Law schools can function as microcosms of society, gathering people from diverse backgrounds to debate highly charged issues of politics, morality, and religion. John Inazu, an evangelical constitutional scholar and professor of law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis, has long experience in this setting, and it forms one backdrop to his latest book, Learning to Disagree: The Surprising Path to Navigating Differences with Empathy and Respect. Readers follow Inazu and his students over the course of a year as they consider questions of empathy, fairness, cancel culture, faith, and forgiveness. CT national political correspondent Harvest Prude spoke with Inazu about his lessons for Christians on effective listening and persuasion.

What have you learned from teaching in an environment where students navigate the discomfort of encountering different worldviews?

Part of being a Christian is being able to engage in messy and uncomfortable places, spaces, and relationships. We’ve got a pretty good model in Jesus and the disciples—where they went and the lines they crossed.

As a Christian teaching in a non-Christian university, I’m actually quite comfortable. And part of that comes from knowing that my Christian values aren’t in control here. When you know you’re not in control, it frees you to be more creative, more neighborly, and in some ways more faithful. So I don’t start with the premise of having a community whose narrative and power I control or seek to control. I start from the premise of being a welcomed member of this community who can engage it on that basis.

You write about one student whose thesis paper was shaping up to be a diatribe rather than a genuine attempt at persuasion. How have your students learned to wrestle seriously with views they would rather condemn or dismiss?

In law school, there are some very ideological students who are not interested in compromise. Some students just want to use the law as a tool for winning power. But the majority really are open to understanding other perspectives.

Some of this boils down to basic interpersonal dynamics. When you’re sitting together in the classroom while sharing meals and other aspects of student life, it can help build a sense of shared humanity.

One advantage of the classroom setting is having the time and space to build trust. Fundamentally, that’s what’s missing from so many conversations and relationships today. You can’t expect that willingness to engage across perspectives to exist on day one of any class or semester. It necessarily takes time.

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Often, the church can seem to reflect or even exacerbate partisan tendencies. How can we learn to see political opponents inside the church without suspicion?

The most basic premise for Christians is that everyone we meet bears God’s image, no matter how wrongheaded we think that person is. But within the church, this becomes more complicated than simply acknowledging our fellow status as image-bearers. Because within the church, at least in theory, we open ourselves to being persuaded by an appeal to a common authority, whether Scripture or some denominational commitment.

So when we encounter people on the other side of the political aisle within the church, the first question is whether we’re on the same page in acknowledging that our political beliefs are subservient to the gospel and to our Christian convictions—or, to varying degrees, the denominational structures we’ve pledged to abide by.

If these premises aren’t shared, then it’s difficult to speak about political disagreements on the level of one believer to another.

What would you say to Christians who are tempted to opt out of churches where they might confront different worldviews or intense political discussions?

For Christians concerned about the influence of political ideology on our faith, it’s really important to keep channels of communication with those who are persuadable by gospel-centered arguments. Right now, lots of people in my circles are either dismissing that whole segment of the church or showing an unwillingness to engage patiently.

To give one example: When people throw around phrases like Christian nationalism and white supremacy, yes, those are real tendencies, including in segments of the church. But there’s another set of evangelicals—who are probably politically conservative and probably voted for Trump, but not in a nativist mode—who shouldn’t be dismissed with such alienating labels. There has to be ongoing relational work.

In some circles, conversation and compromise sound like dirty words because they represent treason toward one’s tribe. Is it possible to be persuasive when people don’t want to be persuaded?

At one level, if someone isn’t open to conversation or persuasion, then it’s nearly impossible to make progress. But for Christians, it helps to remember the difference between confidence and certainty. If you enter conversations with a posture of absolute certainty, it’s hard to follow up with efforts at persuasion where the other person disagrees.

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This kind of certainty is something of a post-Enlightenment insertion into the way we think and see the world. The idea of confidence is much closer to what Scripture commends.

When we say, “I have confidence in these truth claims, and I want to tell you about them,” it sets the stage for conversation rather than mere condemnation.

In the book, you discuss the difficulty of achieving bipartisan legislation. What are some benefits of working across the political aisle?

In the arena of lawmaking, understanding competing positions has tangible benefits. It can strengthen your own argument and give you a better sense of what you believe. And it can hone your sense of where effective partnering and coalition building might happen.

The reality of politics is that very little gets done without coalition building. Few purists can implement their policy goals without compromise. By and large, the people who succeed in lawyering, politics, or other areas of our society are typically those who understand this best.

To what extent do you think anger and division in our world result from a decline in habits of forgiveness?

There’s a distinction between the theological imperative of forgiveness and its cultural salience. Scripture is clear: We are called to forgive, full stop, with few conditions or limits, regardless of how it plays out culturally.

A cultural ethic of forgiveness can have powerful effects. When Desmond Tutu told his South African countrymen that, post-apartheid, there was “no future without forgiveness” (to quote one of his book titles), his audience understood the language of forgiveness even if they weren’t all Christians themselves. But when a culture loses touch with the theological roots of forgiveness, this kind of shared understanding becomes harder to imagine.

Apart from Jesus, is there a biblical figure you see as best embodying the ideal of gracious disagreement?

One figure who comes to mind is the prophet Jeremiah, especially as he counsels the Israelites on how they should endure their captivity in Babylon. He exhorts them to love and care for the city, even though its people aren’t their own. He reminds them to be faithful to God and to care for their own families but says that doesn’t mean giving up on the surrounding society. That model is such a helpful framework for the cultural engagement we need today.

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