“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.”
That statement from GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump drew massive applause during the first Republican debate on Fox News in August. It was a performance that helped solidified him as the GOP frontrunner.
At a speech in March, another GOP hopeful, Ben Carson declared, “I hate political correctness, I will continue to defy the PC police who have tried in many cases to shut me up.”
The topic of political correctness may be a current hot-button topic in the GOP race, but its critics aren’t isolated to those on the right. TV talk show host Bill Maher is among several liberal-leaning personalities who have made a career of decidedly politically incorrect commentary. Evolutionary biologist and proudly atheist writer Richard Dawkins frequently wades into un-PC waters with his criticisms of religion and its influence on culture. Bernie Sanders, a senator with a penchant for blunt talk, has been rising in the democratic polls.
Earlier this summer, comedian Jerry Seinfeld told radio host Colin Cowherd (who was, ironically, suspended from ESPN after delivering his own very un-PC take about Dominican baseball players), that he would no longer perform at colleges because students are too obsessed with political correctness. He explained, “They just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist;’ ‘That’s sexist;’ ‘That’s prejudiced.’ They don’t even know what the f*** they’re talking about.”
Even President Obama recently expressed his growing disdain for political correctness, especially on college campuses.
I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view … Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you shouldn’t have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.”
But for Christians who seek both to influence culture positively, while also embodying characteristics outlined in the Gospels, should “political correctness” be seen as an idealogical enemy—or could it be a virtue?
The Virtues of Being Politically Correct?
At its core, the notion of political correctness isn’t meant to silence opinions or attitudes. It is concerned with preventing groups who find themselves in the minority or the targets of discrimination from be further stereotyped. It’s about making people who may feel like outsiders experience inclusion. It’s not about not “offending” people or groups—it’s about valuing their dignity and their humanity. These are all noble—and even biblical—values.
There may be times when political correctness overreaches, effectively censoring unpopular opinions, but that doesn’t mean the entire notion should be disregarded.
In Romans, we are called to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse … Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited … If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” In Acts 10, Peter told members of the early church, still grappling with the new Church Christ had established on earth, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean … I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears Him and does what is right.”
Peter wasn’t interested in perpetuating labels or cultural taboos—even ones the law had previously condoned. Despite being “right” by the letter of the law and customs, God called him to lay aside stereotypes (“unclean” or as the ESV puts it, “common”), because that’s not how God sees other people.
Though the Bible is clear that Christians are called to teach and preach the truth of the message of Christ, it’s also clear that our lives should be an embodiment of it. Sometimes living “at peace with everyone” means not speaking in ways that we know will unnecessarily insult or offend offend someone, as long as we’re not compromising our values.
Free to Be PC
In a culture where freedom—particularly the freedom of speech—is the hallmark value, exercising this right becomes seen as a sort of virtuous duty. And defending it against any perceived threat—like self-censoring because of political correctness—almost feels like an unspoken American obligation at times.
But, in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul is clear that making a point about our personal freedom shouldn’t be more important than our command to love others as we love ourselves. Sure, saying things that may be perceived as politically incorrect may technically be permissible, but that doesn’t mean we should say them.
In the passage, Paul is addressing Christ-followers wrestling with whether or not they should participate in their own cultural taboo—not political incorrectness, but eating food sacrificed to idols. His answer? Sure, no big deal, with one caveat. “Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”
Essentially, just because we are “allowed” to do (or say) something, doesn’t mean exercising that liberty is more important than not offending or causing someone to stumble for no good reason.
For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
Being politically incorrect isn’t an exact parallel to eating food sacrificed to idols, but its results can have the same effect: We risk causing others be to offended, defensive, angry and provoked (basically the opposite of living “at peace with everyone”). Sometimes, it’s better to take the position of Paul—denying himself something he’s allowed to do—in order to show people the character of Christian love. Even if that means erring on the side of political correctness from time to time.
Drawing the Line
As Christians, there are certainly times we are called to say things that are uncomfortable, unpopular and even confrontational. After all, the Gospel itself is an offensive message. But just because those situations arise, doesn’t mean we should constantly make people uncomfortable or be confrontational just because we can.
Jesus never seemed to be overly concerned with offending or not offending anyone with His message. He even bluntly tells followers, “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” Compromising the truth or the message of the Gospel isn’t an option.
But offending or insulting people wasn’t His primary goal. He communicated truth in a way that was so compelling, that the masses wanted to listen, even if it challenged their values, ideas or beliefs.
In a season where “political correctness” has become so disdained that there’s become an obsession with constantly challenging it, the risk is that shocking people with blunt opinions becomes the priority, instead of preaching the truth that really matters.
If we always allow ourselves to get dragged into every fight over politically correct appropriateness, we risk losing the credibility to stand up for truth when it really matters.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.