Since returning this fall, Craig Dunham has asked his Biblical Ethics students at Westminster Christian Academy to focus on ways that conservative believers can participate in hot public debates, while showing respect for others. This quote from the book "Uncommon Decency" led to timely discussions.
"How can we hold onto strongly felt convictions while still nurturing a spirit that is authentically kind and gentle? ... The answer is that it is not impossible -- but it isn't easy," argued Fuller Seminary President Richard J. Mouw. "Convicted civility is something we have to work at. We have to work at it because both sides of the equation are very important."
These class discussions are sure to continue after Dunham wrote a commentary urging other evangelicals to watch President Barack Obama's back-to-school address with a mixture of respect and skepticism. Now, his students are getting an eyeful while reading fierce online criticisms of their teacher's views.
While his own Christian school near St. Louis didn't show the speech -- which would have required cutting into curriculum several weeks into the semester -- Dunham was stunned to hear that some parents were ready to keep their children at home in order to avoid seeing it.
"Seriously? ... These are the conversations I would think a parent would be PRAYING to take place," wrote Dunham. "At some point, Christians have got to stop putting the mental in fundamentalist and start interacting with the world. Teaching our kids to stick their heads in the sand and ignore anyone they may not totally agree with is, in a word, unChristian. Folks, we can't counter the culture unless we encounter the culture, so let's take off the blinders."
After parsing the president's text, Dunham said he is convinced he needs to use the video in his classroom.
"You know, from a Biblical Ethics perspective, I don't know how not to talk about this," he said. "If we can't talk about these subjects in a Christian school, where can we talk about them?"
Most of Obama's speech to public-school students focused on familiar themes, especially with its drumbeat call for discipline in an age of video games, rap and reality TV. The president used several candid illustrations based on his life as the child of a single mother, including times when she taught him extra lessons at home -- at 4:30 a.m.
"We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems," he said. "If you don't do that -- if you quit on school -- you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country."
While Dunham took some lumps online, he was not alone in praising the address.
"This is the speech I expected the president to give to our children -- excellent," wrote the Rev. John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, a popular evangelical author. "If you settle for the news headlines that say the president tells the kids to wash their hands and take care of the environment, you will miss the wisdom and courage in this speech."
An influential Southern Baptist leader also praised the speech, while criticizing Department of Education lesson plans -- since withdrawn -- that urged students to describe how they could "help the president."
Many criticisms of this event, argued Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, are "reckless, baseless and plainly irrational. ... At this level, the controversy is a national embarrassment. Conservatives must avoid jumping on every conspiracy theory and labeling every action by the Obama administration as sinister or socialist."
At the very least, this firestorm "smacks of disrespect for the president and, by extension, disrespect for the presidency itself." Even worse, said Mohler, this controversy "threatens to sow seeds of permanent distrust and suspicion in the hearts of the young. In an age of rampant cynicism, this is inexcusable."
Clearly, said Dunham, some religious conservatives are losing their ability to hope "that God can work in any situation," especially during an administration led by a president with whom they have sharp moral and cultural disagreements.
"There is a kind of fatalism on the loose that has many people saying, 'We're doomed'," he said. "That kind of perspective may be a conservative perspective, in a political sense of the word, but it's certainly not a conservative Christian perspective."