As a conservative Christian at a small liberal arts school, I’m a part of a small minority group in an emphatically liberal student body. Thanks to my views—as well as my willingness to share my opinion—I have had the dubious privilege of becoming, for many, the representative figure of conservative Christianity on my campus. I have participated in my share of classroom debates, cafeteria conversations, panel discussions, and full-blown arguments. The overall lesson is this: being a conservative Christian in academia requires grace and boldness, in equal proportions.
In college, you are often forced to work with people whose opinions you find repulsive: teaching assistants, professors, roommates, and group project members. To maintain your sanity—and your GPA—you must learn to live and work with people of different backgrounds and beliefs. Academic conversations can lead us to believe that we know our classmates, when we truly have little knowledge of them. I interact with some students every day, yet I would be hard- pressed to tell you where they grew up, how many siblings they have, or what experience they have had with Christianity.
This requires that we temper our dialogue with grace. It is easy to speak in absolutes when we deal with abstract ideas, such as the necessity of traditional marriage. The same convictions, however, when made to a classmate who has a homosexual sibling, can destroy friendship. I distinctly remember, during my freshman year, explaining to a classmate the evils of no-fault divorce and the necessary roles of fathers and mothers in childrearing. With tears in his eyes, my friend admitted that he had never met his father. His mother had raised him to know and love God, but he could only hear my points as questioning his mother’s faithfulness and doubting the legitimacy of his childhood.
More recently, a friend asked me to meet him for coffee. After a few minutes of conversation that skirted the purpose of our meeting, he admitted that he was exclusively attracted to other men. The catch in his voice belied his fear. He and I both grew up in small towns in the rural South—the type of place with Republican supermajorities and a plethora of churches. My friend was afraid to go home, and afraid of how his church might treat him if people knew. I could not lie to him and say that I supported his homosexual urges, but I saw in my friend how our communities have failed him. Instead of feeling welcomed into the arms of a church that bears witness to both our sins and God’s grace, he feared reactions. It should be noted that my friend practiced chastity—but still feared the visceral reactions of Christians. Seeing his fear and consternation cemented in my mind the critical importance of extending support and caritas to others alongside our exhortations and injunctions.
As Christians, we must take care not to offend others. A reputation for hasty judgment or polemical attacks will curtail opportunities for discussion—no one likes to be harangued. If we do not reflect God’s love and grace in our actions and words, then the truth we speak will likely fall on deaf ears. I am unlikely to provoke change in my community if nobody will listen to me.
Yet, we must be resolved also to never compromise truth in order to avoid offense. If our beliefs change with the tides of opinion, we disrespect the eternal nature of truth. The Apostle Paul exhorts us, “if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18 ESV). Living peaceably with all may require avoiding fighting over little things. Arguments about personhood, abortion, and human sexuality provide us with ample opportunities for debate: prudence dictates that we are better off holding our tongues when it comes to inconsequential disagreements.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther pronounced a useful slogan: “Peace if possible, truth at all costs.” In seven words, he encapsulated what must be the marching orders for conservative Christian collegians: avoid causing needless offense, but never sacrifice truth on an altar of peace. If we are to have any hope of influencing our peers, we must be polite, charming, winsome, and engaging—while making an absolute and unequivocal stand for what is right. In the words of Matt. 10:16, we shall “be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”
Matthew H. Young is a summer intern at First Things. He has written for University Bookman, Civitas Review, the Carolina Journal, and other publications.