The late Peter Berger, always winsome and insightful, was fond of referencing the “Protestant Smile” that he viewed as being a key to understanding American religion and, by extension, American public life. Picking up on fellow sociologist John Murray Cuddihy’s notion of the “Protestant aesthetic,” Berger saw the “self-effacing modesty of puritan good taste” as the foundation of American Protestantism’s fixation with civility. In Berger’s telling, after the eighteenth century the “Calvinist scowl” of old gave way to today’s familiar Protestant smile. Says Berger, Jonathan Edwards’s “‘angry God’ became progressively more user-friendly through the… centuries, culminating with Billy Graham who could play amicable golf with people whom earlier revivalists would have threatened with fire and brimstone.”
In the history of American Protestantism, American fundamentalists kept that scowl much longer than their modernist or liberal adversaries. So Berger is certainly right to locate a major change within the subculture of American religion with his reference to Billy Graham. For Graham was part of that late-1940s-era cadre of young “neo-evangelicals” who steered much of the right-flank of American Protestantism away from scolding fundamentalism toward a less judgmental and more hospitable evangelicalism. Within the evangelical subculture, however, the scowl never completely disappeared and arguably intensified with the political reawakening of American evangelicalism in the early 1970s. The 1980s cultural wars, however, were just the precursor to the rapid and more profound collapse of a common public culture with its shared understanding of morality and the ordering of private and public life. As anyone with a Twitter account knows, the reality of this new pluralism has been jolting and culturally disruptive. It is therefore understandable that for many evangelicals their smile has given way to a frown in an increasingly aggressive and hostile secular culture. It is this reality that Timothy Keller and John Inazu engage in Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference. Keller is a well-known New York City pastor and author, and Inazu, while less well-known by the general Christian public, is a distinguished law professor at Washington University. Both are evangelicals, and the focus of their book centers around the question of how “Christians can engage with those around us, while respecting people whose beliefs differ from our own and maintaining our gospel confidence.”
The “reality of our differences”—or what John Rawls references as “the fact of pluralism”—is the contemporary cultural context within which Keller and Inazu probe the possibility of “finding common ground, even when they don’t agree on the common good.” The authors clearly believe the current state of evangelical engagement of public life needs adjustment, and the purpose of their book is to offer prescriptions for a returning to a more civil evangelical public engagement. In other words, they want to return that smile to American Christianity.
The organization of this book is somewhat unusual. While Keller and Inazu are not listed as the book’s editors, this is an edited volume. Both contribute a brief introductory and concluding essay as well as individual chapters. In between, ten other evangelical influencers of varying degrees of recognition offer their take on how Christians can “live faithfully in a world of difference.” These contributors are an eclectic group and include—among others—hip hop artist Lecrae, inner-city pastor Claude Richard Alexander, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren, Council for Christian College and Universities president Shirley Hoogstra, and InterVarsity president Tom Lin.
The book is divided into three sections—“Framing our Engagement,” “Communicating our Engagement,” and “Embodying our Engagement”—and like many edited collections, the contributions are uneven in quality and relevance to the book’s central focus. Among the more interesting contributions are those of Kristen Deede Johnson, Rudy Carrasco, and Warren Kinghorn. For Johnson, a professor at Western Theological Seminary, her “theological guide” is Augustine, and she articulates a helpful understanding of the Christian’s responsibility to both the city of God and city of man. She emphasizes that “Augustine’s perspective helps us limit the hopes we place in any earthly political system, while reminding us that we have the strongest foundation for our hope in Christ our King.” At the same time, she reminds us that we are not to flee our earthly responsibilities. The believer’s responsibility is to live faithfully as both citizens of the heavenly city and our earthly city. She acknowledges that this is not easy, especially in our tumultuous times. And in doing “the hard work of politics” in our historical moment, we must always “attend to the character of our engagement” with “honorable deeds, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, hope, and love.”
Rudy Carrasco’s essay is much less academic and theological than Johnson’s but no less interesting. Currently a program officer with the Murdock Charitable Trust, Carrasco is at heart a community developer. A self-described “reluctant entrepreneur” with extensive hands-on experience working in the troubled areas of urban America, Carrasco’s essay is refreshingly void of social justice warrior clichés. Rather, Carrasco bears personal witness to the times that Christ-centered entrepreneurial ministries have transformed lives and communities. “Being a reluctant entrepreneur means moving… despite your fears and anxieties,” Carrasco writes. “We may at times be less than hopeful for the prospects for social peace, racial reconciliation, and expanded community goodwill. But we should remember that we can creatively address challenges in our communities because the God we serve is creative.”
Racial issues factor prominently in the contributions to this book, and Warren Kinghorn’s essay centers around the fascinating story of his grandfather, William Law Watkins, whom Clemson University hired in 1961 to keep African-American Harvey Gantt out of the then-segregated university. Kinghorn is an excellent writer and storyteller, and his account of his relationship with “Granddaddy Bill” is engaging and compelling. With a privileged upbringing, which eventually included medical training at Harvard and dual academic appointments at Duke University, Kinghorn chronicles the seduction of the “gospel of achievement and competence” in his life. Kinghorn learned this gospel from his grandfather, and he emphasizes that it still grips him in positive ways as a medical caregiver. However—and this is a central point of his chapter—it “also impoverishes me, and it renders me less faithful as a Christian living in today’s complex world… Because of [the] larger story of God’s love in Jesus, I am learning to know and love others and myself not as abstractions but as human beings who are rooted in place and culture and history.”
Each of the book’s contributions is set within a framework that Keller and Inazu lay out in their introductory and concluding chapters. The framework specifically identifies humility, patience, and tolerance as practices that should shape Christian civic engagement. Further, they highlight James Davis Hunter’s call for “faithful presence” as the key to shaping Christian public engagement in this moment of “deep disorientation.” Indeed, James Hunter’s influence is found throughout this book, both explicitly and implicitly. In unpacking Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence,” Keller and Inazu zero-in on specific themes that include not over-identifying with any particular political party, approaching our communities “through a posture of love and service,” and—once again—reaching out to others with humility, patience, and love.
There is much here for people of faith to heed in their role as Christian citizens. But, of course, finding common ground in this moment is not as easy as the contributors to this volume often imply. Here James Davison Hunter is once again a helpful guide. In his 1987 book, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, Hunter set out to plot the trajectory of evangelicalism via the then “coming generation” of evangelical leaders. In the course of this prescient work, Hunter dissects the contemporary understanding of civility. While tolerance is viewed as a core attribute of civility, Hunter points out that there is another post-modern component to civility, and that is tolerability. In our cultural zeitgeist, civility requires not only that I be tolerant of others; it also requires that I must be tolerable to others. And here’s the rub confronting people of faith today: civility requires—quoting Hunter—that “convictions… be tempered by ‘good taste’ and sensibility. It is an ethic that pleads ‘no offense.’ The greatest breach of these norms is belligerence and divisiveness; the greatest atrocity is to be offensive and thus intolerable… The critical dogma is not to offend but to be genteel… Anything that hints of moral or religious absolutism and intolerance is underplayed.” Consequently, Christians face “tremendous social constraints to be less strict, less fanatical, more opened-minded, and so on.”
Yes, the contributors to Uncommon Ground provide an important reminder to Christians that the character of our engagement of public life does matter. Humility, patience, and tolerance should be the guiding lights for Christians living out a life of faithful presence. As Keller and Inazu emphasize in the book’s conclusion, Christians are called to live and act in ways that reflect our confidence and hope in Jesus Christ. But James Davison Hunter also reminds us of the danger of being co-opted by an understanding of civility and tolerance that ultimately requires surrender to a strident progressive secularism. Short of an Anabaptist or Benedict-option-like withdrawal from culture, Christian citizens have a mandate and responsibility to engage their voices in the pluralistic conversations of American democracy. After all, and as Richard John Neuhaus frequently reminded us, politics is about how we order our lives together. Today we live in an increasingly fractured and toxic culture, and sadly, too many believers have contributed to this toxicity. This is not to say that we should ignore our enemies, roll-over and play wimp, or generally abdicate our responsibilities as citizens. But in engaging the crucial issues of our day we must do so wisely and … with a smile on our face and in our heart.