How should Christians express a Christ-like posture in the public square? What expression should that posture take when political disagreements arise? Patrick Miller is back on the podcast to speak with Rick about influences shaping how communities of Christian faith engage in disagreement, notably when disagreement involves political concern. They discuss empathy, the cost of not knowing someone who holds a different political viewpoint, as well as pastoral insights on cultivating a soul that engages with politically diverse perspectives in a healthy manner.
Rick Langer: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name's Rick Langer. I'm a professor at Biola University in the Biblical Studies and Theology Department, and I'm also director of the Office of Faith and Learning and the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project.
And one of the things that we love to do in the Winsome Conviction Project is help people communicate convictions effectively, in a winsome manner, such that we can maintain civility but, at the same time, preserve deeply-held convictions.
And one of the great delights we have is talking to others who are working on similar things. And today, my guest is Patrick Miller, who has published a book, Truth Over Tribe. That's also the name of a podcast that he co-hosts. And he is the pastor of The Crossing church in Columbia, Missouri.
And we've chatted with him before, and just wanted to continue this conversation because it was really fascinating, and I would strongly encourage you to check out the podcast, book, and other resources that Patrick and his co-author, Keith Simon, have put together. We'll have all that information available to you on the winsomeconviction.com website. But Patrick, welcome, and thanks for joining us.
Patrick Miller: Oh, great to be here.
Rick Langer: There's a couple of things that we've talked in other times about some of the things that you guys have done there at your church in terms of working on the way we communicate and how we can have a more Christ-like posture, I think, in the public square.
One of the things that I'd love to pick up on is kind of an interesting thing about empathy. So we talk a lot about empathy, the need to empathize with others, but I also read a book recently called Against Empathy. It was by a professor at Yale. But he was pointing out that empathy can kind of run wild. It can become such that we become so worried about how others might feel or that what you might say might, quote, "hurt someone deeply," that our empathy actually ends up impeding good communication. We don't say the things we need to say. We don't speak up because it might invalidate someone else's viewpoint.
So how do we manage this? I don't know if you've run into this or not, but how do we keep genuine concern for other people in its place but perhaps speak up against areas in which we think other people's convictions may actually be mistaken?
Patrick Miller: That is a fascinating question. First of all, I'm with you. I think that empathy is incredibly important for not just communication but for healthy relationships and healthy communities. And so I would be one of the first people to resist anyone saying that empathy is bad, but that's obviously not what this professor is communicating. It sounds like he's talking about empathy running amok.
In a lot of ways, I mean, I do think we've seen this as a culture. There's a fantastic book, The Coddling of the American Mind, by Jonathan Haidt, and he explores how, especially amongst younger people, and this would include my generation, we have come to see words that cause us discomfort, tension, or even some level of internal pain, hurt. We've come to see them as truly harmful, as equally harmful as someone physically attacking you or physically harming you.
And so, if you believe that, you're going to want to show a certain level of empathy out of fear that, "If I say something that causes you any cognitive dissonance, it causes you any internal questioning or tension, I've somehow now done you harm." Now, if that's the premise that your empathy is based on, I have some serious problems with that.
Because one, while I do think words can hurt us, and I think especially unnecessarily unkind words can be a real... They can be very painful, so I don't want to minimize that. On the other hand, having a intellectually honest conversation about ideas, about principles, about politics... If someone says something that you don't like, that does not harm you. You have not been harmed in the conversation.
Now, if they call you a big jerk and, "You're stupid, and I don't like you," well, okay, that has caused you some level of harm, not the same, by the way, though, as being physically attacked by that person.
And so I guess maybe the question I would want to ask to the broader thing is like, "Hey, can empathy run amok?" Maybe I would frame it like this. It's not so much a problem with empathy as the telos of empathy. What's the goal in the end of your empathy? If the goal of your empathy is to make other people feel good or, even worse, make other people feel good about you, then yes, your empathy can run amok, right?
But I actually don't think that's the proper goal of empathy. A little illustration might make the point. If you took your car to a car mechanic, and he looks it over, and he comes back and goes, "This car's a gem. You take such great care of it. There's nothing wrong with it." And a week later, you're out driving, and you hit the brakes, and the brakes aren't working, and you slam into another car, and you find out that you had no brake fluid. What would you do? Well, you'd go to the mechanic and say, "What the heck, man? Why didn't you tell me my brake fluid is out?" And he said, "Oh man, I didn't want to hurt your feelings. I didn't want to make you feel bad."
Or it's the same with a doctor. Let's say your doctor says, "Hey, you're in great health. Everything's awesome. You're the healthiest specimen I've ever met in my life." And then, a week later, you have a heart attack. And you go back in, and you say, "Hey, what happened?" He goes, "Well, I didn't want to tell you about your cholesterol levels because I thought it might offend you."
Well, we would be upset with both people. And the reason why is because we understand the tools of their trade, whether it's medicine or being a mechanic, they have an end goal, which is to make your car work, to make your body be healthy. And if they don't use those tools properly, they're going to cause you harm.
Empathy is a tool. It's not the goal. Empathy is a tool for me to be able to build a relationship, to communicate with you, to care for you. But the end goal, I think, should be to actually help you. And sometimes helping you means challenging you, telling you where you're wrong. And if you're empathetic, you'll do it in a way that can actually be heard and received. Empathy's a tool for healthy conversation. It's not the goal of healthy conversation.
Rick Langer: Yeah. It seems like this has played out even in terms of messages. I hear it said in churches about how we should respond to our culture. And it seems like if you were to just look at the biblical pattern for speaking to a culture, there's definitely room for both what you might call the pastoral voice and the prophetic voice. In fact, you kind of have to use both.
And there's times when you imitate the Holy Spirit by being the comforter, but there's times when you imitate the Holy Spirit by speaking word of warning. I just have been reading Jeremiah in my devotional times, and I've been wading so far through about 16 chapters worth of Jeremiah saying really hard things about the people of Israel. But he's saying, "Look, guys, you have departed from the covenant. The land will throw you out. The Babylonians will come and destroy you. This is where we're going."
And soft-pedaling it didn't seem to work. In fact, when he said, "I don't want to say this," he talked about those words burning within him, and he just had to speak. How do you balance that, though? You're a pastor. How do you balance this prophetic side and this pastoral side as you're speaking publicly about controversial issues?
Patrick Miller: That's a huge challenge. Let me give an example that I think illustrates the nature of the challenge. We talked in the previous episode about a sermon we did about transgenderism and trans issues. And if you're talking about the topic of transgenderism and trans issues, you're going to talk about the topic in a certain way. It's probably going to be a little more direct, a little more analytical.
But if you were talking to a trans person, you would talk to that person in a very different manner. Probably, you'd show that person lots of curiosity. You'd like to ask them lots of questions to understand their experience, why they made the decision they made to transition, dig into their life to understand their context. Francis Schaeffer famously said, "If I had an hour with someone, I'd spend 55 minutes asking questions and five minutes speaking back." And I think that's a great tool in an interpersonal relationship.
So to answer the question, part of me is like, "Well, really, what matters is, what kind of conversation am I having? Who am I having it with?" If I'm on stage giving a sermon, I'm not talking to someone else. I don't have the opportunity to have a back-and-forth conversation. So by the very nature of giving a sermon, you're going to talk about things in a way that is a little more direct.
Now, I think the way your affect, your tone... That really matters when you're communicating about things. But any good preacher knows that. If you get on stage and you just start roasting people for their sins or for their bad ideas, that's not going to win their hearts to God.
And so I guess where I'm going with this is just saying context really, really, really matters. And so you're not going to get a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Context really matters, and the topic really matters. Am I talking to a trans person, or am I talking to a person who's not trans about trans issues? The context is going to change everything about that conversation.
Rick Langer: Yeah, that's a great point. As you were talking, you reminded me of two life experiences. Mine, I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, but attended to a big public high school. And this is in the 1970s, and I knew there were people in my high school who were gay, but I didn't know anybody who was out of the closet, who was publicly that way.
And when I thought about homosexuality or gay people... Basically, I thought about homosexuality as a particular kind of sexual act that had a particular moral valence, "This is the thing you shouldn't do." So that's what's in my head.
Well, fast-forward 30 years, my kids go to a large public high school in Southern California, and they haven't been in that school a week until they sit down besides someone who is not only gay, but openly gay, out of the closet gay. And with every expectation that that is fine. And so an interesting thing happens. I grew up thinking about homosexuality in abstract, as a sort of activity with a particular ethical valence. My kids grew up thinking about homosexuality as Terry, John, Tony, and Sally.
Patrick Miller: Yeah. Yeah.
Rick Langer: It was fundamentally personal. And they were often people they liked, great people, or whatever. And then you had to secondarily ask the moral question. So that difference... And it's interesting to ask, "Who thought about it better? Who thought about it right?" And I think what I'd like to say is I don't think either of us thought about it adequately until all of us had thought about it both ways.
Because it's really easy to just play the empathy card and say, "How would it feel for this person?" Therefore, everything must be right. But on the other hand, it's easy to just say, "Hey, all that matter's that it's wrong, so who cares about the person?" And I'm like, "Dude, how much do you have that's wrong? Do you want to be treated that way?"
Patrick Miller: No, I think that's really fascinating. And if I had to be honest, I think the risk in our culture... If we're going to lean one way or the other, we are probably going to lean in the more empathic way, the more personal way, as opposed to the more analytical way. And that's because emotivism has really become our ethical framework for how we think through everything. We have this profound idea that anything that comes from within the human, the human heart is, by its nature, pure and good and properly directed.
And so if someone seemingly by no choice of their own is sexually attracted to someone else from the same sex, who am I to judge? Who am I to ask questions? They didn't choose this, and they're being true to themselves, which is, of course, our highest ethic, authenticity, to be true to yourself.
And so I agree with you. We need both sides because a kind of cold, analytical, reasoned-out approach tends to treat people as subhuman, as almost like specimens to be pinned up to the board and understood. But if we have a risk, I really do think the risk is probably emotivism. And it's probably different person to person. Some people are going to be more analytical. Some people are going to be a little bit more emotive. But as a culture, there's no doubt we are a emotivistic culture.
Rick Langer: Yeah. Yeah. And I think those issues, the idea that a deeply-held natural desire is not self-validating, that's a strange thought, "If I deeply feel it, therefore it is valid." That's just what it means for something to be true. It's something that's deeply felt.
And I don't think that's sustainable. But part of that is an intellectual question. There's a way we think about things and not just the way we feel about things. And the risk, I think, for all of us is that we only do our thinking or we only do our feeling, and we don't think and feel well together.
Hey, another thing I want to chat about, we mentioned earlier on a earlier episode about... We talked a bit about politics and the way it's become so important in our culture and particularly within the Church. And I find this kind of weird at one level because we're still... And I feel like always, and still to this day, we're predominantly skeptical about politicians, and we love to say things like, "They don't really get anything done. Real change takes place on the inside, not from the outside in. You got to change to the heart, not the laws. Spiritual's more important than worldly power."
We say all those things, but yet, in the past 10 years, it seems like we don't live like that. And the thing that becomes most important is who has political power will support people as long as they give us political power regardless of moral behaviors or postures or things like that, exhibiting the food of the spirit or anything of that nature.
And it seems like, wow, that issue of politics, we have a weird schizophrenic kind of attitude towards, where on the one hand, we think it's the most important thing in the world, on the other hand, we think it doesn't get anything done. What's going on with us in politics, as you see it?
Patrick Miller: Yeah. I think there are so many different explanations that we could easily explore. One of the things that I think that's happened in our country in our current moment is that we don't actually know many people from opposing political beliefs from us.
So if you go back to the 1980s, there were studies that were done to see how many landslide counties there were in the United States. A landslide county is a county that goes for one presidential candidate by 20 points or more. Right? So, this guy-
Rick Langer: I live in California. For us, landslide counties are where the mudslides come down. So I appreciate that clarification.
Patrick Miller: There you go. So that's exactly right. So you can imagine a county where 70% of the people voted for Ronald Reagan, or 70% of the people voted for Jimmy Carter. And again, back in the early 1980s, the vast majority of Americans lived in counties that were not landslide counties.
In other words, we had what are sociologically called cross-cutting relationships. I was probably working with someone who didn't share my political beliefs. I was probably at church with someone who didn't share my political beliefs.
Again, go back to the 1970s, Jimmy Carter was, I think, the last Democratic president to win a majority of evangelical votes in 1976. So even in my church, I couldn't assume that people were voting one way or the other. And this cut across all of your relationships.
But if you go into the present, over the last 30, 40 years, Americans have... Not consciously. It's interesting how it happens. But we have subconsciously chosen to move into neighborhoods and zip codes that share our political identity.
Today, over 50% of Americans live in landslide counties. That means that there's a good chance when you go to work, when you go to church, when you go to the PTA, you will not interact with someone who doesn't share your politics. Everybody's going to share your politics. And those who don't, you can easily avoid because there's not many of them out there.
Now, the cost of not knowing people who don't share your politics is that you don't understand them. They can easily become a caricature in your mind. If I don't know a Democrat, it's easy for me to believe that they're a election-stealing, evil, nefarious pedophile, peddling, whatever it is. I can believe these caricatures because I don't know a Democrat. And the same way around. If I don't know a Republican, I can call them all racist. I can call them all bigots and misogynist because I don't know a Republican.
And I think that's part of why politics have become such a big part of our identity. As I look around at my neighborhood, my place, this is part of something that we all share collectively with one another, and identity often forms around what we hate, what we're against.
And so we have geographically separated ourselves into communities that really allow us to live in these little echo chambers where we identify with our political party and hate the other party, which actually, interestingly, I think ramps up the importance of politics in our life because it went from maybe being the fifth or sixth most important thing in our life to being very important because it's something we share with most of the people around us.
Rick Langer: Yeah, that's interesting. In this issue of the landslide thing, when you get to like 70%, the effect of that isn't that seven out of 10 people you talk to will have this opinion, and the other three people, you'll hear the other opinion. What happens when you get up to the seven and eight out 10 is that seven or eight out of 10 people will be willing to talk about politics, and two will be silent.
Patrick Miller: Yeah. Absolutely.
Rick Langer: So you will literally never hear the other side once you cross a certain threshold.
Patrick Miller: I think one of the fascinating things here, too, just to note, is I think people think we are more polarized today than we were back in the 1980s. That's actually false. There's been a lot of research that's shown that... In terms of policy, the differences in policies of both parties, at our high point, we were at about a 0.49. So a 0 would be basically you disagree on everything, and a 1 would be you agree on everything. At America's high point, we were at a 0.49, and that was in 1984. Our low point was actually in 2012 when we scored a 0.44. So even at our worst-
Rick Langer: We haven't moved much.
Patrick Miller: Yeah. Even at our worst, we still share quite a bit with one another. And so the polarization isn't a function of the fact that our policies have become increasingly polarized. And people always push back, "I don't think that's true. I don't think it's right." I'm like, "Well, just go look at the research. It's out there." We aren't polarized as much on policy as we are polarized in identity, in our identity groupings. And again, that's why we've become so political is because it's become such a core part of how we think about ourselves and how we navigate the world.
Rick Langer: We also talk about affective polarization. So our emotions, our emotional response have become polarized so that when I disagree with you, I also disdain you. And that's a thing I think that is different. We seem to have a difficult time sustaining a mere disagreement without including this affective component of disdain, hatred, malice towards the other side. That, I think, is particularly dangerous.
But I guess the perverse side effect of that is that probably makes the identity-building part of that political side all the stronger because you're not going to hang out with the people you disdain. Maybe the ones you disagree with, if you disagree only, but when you actually disdain the other side, you're going to be moving more and more, and your identity will become more and more centered on that thing.
Patrick Miller: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that's true.
Rick Langer: Yeah. Well, that makes me feel worse. Thanks for sharing. Do you have the feeling in the midst of this that God has been marginalized? In other words, God has become small relative to politics?
Patrick Miller: I do, though maybe not in the way most people would mean, when I say that. I think one of the negative side effects, unintentional side effects of the seeker-sensitive movement was that as Churches living in a culture that kind of still broadly thought about itself as Christian in some fashion, as Churches were trying to bring more people into their church who were disinterested in Church, not really engaged in Church, they decided one way to do that was by minimizing offense, not putting up barriers like political issues or ethical issues that would keep someone from coming in because they don't share your politics or they don't share your ethics.
And so, what we effectively did is we just minimized those things. We didn't talk about politics. We didn't talk about ethics. We didn't talk about any of those topics. The problem is that people don't live in a vacuum. If the Church won't disciple people in their politics, they will be discipled somewhere else. Again, it might be The New York Times, it might be Tucker Carlson, but they will be discipled somewhere else.
So this was a good effort. It was all intended very well. But I think with good intentions, we paved the way for Christians to be discipled more by media than they are by churches in politics. And that's why I say, "We've made God too small." Because God does have something to say about our ethics and our politics.
People freak out when I say this, but the gospel is a politic. Jesus has a politic. He's not partisan, but He does have a politic. He does have a way of organizing human relationships, talking about how we deal with differences, how we deal with enemies and outsiders. He has a sexual ethic.
I mean, Jesus has a politic. And it's not going to perfectly align with the Left or with the Right, and we make God small when we begin to align with one of those partisan parties instead of aligning with the kingdom of God. He has a politic. Live into His politics. Seek to understand His politic. If you don't do that before you're partisan in any fashion, you have made God small.
Rick Langer: Yeah. Yeah. That's a great insight. One thing that I'd love to chat about before we go is to just talk about training and forming people's souls within the Church in ways that enable them to resist the tendency towards tribalism and extend whatever... And maybe I should let you define what it is you'd like people to do instead of be tribalized. But what do you do as a pastor to help form people in ways that are more loving, humble, better reflective of Jesus in terms of the way they do their discourse?
Patrick Miller: Yeah. And I don't think I'm going to have any slam-dunk answers here that are super original.
Rick Langer: That's why we paid you the big bucks and brought you in, man.
Patrick Miller: Yeah. Yeah, that's right. No, obviously, we wrote this book to help shepherd and disciple the Church, and every chapter has discussion questions afterwards. And so there's lots of small groups out there going through the book and doing the discussion questions. So that might be something that people could check out if they want to get really narrowly focused on this specific issue.
I think outside of that, what we have to do as Churches is we have to embrace the role of sermons and liturgy and teaching in shaping people. So these are topics that we need to talk about. We need to encourage people to grow in generosity and kindness. We need to encourage people in intellectual humility. We need to encourage people to cross tribal lines.
And that might actually be one of the most important things we can do. It's really tempting right now, if you... Here's a great Church growth strategy. Just pick one side. Just pick one side, like hang the rainbow flag out front or hang the American flag out front. Pick a side and make that your thing because you'll draw everybody from that political party to your church. They're going to love it, right? Because you've just accommodated yourself to the partisan groups.
But but but you've lost in the long run because Jesus came to tear down the dividing walls. In the ancient world, that was between Jew and Gentile. And I think today, it's between Republican and Democrat. And when the Church is a Church that challenges both sides explicitly and also compliments and celebrates both sides explicitly, finds what's good and what's bad in both places, what they're going to do is they're going to find people from both sides coming in both being offended and both growing alongside one another.
And that dividing wall between Republican and Democrat will come down through the grace and the power of Jesus so that all of a sudden, they discover, "I'm worshiping next to someone who voted differently than me." Or, "I'm in a small group of someone who voted differently than me."
And here's the beauty of that. The way we proclaim to the powers of the world that Jesus is king, that Jesus is in charge, is by not organizing ourself the way the world does. The world says, "Thou shall remain separated from one another. Under Jesus, we come together, and we are united." And we say, "Guess what? You're not in charge here. Jesus is in charge here, and that's why we can worship with one another."
So maybe that would be the biggest takeaway, saying you've got to think about ways strategically to help your church community become more politically diverse. If you can't do that, you might be able to help people grow in kindness and speaking with the fruit of the spirit, which is incredible. That's great.
But if you really want to see what we're talking about in this book, people pledging their allegiance to Jesus before the donkey and the elephant, I think you have to bring people who previously pledged their allegiance to the donkey and the elephant. You've got to bring them together and say, "No, the lamb is greater. The lamb is better. His politic is superior. I am with him."
Rick Langer: Well, one of the things I noticed as I read your book was it seemed like one of the things you were doing very well was not just talking about things but just doing things. In other words, not just talking about kindness but say, "Hey, let's do kindness. So we buy cinnamon rolls for all the schools."
Great story about forgiving the medical debt. You were thinking, "Hey, what if we got the medical debt of everyone who is below the poverty line in your county forgiven?" And you ended up doing it in 11 different counties around your area. There was another thing that I remember you mentioned when we talked that... Just where you guys stepped out and did things.
Patrick Miller: Yeah. Yeah.
Rick Langer: And has that been effective in terms of shaping the way your congregation carries forward discourse?
Patrick Miller: Yeah. I do. I think that generosity and kindness are... It's hard to say. It's hard to hate someone who is generous to you. It's hard to hate someone who is kind to you. And so we just try to very tangibly, physically show generosity and kindness around our community.
You brought up the example of medical debt. Any church could do this. We partnered with RIP Medical Debt, a secular organization, and they can buy medical debt for a penny on the dollar for anybody who's living under the poverty line, which, if it's a dual-income family, it's actually under something like $50,000. That's higher than you think.
And we just realized, "Look, Jesus canceled our debts. Let's go and cancel the medical debt that's keeping people from being able to get houses, keeping people from being able to get jobs, that's leading creditors to hound them and their families. Let's just cancel their medical debt. Let's declare a jubilee in our county."
And so we just kind of gave that vision to our church, and they ended up giving far more money than we ever imagined. We ended up canceling $43 million of medical debt. That was actually, I think, something around 30 some other counties in the state they were able to cancel.
And we just saw the tribalistic walls come crumbling down. People coming to the church. I mean, we'd get calls, and they'd say, "Why did you do this for me? I'm not a Christian. I don't go to your church. I don't care about any of this stuff." We're like, "Oh, it's easy. Jesus did it for us." And people started coming to church because it was just so shocking and confusing.
We've done similar things with utility debt where we realized there's a lot of people on... There's basically a list of people who are at risk for having their utility shut off. And so, one time, we said, "Let's just pay off all their debt. We're going to pay off all the utility debt in our city." And our church gave, and we did it. And again, you saw the walls crumbling down.
But it's not just giving money. We've given our time and our energy. If you are a single mom, or if you are a refugee, or if you're a ex-con who's on parole, if you're homeless, and you're looking for services to help you get onto your feet, there's a good chance that the first person you will meet who's going to help you do that in our city, will be someone who goes to our church.
So whether you're at the highest echelons of society or the low echelons of society, we are there to care, to show generosity, to show kindness. And when they learn like, "Oh, you worship Jesus? He's your king?" Of course those walls come tumbling down. They say, "There's something different here, and I want to know more of that."
And so we're not convincing people of our ethical perspectives or having arguments with them to argue them into the faith. We're showing the beauty of the gospel, and the beauty of the gospel, I think, is most clearly shown in sacrificial, generous love.
Rick Langer: Yeah. Yeah. I think sometimes we forget the things we do as a form of discourse as well, and we can do things in ways that alienate and become combative, and we can do things in ways that bring people together. And you don't have to paper it over with a whole lot of words. Your doing is your voice. And that isn't to say we eliminate words or words are unimportant, but it would be a shame if we only had one way of speaking when there's so many more ways available to us.
Well, Patrick, thanks a ton for taking the time to talk with me here, for taking the time to share all these things with our listeners. We greatly appreciate it. And again, the book that you and Keith wrote is called Truth Over Tribe. Likewise, that's the name of your podcast, and we're really, really grateful for all you're doing, and we really do want to pray God is blessing upon you as you continue to serve there in Missouri and really all across the nation with the things that you're doing.
Patrick Miller: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me on.
Rick Langer: And we'd like to thank all of you, our listeners, for joining in. We encourage you to become a regular subscriber on Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And also, check out our resources on the winsomeconviction.com website. We really encourage you to be part of making our world just a little bit better in how we speak, love, and care for one another. Thanks for joining us.