A Christian Politics of Persuasion

by The Revd Dr James Walters

Posted: 09 May 2017

Few British institutions could be said to embody the values of liberalism, in all its forms, more than the London School of Economics. Since Friedrich Hayek's free market approach defeated the statist policies of John Maynard Keynes, LSE has been a bastion of economic liberalism. Cofounded by socialist feminist Beatrice Webb and birthplace of the Gay Liberation Front, it has been a champion of social liberalism. Today both the staff and student bodies are socially mobile and cosmopolitan. They epitomise what has come to be called the "liberal elite."

So when Professor Michael Sandel from Harvard University spoke on the current state of Capitalism, Democracy and the Common Good at LSE earlier this month, he had some challenging things to say. "The American Republic is tilting toward tyranny" and the reason for this, as with Brexit, is a popular backlash against "a technocractic liberalism more congenial to the professional classes than to blue collar and middle class workers." Democracies throughout the Western World are seeing the angry rejection of an approach to politics "that is tone deaf to the resentments of those who feel that the economy and also the culture have left them behind."

So this concerns both economy and culture; both economic and social liberalism are under threat. Voters are rejecting a globalisation that has taken jobs elsewhere and seemingly displaced native workers with low wage immigrants. And the social liberalism that globalisation reinforced is being undermined with it. Homophobic hate crime rose 147% in Britain in the three months after Brexit and a man who brags about sexually harassing women has become Leader of the Free World.

Our societies are divided - almost straight down the middle with very narrow majorities for both Trump and Brexit. The Whiggish conviction held by many liberals in the inevitability of their ultimate victory has been profoundly shaken. There is no foreseeable liberal consensus. Just as the New Atheists are reeling from the shock that the world is seeing, not secularisation, but religious and spiritual diversification, so our societies are experiencing not political liberalisation but polarisation.

Sandel acknowledged a state of shock among liberals giving way to a "feverish worry, outrage and protest." But in the face of such profound social division, he called not merely for a politics of protest but also a "politics of persuasion". The politics of protest simply wants to defeat the other side. The politics of persuasion recognises the need to be on a shared journey where opponents are won over. Recovering a sense of the common good can only begin with an attempt to understand the discontent that is roiling politics in democracies around the world today.

It seems highly likely that the same zeitgeist shapes the contemporary Church. For decades the liberal idealist spirit of Anglicanism has favoured progressive readings of history in which tolerant consensus would be built "till the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea." Progressive moves like the ordination of women have been adopted with the assumption that this was the inevitable direction of travel and opposition would eventually die. But recent events have questioned our own belief in an ecclesial liberal consensus. The Bishops' report on the Shared Conversations, though rejected at General Synod, demonstrated that opposition to homosexuality remains entrenched. The first choice of the Sheffield Crown Nominations Commission has uncomfortably reminded many that opposition to women's ordination is something the Church of England may be living with indefinitely.

The politics of protest abounds, waged primarily by the keyboard warriors of social media. Liberals seek to sustain their belief in inevitable victory by shaming and marginalising their opponents while Traditionalists and conservatives see hope for Christianity only in the withering away of the liberal tradition. No wonder Archbishop Justin's leadership is focussing on the theme of "disagreeing well." But Sandel's "politics of persuasion" reminds us that good disagreement is not just a set of guidelines to permit undisturbed coexistence. Good disagreement based simply on "live and let live" will cause no one to flourish. The politics of persuasion points to a culture of deeper understanding of the motivations of those with whom we disagree, both their given arguments and broader cultural factors. It means sustaining the difficult conversations, based on that empathy, to develop a shared openness to new ways of moving forward from our current positions.

The bad news for liberals in the Church of England is that within a global context of destabilising social change and reactionary backlash, the Church can easily become a refuge for conservative entrenchment. But understanding that motivation and acknowledging that the opponents of liberalism will not simply "see sense" or go away, might enable us to cultivate a Christian politics of persuasion. We need to abandon the belief our problems will be solved through liberal consensus, but foster instead our unity in Christ through an empathic exchange of perspectives that enables coexistence and can even lead people to change their minds.

This article was first published in the Church Times.

About this author

The Revd Canon Dr James Walters is Chaplain to the London School of Economics and Director of the LSE Faith Centre. He is an Associate of the St Paul's Institute.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.