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Hard & Soft Coercion - part 1

Sunday, 3 November 2013  | Steve McAlpine

Os Guinness’s latest book, The Case for Civility is a brave, articulate and gracious call for a return to a civil and civilising discourse in the increasingly strident US culture wars. Guinness pleads for the restoration of a public square that is safe, honest, and like his book, gracious in tone. In chapter one, “A World Safe for Diversity”, he states that his work is:

A proposal for reforging civility in American public life - a tough robust democratic civility wrested from the jaws of the culture wars.

Guinness pinpoints the key question facing western culture today:

How do we live with our deepest differences, especially when those differences are religious and ideological?

That we are permitted to live with deepest differences is itself a minor miracle; no small  matter indeed.  Modern Western culture is virtually alone in celebrating the idea of diversity, even as it struggles to celebrate the thing itself. But the diversity so hard won, according to Guinness, is on the verge of being lost. 

The post-Reformation roots of diversity challenged the very notion of state coercion in the religious realm. Non-conformity was not celebrated, but suppressed.  The powers could not countenance freedom of conscience as anything but the seeds of anarchy, hence Christendom‘s aversion to and heavy-handed response to heresy.  That the battle was won at all bears testament to both the weight of the theological argument that ensued, and the increasingly fractured state, which, over time, had its monolithic overreach stripped away.

Hence when that bastion of conservative business sense, the UK’s Financial Times, came out in October 2013 with its first ranking of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender business leaders, it wasn’t simply the fruit of 40 years of social change, but 300 years. One suspects that non-conformists languishing in English prisons for the sake of theological conscience would be less than pleased had they known their dissent actually opened up a diversity that would have troubled their moral conscience. 

Incidentally, the FT’s Top 50 OUTstanding in Business List was headed by HSBC’s UK head of banking, Antonio Simoes, who it was reported “drives the diversity agenda in HSBC, challenges stereotypes and [has] won a diversity leader of the year award.”

Former Chief executive of BP, Lord Browne, a member of OUTstanding’s Business advisory panel added “Leaders who happen to be gay can inspire a new generation simply by being open and being comfortable with who they are.” 

The great irony of course is that many evangelical Christians are unnerved by what they sense is a growing hostility in the public square towards any form of diversity that includes the traditional Christian narrative and its ethical and sexual perspectives. Many are dismayed by the speed and shift of the West’s baseline cultural narrative, in which soft coercion, cultural power embodied in the arts and in education, has comprehensively challenged and dismantled public Christianity’s core assumptions, whilst at the same time left open the door for hard coercion to step through in the form of legal and legislative challenges to the Christian perspective in the public square.

Having handed over the weapon of coercion could that same weapon be used against its previous owner? Guinness’s work, admirable though it is, reminds me of the losing side on a war; like the Axis nations who, upon realising they had lost a war they started, then attempted to negotiate with the Allies,  but with nothing to bring to the table. The winner always calls the loser’s bluff sooner or later.  Guinness’s response is, at least, far superior to the generally discredited attempts to establish a new hard coercion through groups such as the Religious Right and the Moral Majority in the US.

In other words, with soft coercion—cultural power—being so complete and so successful in shifting the baseline culture narrative, in which the freedom of the autonomous individual is paramount, what, if anything, can put the brakes on hard coercion following in its wake? What is to stop narrative terminologies such as “diversity”, “inspire”, “open and comfortable” being reinforced, and even enforced, with propositional terminologies such as “illegal” and “unlawful” when the kind of diversity being suggested—in this case the Christian framework and ethic—is being proposed as a viable and worthy participant in the public square?

Two questions arise: In borrowing terminology from OUTstanding’s press statement in The Financial Times, how can evangelical Christians be open and comfortable with who they are in the face of this new reality?  And second, how can we inspire a new generation of Christians for whom this new reality is the only reality they have ever known, or will ever know in the future?

I take it as a given that because of the gospel we will not fight fire with fire, or ‘ire with ire’, so to speak.  It is a constant source of confusion to several of my atheist friends (many who hold my Christian views on sexuality to be not only abhorrent, but the early twenty-first century equivalent of mid-twentieth century racism) that I have no interest in legislating my conscience into functional and universal existence. After all that is exactly what they would do, given the chance.  One friend, a man of French descent employed in a high-level post in Canberra, scolded me that simply to think as I do would necessitate my dismissal from any number of government departments. Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite didn’t see that coming!

Which is exactly my point.  Only the gospel gives us the framework and the theological tools to provide an alternative to hard coercion. Pneumatology or the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is instructive here: not simply because the Spirit transforms our self-centred hearts, but because, as the downpayment of the age-to-come in which Jesus will be King, this peaceable ‘presence of the future’ undermines our drive to forcefully globalise our ethic in the present.

Could some antagonists attempt to take advantage of this eschatological confidence? By this I mean, if we have no need to either push a hard coercion, nor retaliate according to the rules of "this age" should hard coercion be used against us, could this be viewed as a weakness to be exploited? Undoubtedly. I envisage that legal challenges to Christian ethical positions will increase in the near future. I am neither advocating a laissez-faire attitude to government policy, nor an inert fatalism that atrophies our theology: I recognise that God ordains government to keep order and dispense some measure of justice in a fallen world. However if Guinness’s hope for a return to civil discourse has any hope of being realised, then Christians must recognise that our template was, is, and must continue to be cruciform in such matters.  Hard coercion is not our friend, and, in the power of the gospel, it may not prove to be the enemy we fear it to be either. 



Gordon Preece
November 7, 2013, 12:49PM
Thanks, Steve, for the excellent piece, very provocative. One thing to add would be Volf's article "Soft difference" based on 1 Peter, as another resource for your position. I think there are some good links there.
Stephen McAlpine
November 8, 2013, 12:01AM
Hi Gordon, thanks for your kind comments. Yes, I do remember reading (hearing?) Volf on this a while back, so perhaps am piggy-backing on it a little. 1 Peter has been such an important document to me over the past decade or so. I've been ruminating on James Davison Hunter's work too. A little bit to think about for Part B!

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