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What is civil discourse? Dr. Jim Denison and Todd Furniss discuss the necessity of civility

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Civil Discourse is a new podcast hosted by Todd Furniss, “where participants are free to share their ideas, empathize with other perspectives, and who intend to advance to a better solution to fix a societal ill,” focusing on topics that are “particularly complicated.”

For his inaugural episode, Furniss welcomed Dr. Jim Denison to the show, and they discussed what it means to be civil in an increasingly uncivil society, the topic of Dr. Denison’s book, Respectfully, I Disagree.

The questions and answers below are adapted from Civil Discourse’s first episode, embedded below. To watch more episodes, subscribe to the Civil Discourse YouTube channel.

How is incivility affecting our culture?

Respectfully, I Disagree was published in time for the electoral cycle last year. I wanted to help Christians speak their mind, but to do so in a way that draws people closer to Christ rather than driving them further away. Let’s be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

So I began looking at the issue of incivility in the culture. I discovered that, according to a particular survey titled “Civility in America 2019 Solutions for Tomorrow” by public relations firm Weber Shandwick, 68 percent of Americans consider civility in America to be a major problem. Twenty-five percent consider it to be a minor problem. Only 7 percent say it’s not a problem. So, 93 percent total say that civility is a problem.

They also list the top ten consequences of incivility, e.g., online bullying, harassment, violent behavior, hate crimes, intimidation and threats, intolerance, people feeling less safe in public spaces, discrimination, less community engagement, and feelings of isolation and loneliness. This is obviously an epidemic. And that was what I wanted to speak into.

How can we best engage in civil discourse?

What comes to mind is two apparently competing beliefs, two competing truths. In philosophy, we speak of antinomies, as accepting apparently contradictory facts as both proof. The way that light travels, for instance. Moore’s model of complementarity: by some measures it’s particle, by some it’s wave. It can’t be both, but it seems like it is, so we accept both of those at the same time.

In theological terms, Christians say God is three-in-one and Jesus is fully divine and fully human. So there’s this balance we need to make.

In this context, we need to be absolutely transparent about what we believe, absolutely straightforward. We need to tell people what we think. We need to feel the freedom to be able to do that. And podcasts like this, conversations like this, are a terrific means toward that.

But, at the same time, we need to be so careful not to impugn the motives of those with whom we disagree—not to assume that, because they disagree with us, that we know why, that we understand the motive behind that, that we understand the reason why they feel as they do about this, to try to get out of our prism and see through their prism, to try to get to their metanarrative, try to get to their founding principles, try to get to their presuppositions, and see if I can understand this issue in that context.

For example, I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on the so-called Equality Act being discussed by the House of Representatives again this week. It passed in 2019. From there, it’ll go to the Senate. The Act would elevate to civil rights protected class issues relative to gender identity, sexual orientation, and LGBTQ issues.

For an evangelical like me, this is a frightening thing because it doesn’t allow for any kind of recourse to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In other words, you could see Catholic adoption agencies being forced to adopt children to same-sex couples in violation of their religious beliefs. Baylor, where I serve (as Resident Scholar for Ethics with Baylor Scott & White Health) could be forced to do sex change operations.

So I’m looking at this and thinking through my prism: “Well, this is an absolute attack on religious freedom. Why doesn’t everybody see this?” But what If I can get out of my mind and get into the mind of the other side?

In their mind, they look at my position the same way I look at racism.

I think racism is absolutely horrific. Racism is an absolute sin. it’s the original sin, you could say, in American history. I think it’s absolutely horrible if someone wouldn’t do an interracial marriage. Well, that’s how the other side sees me about same-sex marriage.

I think it’s absolutely horrific that somebody would discriminate against somebody of a different race relative to housing or civil rights. Well, that’s how they see my position relative to LGBTQ issues. And if a KKK person wanted to appeal to religious liberty to defend their position, that’s just wrong. Well, that’s how those that are supporting the Equality Act feel about my appeal to religious liberty in light of my beliefs.

Why is a commitment to inquiry essential to civility?

If I haven’t learned something in today’s conversation, I haven’t been listening. As you’re know, out of your legal background, the Socratic method of seeking to draw out truth is a dialectical approach where we’re both learning something and we come to a third (idea) that’s greater than either of us individually. The sum is greater than the parts is absolutely the goal.   

If we’re going to build a civil discourse in a secular democracy, where the word God nowhere appears in the Constitution, we have to be able to do that on a level of commonality, on a level of consensual morality, on the level of a larger purpose to which we’re going together–that kind of conversation, that kind of hard listening. That kind of humility is essential to the democratic experiment and to the future of our discourse and our civility.

How can we model civility?

In a culture of self-curated content (e.g., social media, TV news, etc.), where I only want to listen to people with whom I agree, I may never get to people who can change my mind or I can change theirs. And so I think we need to be really intentional about this. I think we need to almost develop quota systems where we say:

  • How many people have I talked to this week with whom I disagree on issues?
  • How many places have I gone to get sources I know I’m going to disagree with?
  • How much am I intentionally pushing myself beyond my own opinion, my own echo chambers?

We must have an intentionality and impunity about this while doing it in a compassionate spirit of humility. That kind of initiative is going to be really essential going forward.

For example, I saw the Daniel Day-Lewis movie Lincoln again over the past weekend, one of my favorite movies of all time. Part of what isn’t in the movie, unfortunately, is the friendship Lincoln had with Frederick Douglass.

Douglass saw Lincoln as very much an opponent because he thought Lincoln was moving too slowly relative to equality and emancipation. Lincoln saw Douglass as an opponent, a skeptic, and a critic, but they developed a friendship across their disagreements. Douglass moved Lincoln and Lincoln moved Douglass.

By the time of Lincoln’s second inauguration, Douglass stood in line and couldn’t get into the White House for the reception. Lincoln found out and ordered Douglass to be brought into the reception, where Lincoln and Douglass could not only shake hands but also talk together and plan the future together.

That started on a relational basis. And, from there, it moved to the issues that had been dividing them, and they found common ground and moved forward.

That’s more of what we need in the future.

To hear Dr. Denison and Todd Furniss’ full conversation, watch the first episode on YouTube.

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