On Civil Discourse: How Federalist Paper No. 1 Demonstrates a Way to Less Hostility in our Conversations

The old saying is that it's not polite to discuss religion and politics. However, the problem isn't discussing these issues, it has become discussing these issues politely. Regardless of whether it is religion or politics being discussed, it often degrades into an exchange of insults using the coarsest language that the parties can dredge up to throw at each other.

Discussions between Christians and atheists have turned every bit as ugly as the discussions between Republicans and Democrats. Certainly, since I began engaging in Christian apologetics the conversations have certainly become much more contentious and the volume level has risen sharply. In the area of religion, I personally put much of the blame for the negative turn on the New Atheists and their take-no-prisoners approach to attacking religion and religious belief. After all, it is hard to have a calm, lucid conversation with someone when their position (as advocated by people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) is that Christianity is a mental illness or that it isn’t deserving of any respect.

And, of course, the disrespect for the opinions of others is also easily seen in the present political discussions. All one needs to do is mention President Trump, Secretary Clinton, Senator Sanders, Senator Cruz or many other political figures in the wrong room and he will immediately find himself immersed in a wave of criticism complete with expletives against one political viewpoint or another. (Try discussing politics on Facebook, and you will see exactly what I mean.) As in religious discussions, when a person labels his or her opponents as either being stupid, unpatriotic, racist or otherwise ascribe bad motives to their beliefs, it is virtually impossible to have respect for each other’s motives or positions.

Still, while the level of discord in our discourse has ratcheted up, it remains important to remember that there has always been heated disagreements. Cain and Able apparently had a doozy of a disagreement way back in Genesis 4, and their dispute didn’t end very well for either of them.

As a person whose studies have often focused on the time of the Founders of the United States, I am reminded that the Founders did not see eye to eye on every issue. In fact, there were several times during the Constitutional Convention that the lack of agreement led several of the Founders to the verge of quitting and going home. Then, once the present Constitution was approved by the Constitutional Convention, the Founders still needed to get the document approved by the states. In the process, they needed to confront and overcome the Anti-Federalist opposition to the ratification of the Constitution. Three of the Founders, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, worked to overcome those objections by writing a series of argumentative papers to be published in the local newspapers giving reasons for the passage of the Constitution. These papers have become known as The Federalist Papers.

The opening paper, written by Alexander Hamilton, has been little remembered, yet it lays the groundwork for engaging in civil discussion about matters of great importance. Hamilton began Federalist Paper No. 1 by acknowledging that while the Constitution which had been presented for ratification had opposition, he set a standard for approaching other viewpoints that we would be wise to be practicing today. Since Hamilton’s language is a bit stilted in today’s world, I am going to set forth what he wrote in Federalist No. 1, then paraphrase what he says and close out with an application and some further thoughts.

Early in Federalist Paper No. 1, Hamilton notes that a certain class of people exists who favor their own self-interest above the good of the people. These profligates cherish and protect their power, profits and position above what would be good for the country. But after acknowledging the existence of such people, he notes:
Hamilton: I am well aware that it would be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the opposition of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicion) into interested or ambitious views. Candor will oblige us to admit that even such men may be actuated by upright intentions; and it cannot be doubted that much of the opposition which has made its appearance, or may hereafter make its appearance, will spring from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable--the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears.
Paraphrase: It would be unfair and dishonest to simply label those with whom we disagree as being motivated by ulterior and bad motives. Seeking real truth requires that even if people hold a position where the continuation of the status quo elevates their personal fortunes, it is appropriate to recognize that their arguments may still be based on an honestly held view of what is right and good, and not solely self-serving of his or her own ambitions. Moreover, it is certainly true that much of the opposition to the enactment of the Constitution will come from those who honestly believe that their opposition is seeking the public good - despite the fact that those beliefs may be wrong due to a prior belief or erroneous notions.
Hamilton: So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy.
Paraphrase: There are so many reasons that people develop biases that adversely affect their ability to correctly discern the truth that people can be on the right side on certain issues of great importance, and the wrong side of other important issues. If nothing else, we should learn some humility from this: we are not always right on every question.
Hamilton: And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question. Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.
Paraphrase: We should be careful to recognize that we even those who are actually right may also be motivated by self-interest; it is not always the other person who is influenced by self-interest. Ambition, greed, hatred, party opposition and other, similarly bad motives will operate equally on those who hold the right opinion as the wrong. Unless we recognize these truths which lead us to be humble and moderate in our discourse, the intolerance that comes out when discussing such subjects as religion and politics will escalate. But be aware, wrong thinking is rarely if ever corrected by attacking those with whom we disagree.

Application: As Hamilton points out, it is both in politics and religion where we have the tendency to think ourselves to be the most correct. It is these areas, therefore, that we tend to be least understanding and least charitable towards conflicting viewpoints. It is okay to be bold in speaking out, but we must approach these conversations in three ways.

First, we should be hesitant to attribute to bad motives to people with whom we disagree. Even if they stand to gain financially or otherwise from a particular point of view being expressed, going after the motives of the speaker is to fail to acknowledge that the argument may still be valid regardless of the motivation.

Second, we need to approach discussions about religion and politics with humility. Recognize that (believe it or not) no one is right all of the time -- even yourself. I know that I personally have had to back down from positions from time to time. We need to recognize that just as it is our habit to point to the motivations of others, we need to examine our own motivations for pushing a particular idea.

Finally, the natural desire to respond to others with derision is counter-productive. It is likely that few will be persuaded by ridicule or mockery who are not already in the camp of those engaging in the mockery. We know that our internal psychology is such that most people begin to root against the big, bad bully. The loudmouth is almost always the villain. The person who mocks usually "gets it" in the end accompanied by the cheer of the crowds. To be truly be persuasive means not responding in kind when you are ridiculed; it means not being allowing yourself to be dragged into the mire. We need to remain true to our convictions and not engage in mud-slinging.

One final thought: the approaches set out in Federalist Paper No. 1 were not original to Alexander Hamilton. The Biblical teaching on humility underlies all three of these tactics. Moreover, there is little doubt that Hamilton understood and believed the Bible. Like most of the other Founders, he was raised on Biblical teachings. As noted in an article in Christianity Today on Alexander Hamilton, "Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian minister in St. Croix, influenced Hamilton at a young age. *** As a student at King’s College (Columbia University today), his fellow classmates commented on Hamilton’s sincere heart for worship and that he often went above the prescribed prayers and mandatory chapels." In his own words, Hamilton testified:
"I have examined carefully the evidence of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should rather abruptly give my verdict in its favor." 
As it has done for 2000 years, the Bible continues to provide a solution to our differences, but people need to listen. Too often in today's society people don't listen due to the same lack of respect demonstrated in virtually all interactions between the religious and the non-religious as well as between the political left and right. Perhaps when the Bible's lessons are delivered through an intermediary of such renown as Alexander Hamilton as it has been here, it will be heard. I can only hope.


Anonymous said…
BK: In the area of religion, I personally put much of the blame for the negative turn on the New Atheists and their take-no-prisoners approach to attacking religion and religious belief.

Yeah, because it cannot be your side in the wrong, can it?

Back in the real world, comments like this are exactly why these discussions get heated. A wise man once said: "Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?"

BK said…
Pix, I can't stop you from jumping to conclusions, but I can try to pull you back after you have leapt. What exactly did I say that led you to believe that "it cannot be [my] side in the wrong"? The portion of my post that you quoted doesn't say that at all.

It does point out my belief (and I do make it clear that it is my belief) that things became much worse when the New Atheists came out with their specific approach of saying that religion has no right to exist and working from a bedrock of derision towards the Christian faith. That isn't saying that Christians can't be wrong, but rather simply pointing out when you come to the table ready to deride and dismiss (as the New Atheists did), it doesn't bode well for positive dialog. Do you disagree?

Oh, and I agree that the person you quoted as the "wise man" (whose name was Jesus, by the way) was very wise. He was absolutely right about watching for the log in your own eye. He was also right about being the Son of God, by the way. Or does is wisdom not extend to his own ability to self-identify?
Anonymous said…
BK: He was also right about being the Son of God, by the way. Or does is wisdom not extend to his own ability to self-identify?

I do not believe he ever claimed to be the Son of God; I think that is a claim Christianity made after his death.

yes I think it; obvious he did, The narrative falls apart if he did not. It's also pretty hard to see how a community based upon Jewish expectations of Messiah could go from messiah to incarnate logos without the Messianic figure fueling the fire.

Jews used the term son of God for messiah they did not mean literally divine being,but then to take that strap would be a huge step given all it would meana bout abandoning their background,
Anonymous said…
JH: Jews used the term son of God for messiah they did not mean literally divine being,but then to take that strap would be a huge step given all it would meana bout abandoning their background,

Yes, okay. We need to differentiate between Son of God as part of the trinity and as the adopted son of God like David, Solomon et al.

I accept Jesus claimed to be the messiah, and it was for that that the Romans crucified him, and by implication he could have claimed to have been adopted as the sn of God, however I am not convinced even by that. I think there is some evidence early Christians believed Jesus was adopted as the son of God at his resurrection or death, which would suggest he never claimed it while alive.

I understood BK to mean the Son of God in the sense of being part of the trinity, and I believe Jesis never made that claim.
BK said…
I did mean Son of God in the sense of being part of the Trinity. And I think it's clear that he communicated that over and over by what he did and said. But that's an argument for another day. I will take your silence on my question about the New Atheists as assent. Thanks.
im-skeptical said…
I must agree with Pix, about placing blame on the "New Atheists". I think atheists, and other infidels have been treated horribly by the Christian community for many centuries. And now that they have the freedom to speak out, they are to blame for all the animosity? And this attitude of hatred toward infidels (especially atheists) hasn't stopped in recent times, either. I can show you plenty of Christian sites on the internet that are oozing with hatred, yet they don't even allow atheists to speak without being shouted down (if at all). The log in your own eye is rather HUGE.
BK said…
Don't play the martyr. Yes, atheists have been marginalized in the past, but there has been a robust Atheist community in the Western world since at least the mid-19th Century. Initially their ideas were dismissed without much debate, but by the turn of the 20th Century atheism became en vogue. Debate ensued (ordinarily won by the Christians, I might add), but they were civil conversations. The New Atheists ratcheted up the dialogue considerably.

Are Christians kicking back with the same tone? Unfortunately, yes. But I contend that it is difficult to find that kind of tone in any literature, atheist or Christian, prior to the 2000s. I was debating Christianity in the 1990s, and while the exchanges would get heated, the tone was very different.
im-skeptical said…
Are Christians kicking back with the same tone? Unfortunately, yes.

- That's one way of looking at it. On the other hand, this attitude has been going on for much longer than the existence of anything you could call "New Atheists", and it has NEVER abated. You can read about it in the bible. It's reflected in the words of St. Augustine, etc. What's relatively new is the is the willingness of atheists to speak up. And that really pisses them off.
im-skeptical said…
Well, I didn't mean to drive you away. I only thought this issue was worth discussing (in a civil manner, of course). I honestly think that Christians are willing to talk as long as you don't really challenge them.

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