I’ve heard the mantra for at least a decade now: “Southern Baptists are known more for the things we are AGAINST than the things we are FOR!” It’s a pretty decent applause line for a sermon. I’ve probably used it myself somewhere along the way. But I’m beginning to rethink the logic behind it, for reasons I will explain.
Frankly, I’m not sure we can solve this problem ourselves because the perception others have of us is actually the factor driving the concern. This places us at the mercy of those who have never proven merciful to us in the past. The problem is not so much our position as it is their perception. No matter how “for” something we are, the politicians, journalists, broadcasters and academic elites who shape public opinion can always cast us as being “against” the exact opposite.
Consider the text of North Carolina Amendment One which voters passed on Tuesday, May 8, 2012: “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” Yes, the use of the word “only” renders other domestic unions illegal, including homosexual ones. But notice that the sentence is written positively. It is a statement declaring that which is valid rather than one disqualifying that which is invalid.
However, the vast majority of mainstream media outlets wrote headlines casting the decision not as an affirmation of the kind of marriage North Carolinians support, but rather as a ban against the kind of marriage North Carolinians oppose:
- “North Carolina Passes Gay Marriage Ban” (Washington Post)
- “North Carolina Marriage Ban Passes Vote” (Huffington Post)
- “North Carolina Passes Ban on Gay Marriage” (L.A. Times)
- “North Carolina Passes Same-Sex Marriage Ban” (CNN)
By way of contrast, consider the headline run by the Christian news magazine World: “North Carolina Votes on Amendment Affirming Marriage.” Although this headline was the more accurate one, it was certainly not the more popular one. It will never be possible for us to be known more for the things we favor than the things we oppose as long as the major media outlets are holding cards that are stacked so heavily against us.
No matter how positively one may affirm a particular point of view, one’s opponent may always characterize that position as a negation of their perspective. Thus a “pro-life” candidate becomes “anti-abortion” while a “pro-marriage” advocate becomes “anti-gay rights.” The person who “favors” the NRA agenda is dismissed as “opposing” gun control. The person who “supports” a military engagement is described as “hindering” the peace movement.
It should be clear by now that since every “pro” can be restated as a “con” it is useless for us to set these two things against each other, pretending that we can become better known for one of them than the other. Rather than existing as two completely separate ideas, they merely offer us two different perspectives from which to view the very same idea.
This unrealistic goal of becoming known for the things you are “for” but not the things you are “against” is naive and utopian, failing to appreciate that these ideas are inextricably intertwined. It is as futile as a coin seeking to become known for its “heads” but not its “tails.” If I want the Dallas Cowboys to win their regular season opener in 2012 (which, being saved, of course I do) then I must also desire for the New York Giants to lose theirs. Whether I am known by others as a “Cowboys fan” or a “Giants hater” is clearly beyond my control. It is not a function of my position but rather of their perspective.
Now certainly I understand both the psychology and the public relations benefit behind the desire to be known for what we embrace rather than what we oppose. If we are constantly seen as opposing things, we come across as critical, harsh, unloving, judgmental and bitter. My point is simply that there is no good thing we can embrace that our opponents cannot turn upon its head in order to exploit our denial of the exact opposite.
We are perceived as being against so many things not due to some flaw in our character, but rather due to the desire of our opponents and the shapers of public opinion to portray us in a negative light. If we are indeed known for being against things, it is simply because they have chosen to make us known in this manner.
What, you may ask, is the practical benefit of accepting the futility of this quest to be known for our positives but not our negatives? Is there any advantage in simply admitting that our “pros” and “cons” are hopelessly bound together and we will never be successful in divorcing one from the other? Yes, although it may seem defeatist and counter-intuitive, I believe there is.
By appealing to our noble desire not to appear negative, judgmental, critical and antagonistic, our opponents are hoping we will calm down and settle into a gentle acceptance of everything that is going on. If they can convince us to turn down the volume of our voices, to soften our positions in order to avoid these unpleasant charges of negativity, to mute our consciences and simply avoid making ourselves heard at all, then the only voices left will be theirs. Rest assured, they possess no such moral reservations to prevent them from vehemently attacking our ideas.
Suppose, in a public relations effort to appear conciliatory and kind, we make it our clear ambition NOT to be known for the things we oppose? If my thesis is correct, and the things we oppose are indeed attached to the back of the things we embrace, then it only follows that by lowering the temperature of our opposition, we also freeze the promotion of our most cherished convictions and beliefs.
Our opponents will gladly consider us nice if we will simply be quiet in return. However, if we boldly speak that which must be said to a world that needs to hear the truth, they may indeed come to view us as loud and critical, harsh and judgmental, shrill and negative. Thanks to the unbalanced communication channels of this fallen world, they may indeed come to know us more for what we oppose than for what we embrace. But I, for one, would rather speak the truth boldly and be thought a villain than to cower in silence while the enemies of God proclaim their worldly views unhindered by the inconvenience of confronting strongly held Christian convictions expressed clearly and without apology.