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.