John Inazu is a professor of law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. His areas of expertise include the First Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly and religion. Inazu is the author of “Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference” and co-editor with Tim Keller of “Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference.”
In ‘Uncommon Ground’ you state, “We need to find common ground even if we disagree on a common good.” How can that help us navigate this season?
When it comes to everything going on in our culture—racism, COVID-19, media censorship or political tension—Christians can’t avoid uncomfortable conversations, but should engage wisely.
“Christians should be able to engage in our culture both with the confidence of our convictions and the object of our confidence in Jesus, but then also engage in this world knowing that people are different from us, their belief systems are different, and we won’t always be in control. We’re called to be in the world, but not of it,” Inazu said.
Inazu said we must not forget that everyone is made in God’s image.
“We should be people known for gracious engagement—even with others with whom we disagree—recognizing that everyone we encounter is an image-bearer,” Inazu added. “We must do the hard work of distinguishing people from the ideas that they hold and focus on people as image-bearers. I almost always have something I can learn from the people I encounter—even the person I find annoying, difficult or whose views are disturbing.”
Like Jesus entering our world, Inazu said Christians can’t have sympathy without stepping closer into the lives of others.
“The best missional efforts always start by doing a deep dive into the culture or people they’re trying to reach,” he said. “You learn the language of a particular people. You learn their values and what they care about. You learn what it means to be a friend to them. After understanding your audience, you engage with them about the truth of the Gospel and what you care about in your lives. To skip that step … actually ends up compromising the very efforts we say we care about. If we just assume that people are objects we’re trying to convert, we’re not going to be very effective.”
As a First Amendment scholar, what do you think of freedom of speech and media censorship?
Inazu said it’s important to distinguish between public and private entities.
The First Amendment applies to public entities: federal, state and local government. It does not apply to or have the ability to silence private entities: churches, businesses or social media companies such as Facebook or Twitter.
“It’s important to maintain that distinction because we don’t want the Constitution restricting our own expression or practices in places like churches,” Inazu said. “With that said, there’s an interesting evolution in our society where these online platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter and Instagram now occupy such a massive space of our communication and social interactions that even though they remain private entities, they take on a quasi-public characteristic. So that’s the long-winded way to say there’s a lot of power there. When they say they’re going to censor you—even though that’s constitutionally permissible—it doesn’t sound like a very good idea for society.”
Social media has given a voice to many who would never have been heard. What do you think about social media?
“It’s a mixed bag,” Inazu said. “What you might call the democratization of information and authority is in some ways very good because now anyone can obtain a platform and express views on social media. That also means that people who have been outside traditional institutions of power can speak into public discussions. I think that’s largely good.”
However, with some 2.95 billion social media users, figuring out the truth can be like finding a needle in a haystack.
“The downside is that with more voices, we have more noise,” Inazu added. “So, it becomes much harder to figure out who is a trusted authority and where does authority even come from. So it used to be—20 years ago—that my position as a law school professor would have signaled enough credibility on certain discussions. Now, with social media, there are some influential people without law degrees who can weigh in on a Supreme Court decision and have far more influence than I do.”
Inazu said there is a related issue revolving around institutional trust.
“There’s diminishing trust in institutions and the health of institutions is also on the decline,” Inazu said. “You can think about churches, universities, professional media, government, political parties. All of these institutions matter in our society, and one of the reasons they matter is that they have created structure and filter forms of authority and trust—sometimes with very bad consequences because they’re comprised of humans who can do bad things, but there’s a real value to having institutions. As people continue to lose trust in institutions, it’s unclear to me what will replace them. Churches need to maintain a trust in their organization and leadership. If you lose that, you lose the ability to do a lot of really important things in society.”