed!)… Maybe, at least in an area like this, they are a bit wiser than the rest of us, who are perhaps more naive and idealistic about free speech? (I honestly don’t know)

    I guess I am also curious to know about how often what Dr. Rosenbladt talked about really happened: “[he] reminisced that when he was in College, it would have been acceptable for any one of the student interest groups to invite the leader of the KKK to come on campus and give an address.”

    Did that kind of thing really happen? I know about allowing Nazi marches, but I don’t know about stuff like this.

    In any case, let me second again what you say about civil discussion. Infinitely preferable to where we are today in our “don’t back down, double down” – and personally attack (with entertaining bombs and memes of course!) – world….

    A final question that comes to mind is this… When is speech that is not so civil ever to be used (if ever):



    1. Nathan,

      I’m not sure I have a good answer to your final question. I don’t know if Rod’s example ever happened or if he was using it to illustrate the situation now. I think probably the latter, as I was. But having said that, I think it fits. Their message is disgusting, but does that mean we shouldn’t debate why? I don’t know. I do know that I think the conversation over topics not as hyperbolic have denigrated to to phenomenal lows. Thanks for reading and commenting.



      1. Scott,

        Thanks for engaging! Well, I can think of a lot of topics that are, for now at least, so far “beyond the pale” that they would not seem worthy of discussion (and, of course, they may or may not have a hard time finding a sponsor to support their talking, given the topic). And some of these topics most every secular American would agree with me on (for now! – how low can we, in part due to our desire to “define [our] own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” – go?).

        I think it is especially important for those running Christian universities – who are currently not subject to the same free speech laws that public universities are – to think carefully about what they do and don’t allow. For example, I might think that a guy like Milo Y., on the whole, is a positive force for maintaining free speech on American college campuses and beyond. More power to him, for all that I might find highly objectionable about him. That said, would he be a good guy to have at a Concordia? No (along with lots of other people who offend a lot less persons but who also don’t need to be speaking at Concordias….).



  2. Scott~

    As one both on the dirty end of online hostility and antagonism, and mentioned by you in this essay, I appreciate your work here.

    The Virtue in the Wasteland gentlemen were able to explore a topic largely unknown and terribly misunderstood, and do so as brothers in Christ, giving away nothing. They are to be applauded, not denigrated, for their efforts. Of course, if we were living in the culture of sixty years ago and they approached interracial marriage, their reception would largely be as it was for tackling transgender, yet we know both God’s Word and the current culture on interracial marriage. And so it goes . . .

    Please note this: You said that I now identify as a woman. I do not. I continue to identify as a male. And, as a male who is married to a woman, I identify as a heterosexual male. But for the confounding intersex condition, which led to crushing gender dysphoria, I have transitioned to taking medical measures and living as a female which have provided healing. While, in short, I will say that I am a transgender woman, I prefer to be known as a heterosexual male with an intersex condition which has caused me to be transgender. Thanks.

    To your questions, if one answers them by noting the regular attacking online, then, yes, it would seem that we are insecure and cannot deal with contrary ideas. It was assumed by plenty of folks, mostly LCMS pastors, that I left behind LCMS theology (I have not), have caved in to all things LGBTQ (I have not), consider the LCMS in the dark (I do not), and want to introduce the LGBTQ agenda into the LCMS (I do not). I simply long to be understood, this terrible condition to be respected for what it is, and to be treated as a child of God and a member of the communion of saints (which, to many, I am not), saved by grace through faith, not by works, as God’s gift, the chief of sinners, continually calling, “Come, Lord Jesus!” and eagerly awaiting the Last Day when this vale of tears will finally be over and the glorious resurrection to Paradise to be enjoyed eternally with our Victor King, Jesus Christ.

    The Lord be with you,
    Gina (Greg) Eilers


    1. Gina, I am sorry to have misrepresented you in this article, that was not my intent. Thank you for the clarification provided above The Lord be with you as well.


  3. “Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgement simply need not be believed–in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical–and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, 43)

    I have to say that I get the point but there are issues which enter public discourse which do not merit the time and energy of a response simply because the underlying suppositions are, in many individuals immune to reason. Joe Arpaio and his fans will not be moved by facts to abandon their conviction. The KKK does not argue their underlying suppositions or put forth proof. Racists don’t bother because they do not have to, they appeal to ingrained, unvoiced suppositions. It is these that they invite into a dialog, not the opposition. A person can believe fake news stories such as a child porn ring being run out a pizza place because one first reaches a conclusion that x people are bad and believes the obviously false story that no sane person needs debunked because the story affirms their presupposition.

    These are extreme examples but, I think they illustrate the dogmatic approach so many people take. In fact, the average person won’t even acknowledge having these underlying assumptions and will embrace what they believe as objective and rational all the way through because their views are “obvious” to any other “objective and rational” person.

    I have to tune in the podcasts and listen. But I imagine the best we can do is understand what speaks to us. I don’t believe we can wholly cast off what is in us. To that extent, I have no clue what it feels like to question my sexual or gender identity. I can look for metaphor but I have no idea what that would feel like. Tell me that I am not allowed to love my wife and I cannot conceive of that, on any level. This past summer, a friend of my daughter’s came out. A couple of days ago, one of her oldest friends, a girl I knew since they were 5 years old, proposed to her girlfriend and I am expected to be at the wedding as much as any family member. Many nights spent crashing in our living room as she wrestled over the years, was, at one time rejected by her mother and stepfather. Only things I know:

    1) She is baptized
    2) We talked about the Gospel of John, prayer, further Bible reading
    3) She is looking for a church in the area where she lives
    4) She has never been this happy

    How I accept what she is doing is not the issue. How the Church accepts it is not, either. My only prayer is that Christ accepts her and that she has the faith to receive him. I keep it simple and try not to pit morality against grace. If she comes with us to church (as she sometimes does) and sits in the pew openly holding hands with her “wife”, we will still pass the peace and have to put up with the whispers believing that Christ’s blood washes out the most stubborn stains. Even those we do not comprehend or confess. If Christ did not come to condemn the world, why should we? We, with God’s help, can bear each other and forgive.


  4. Mr. Keith-
    You are misdiagnosing the issue. The problem is not that we are incapable of civil discourse, the problem is the unwillingness or incapability of confessing truth.

    As an example, in your response above to the former Rev. Eilers, you called him “Gina”. While he wishes to be called by that name, has had it legally changed and according to his blog is planning on mutilation of what God Himself designed and created, none of that is good, right, true or salutary. What you do by using this false name is confirm and assist the continued sinful delusion. Which is also what Messrs. Mallinson and van Voorhis did through their podcast which I listened to in its entirety.

    Those who confess the reality that human beings have been created either male or female and that Christians (or anyone for that matter) should not seek to change how God has made them, are now no different in the eyes of the world than the KKK, speakers of hate speech, unworthy of being given a hearing in “civil discourse”. Confessing the truth of the immutable nature of male and female is seen as hostility and hatred and is of course rejected. But confessing the truth is what Christians are to do at all time for such confessing, words spoken and heard, are the means the Lord has instituted so that sinners might escape the wrath to be revealed when He comes again in glory. Christians in our Synod have put time and energy into responding to Mr. Eilers and engaging those who have encouraged him, like the pastors of Carmel Lutheran Church and your colleagues, because the Church always has a dogmatic approach. The dogma has been revealed by God Himself. It is the very approach of the Lord Jesus the one through whom all things have been made and is Truth incarnate, see Matthew 19, “Have you not read…”.

    I encourage you to look again at the utter confusion of Mr. Eilers “Please note this…” paragraph in His response to you, to which you respond with thanks and calling him Gina. Examine that paragraph and your response on the basis of the Scripture, perhaps even discuss the matter with Dr. Rosenblatt or other colleagues, and see if you should turn in mourning rather than be thankful.

    The Law does damn and condemn. God is a jealous God and He threatens to punish all who break His commandments. The Gospel is not a salve to make sinners feel better about their commandment breaking. The Gospel actually recreates and changes lives so that forgiven, redeemed sinners say no to ungodliness and serve Christ in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness by keeping His commandments.


    1. I think you’re missing the actual point of the argument, Sir. I agree with Dr. Keith, I do believe a current problem we face is an inability of Expressing Truth, but rather the problem at hand is that we as people, Christians and not alike, have lost all meaning of epistemology in our arguments. Arguments nowadays, Rather than allowing explanation of what one knows as Truth, have come to a point where if an opinion doesn’t reach a social norm its written of as bigoted. We as Christians are are no better. Rather than allow epistemolic explanation for why somebody, for example, would identify as transgender and still want to be part of the LCMS, we barrage them in scripture quotes and shouting of commandments and uses of the Law. We as Gods people should know how to properly defend our Truth better than most, for is it not said to us in Ephesians, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

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  5. I’m a broken, screwed up sinner. When I forget that, I’m a condescending, arrogant jerk that has little patience for different points of view. Lord have mercy.

    Thankfully, I go to a church where through the regular preaching of the Law and Gospel I am regularly reminded of my transgression and absolution. As a result, when I remember my brokenness I am able see (and hear) others as fellow beggars at the door of God’s mercy and I am thus able to listen compassionately and graciously.

    It seems as though the polarization in our society is accelerating at breakneck speed. I honestly see no solution apart from the Gospel.

    May God have mercy on all of us and pour out His spirit on His Church and our country so that our hope is anchored only in Him.

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  6. You don’t actually understand Law and Gospel. That’s your problem here. You just made the Gospel into law. “Redeemed sinners say no to ungodliness”. What happens when we don’t? Cause we don’t. And we don’t and we never will. We are simul. It’s why our baptism and His gift is relevant every single day. We will fail and yet He CONTINUES to save and forgive and save again. Once and done, yet everyday I am ainner and saint. Wow… you too are forgiven. Go and forgive as you are forgiven. You are free to say no. That’s Gospel. Now I am free to choose to serve my brother in Christ. If you say that I need to not do wrong you’ve made it Law.

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