How Plain-Spoken Courage Can Move the Overton Window

The Time for Christians to Control Public Discourse is Now

The Overton window can shift when a motivated minority of influential voices are committed to speaking boldly on issues they care about.

The Overton Window is named after political analyst Joseph Overton, who noticed that public approval or disapproval drives policy. It represents what is generally believed to be right or wrong. At one time, our shared morality was derived from the Bible, which also tells us what happens when people reject it. They get the book of Judges, where “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). In other words, biblical morality becomes mob morality. The social pressure to conform to mob morality is a big part of what many now call the Overton window.

The Overton window determines that some ideas are “mainstream” but other ideas are “extreme.” Ethics aren’t based on objective standards, it’s a popularity contest. And it’s fickle. Twenty years ago, supporting “gay marriage” was an extreme position, but it’s considered mainstream. The shift has been so dramatic that it’s considered extreme to oppose it. Social pressure is its animating force. Another example is mutilating the genitals of children. This was once a barbaric practice that only happened in third-world countries. Today, it’s done in the suburbs and covered by health insurance.

Labels are powerful. Most people want to be considered reasonable and moderate. No one wants to be an “extremist,” a “radical,” or an “alarmist.” Derogatory labels like these are effective tools in the hands of the thought police that cause people to feel shame for holding unfashionable views. Shame can drive public opinion, leading people to self-censor or adapt their views, lest they be cast into the outer darkness with the rest of the “deplorables.”

Moving the Overton Window

Since the Overton Window is a sociological phenomenon, no one directly controls it and everyone participates in it. That’s good news. Even better, it’s not a democracy. The majority doesn’t move the Overton window, the Overton window moves them. The window itself is moved by whoever has the courage and influence to move it in their direction. In recent weeks, we’ve seen how a motivated minority with a compelling message can make a difference.

For example, for over a year now, pearl-clutching and hang-wringing regime evangelicals have policed the Overton window with warnings about how “Christian Nationalism” will destroy our gospel witness in the public square. Pastor Doug Wilson, considered a chief proponent of Christian Nationalism (though he prefers to speak of “mere Christendom”), remains unmoved by the pressure to keep silent about Christ’s Lordship over government. 

Wilson’s affable demeanor combined with his reasonable articulation of biblical principles has earned him a significant following of ordinary Christians who are hungry for bold leadership. Wilson’s recent appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show was captioned in a tweet that said, “Pastor Doug Wilson is the Christian Nationalist they warned you about.” In less than 24 hours, this tweet gained over 4.6 million views. Wilson’s joyful courage is opening the Overton window to the right and forcing a needed debate about how Christian political engagement in the modern world. 

To give another example, Dusty Deevers was an obscure, Baptist pastor in Oklahoma who had the guts to defy the rhetorical overlords and move the window to the right. He advocated for Christian positions that are considered “controversial” because the Overton window deems them unacceptable. What were these controversial views? He believes abortion is murder and mothers who abort their children should be prosecuted as criminals, not treated as “second victims.” He also believes pornography is a social disaster that destroys marriages and increases sex addiction, human trafficking, and child exploitation.

Deevers had the nerve to campaign precisely on these issues and won a state senate seat. He then had the gall to keep his campaign promise by introducing legislation to outlaw pornography and abolish abortion in his state. Predictably, the outrage machine fired up, inviting derisive coverage from Rolling Stone and a mocking monologue from Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon.

This press coverage was an unexpected gift, however, because it forced a public debate that thrust his local message into a national debate. He exposed the harmful and well-documented effects of pornography. Videos of women smiling, dancing around, and celebrating their abortions gained a lot of traction. They aren’t victims. They are celebrating the murder of their own children. Some pro-life organizations were exposed for hypocritically lobbying against legislation that would abolish abortion. Deevers’ strategy to “go on the offense” highlighted wicked practices and exposed his detractors for defending them. His plain-spoken courage catapulted his long-shot candidacy to victory and gave his message national exposure that didn’t cost him a dime.

Since the Overton window can be pried open when a motivated minority of outspoken voices articulate an important message, what’s preventing us from doing it? This isn’t as impossible as it sounds.

Christians and the Overton Window

In public discourse, Christians easily fall into the trap of letting the Overton window “frame” how issues are presented. For example, every discussion of homosexuality must include some reference to how homosexuals were made in God’s image, though no discussion of any other sin requires such qualification. Homosexuals are universally regarded as marginalized and traumatized victims of intolerant cruelty, usually by mean-spirited Christians. Rarely does anyone speak of sodomy, instead preferring silky smooth phrases such as it being “less than God’s best.”

When bolder Christians do speak plainly on these matters, other Christians get nervous. So they join in denouncing their fellow believers, accusing them of being un-Christlike and lacking the proper tone. They scold their Christian brothers and sisters with fine-sounding admonitions like, “The world is watching.” They insist that our Christian prophetic witness be limited to whatever the Overton window will allow.

In the past ten years or so, the Overton window has rapidly lurched much further to the left, pressuring Christians into an ever-accommodating posture to the world. Yet, the far left is typically among the most unstable, quick-tempered, over-sensitive, and easily offended people in our society. The threat of enduring angry outbursts from them is enough to cause many Christians into a posture of appeasement and cowering in silence. That may seem like a sensible strategy in the short term, but in the long term, it rewards irrational behavior. No one wants to trigger an unpleasant scene, so we choose the seemingly sensible route of saying nothing and going along to get along. This strategy allows the Overton window to continue moving in ways that further suppress our public voice. Sooner or later, we may find ourselves unable to speak at all.

The Overton Window and Conservatism

When a far-left activist is invited to speak on a college campus, conservative students typically ignore it and go on with their lives. They don’t riot or protest or do sit-ins. They put up with it because that’s what conservatives do. Conservatives value personal maturity and self-control because we value responsible citizenry. But on the rare occasion that a conservative speaker is invited to speak on campus, he is often greeted by angry protests or even violence. Outrage mobs form to shout him down, afterward demanding the University provide counseling services to cope with the trauma of nearly encountering a reasonable view.

Even though the far left does not represent most of the population, they exert outsized influence on the Overton window. Appeasing the left is easier than opposing them. Everyone knows that a lack of self-control is a defining feature of the far left. Leftists are much more likely to be triggered, protest, make a scene, have an angry outburst, cancel you, or destroy your life. Ordinary people avoid opposing them, so their emotional immaturity is rewarded by appeasement.

Every mother of a toddler has been tempted to yield to his demands for candy in the grocery store to avoid an embarrassing scene. Wise mothers know that’s a losing strategy. Rewarding bad behavior only leads to more of it. The far left controls the Overton window the same way. If a 50-year-old man who has been a faithful employee for two decades at his company refuses to use the preferred pronouns of the newly hired 23-year-old dude wearing makeup and a dress, he knows he’ll be turned into a villain, be reported to HR, and required to attend sensitivity training. This is where we are. The rabid, immature left will continue shaping public opinion on a variety of issues, not because their ideas are better, but because everyone else appeases them to avoid a scene.

But we are not without options.

Opening the Overton Window on the Right

As stated previously, the Overton window can move when a motivated minority is willing to joyfully endure the derision of the left long enough for their collective voices to be heard. They must be willing to “live not by lies,” as Solzhenitsyn put it. Plain-spoken truth moves the public opinion as reasonable views are articulated with clarity, force, courage, and joy. They must be prepared to endure reprisal from the left, which will surely come. Clear-headed truth telling must become the norm, not the exception. As their collective voices grow louder and reach critical mass, their message becomes harder to ignore. Ordinary people may open up to persuasion as a variety of voices convincingly articulate reasonable positions. When three or four become twenty or thirty, they may think, “This is starting to make sense.”

Moving the Overton window

Difficult social problems will not be resolved as long as angry, irrational mobs control public discourse. The need of the hour is godly Christian leaders stepping up to the microphone and plainly articulating positions that may seem laughable at first. Through persistence, they can keep issues alive long enough for people to get used to hearing them, then perhaps persuading enough of them to move the needle.

It will take great courage to break the left’s cultural taboos and take the heat for it. A society conditioned by Newspeak will be scandalized by the thoughtcrime of plain-spoken truth. The man who says things outside the Overton window will take the first arrows. He may sacrifice his reputation on the altar of honesty but will inspire others to add their voices. The more they speak, their accumulated voices move the Overton window, which reduces the cost for each new voice that enters their ranks.

The gatekeepers of public discourse will surely try to shame these thought-criminals as heretics. They capitalize on the collective fear of being publicly put to shame. The Overton window keeps people silent, allowing them to press their propaganda even further. Those who allow themselves to be intimidated by this tactic believe their silence will appease them. It never will. Winsome pandering or outright silence will only solidify their dominance of the Overton window.

Clear-headed Christians have been bullied into silence for far too long. The Overton window shifts with public perception, starting with a few bold, articulate, prophetic voices that arrest the public’s attention. They supply the talking points and vocabulary that other people use to amplify the message. As the number of influential voices grows, the ideas they articulate gain credibility. Their persistence creates a snowball effect that eventually persuades even greater numbers. And the cacophony of sober-minded voices can give the public a “road map” for approaching difficult subjects.

We’ve seen this happen as people challenged the regime’s COVID narrative. In the early stages of COVID, the Overton window kept people silent and compliant. Anyone who questioned the narrative was considered a heartless buffoon who didn’t care about saving lives. Since then, however, the window has shifted in the opposite direction. Those pushing masks and endless vaccine boosters seem ridiculous because it’s now obvious to reasonable people that the regime was lying.

Clear-headed voices who speak with conviction and joy can be very persuasive. They laugh at absurdity. Humor lowers people’s defenses. They don’t take foolish people seriously. They make jokes and deploy funny memes, knowing that this is far more effective against absurdity than logical arguments.

We cannot allow ourselves to be shamed into compliance. Whoever you’re most worried about offending is who controls you. If the left is who you fear offending the most, they are your masters, and you are their slave. They rule you with a subconscious bargain that your silence will earn their approval. It won’t. Fear God instead and speak plainly.

Courage is the only way. If we are slaves of who we are most afraid of offending, then may God be the one we most fear offending. If pleasing others is our driving energy, may God be the one we most aim to please. And God is not pleased by pandering, vague, man-fearing sophistry. What pleases God is courageous men and women, speaking plainly and humbly, bringing the sort of clarity that pierces hard hearts and builds up soft hearts. Courage is the greatest threat to the regime. And it is contagious. Plain-spoken courage is contagious. It can move the Overton window.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Michael Clary

Michael Clary is the lead pastor of Christ the King Church in Cincinnati, OH. Michael’s book, “God’s Good Design: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Guide to Human Sexuality,” has just been published by Reformation Zion. Michael and his wife, Laura, live in Cincinnati with their four children.

8 thoughts on “How Plain-Spoken Courage Can Move the Overton Window

  1. Why are so many of my fellow religiously conservative Christians so focused on controlling the public? That is a pertinent question especially when we consider the status quo during Christendom. Yes, homosexuals were treated with cruelty by a Christian majority. Or do you think that being stigmatized, convicted of criminal offenses, losing one’s job, or being beaten were innocent examples of free speech?

    But homosexuals were not special in terms of being marginalized. Native Americans were ethnically cleansed from the land and could not become citizens until 1924. Women were also marginalized were denied an independent voice in our “democracy.” Blacks were enslaved and their mere skin color became a stigma that they wore from birth until death. Conservatives like to point to the Civil War as a turning point because slavery ended at the end of it. But what drove slavery was white supremacy. And after a brief respite from the oppression of slavery, Jim Crow took over in the South and harsh segregation became in fashionable in the North. Just look at the beginning of our nation. The Naturalization Acts of 1 790 and 1795 only allowed free whites to become citizens. And remember that that occurred in the good ole days when, as Clary asserted: ‘our shared morality was derived from the Bible.’ How could Clary ever then believe that it was only after Christendom when, as Clary quoted from the book of Judges: ‘everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’

    Are we willing to admit why we have Critical Theory, Post Modernism, and an age when, as Renn describes, there is a negative view of Christianity in America? Those who want the resurrection of Christendom or the birth of Christian Nationalism appear not ready to make such an admission. Instead, what those who want to see Christendom or Christian Nationalism come to life is a status quo with religiously conservative Christianity in control and any significant level of progressivism’s voice in society silenced as if religiously conservative Christians have everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them–a phrase adapted from a Martin Luther King Jr quote.

    How we religiously conservative Christians can best influence society is if, like Dustin Hoffman in the movie The Graduate, we are told that there is only one word that can bring success. For Hoffman’s character, the word was ‘plastic.’ For us, the word is ‘coexistence.’

  2. Curt,

    We have Critical Theory because it offers a moral framework which excuses and rewards patron-client politics based on hierarchies of grievance. The fact that this is an ourobouros, destined to eat its own tail, is of no concern to those who benefit in the near term.

    I don’t know what you specific approaches you suggest with the word “co-existence,” but if you mean Frenchian winsomeness, it has been singularly ineffective with no prospects of future success. “Moving the Overton window” is the work of testimony and persuasion, which we have no choice but to pursue in the Negative World. You protest Christians wanting to “control the public” – but it looks like you just don’t want us to talk at all.

    1. C.C.,
      Where did those hierarchies come from except from conservative Christian theology and teachers during Christendom. Religiously conservative Christians have a penchant for authoritarianism. And they have defended hierarchies as exhibited in their support for white supremacy, slavery, Jim Crow, imperialism, colonialism, and so forth.

      I am not suggesting the Critical Theory necessarily has a sufficient number of solutions. I am saying that Critical Theory is better at accurately pointing out the problems that exist in Western Civilization

      By coexistence, I mean exactly what it sounds like. Rather than trying reassert Christian privileged hierarchies, we should focus on evangelism without trying to control the public discourse. We should evangelize as equal members in society with other groups and their ideologies. Our evangelism itself calls on all to repent.

      1. Curt,

        What on earth are you talking about? The summum bonum of Critical Theory is the assertion of intersectionality, or in other words the competition to see who is most disadvantaged by the current state of affairs. The fine print, however, is that the reward of this competition is the right to expropriate those “above” oneself in the hierarchy of disadvantage. Which means that it’s really just a new hierarchy of its own, fueled by the continual stirring of strife. Critical Theory is an ethics of envy, revenge, and the spoil, demanding penance but foreclosing forgiveness. It leaves no room for repentance at all.

        1. CC,
          You don’t know what Critical Theory is, do you? Did you know that the start of Critical Theory is around 90 years old. Did you know where Critical Theory started? Did you know that what triggered its start was the rise of fascism and Stalinism? That the theory is actually a group of related theories. And Critical Theory is multidisciplinary.

          Do you object to the fact that Western Civilization has through its imperialism, colonialism, abuse of power and so forth created legitimate victims? Just read about how the different European groups that colonized the Americas treated both the indigenous people there and the blacks who were brought over for slave labor. There is no competition between victims here. For the victims also included Jews and other victims of Nazism and well as Russian victims of Stalinism. What you are trying to do Is to present an ignorant picture of Critical Theory in order to discredit all of it. It is that all-or-nothing approach that is the breeding ground for authoritarian thought. Just like the total rejection of criticisms of Western Civilization really acts as apologetics for authoritarianism.

          But heck, we religiously conservative Christians have a penchant for authoritarianism to the extent that some of us believe that there are no egalitarian social relationships. Remember the age of Critical Theory, its location, and its immediate context of challenging the authoritarian use of traditional values and nation first promotions. Does the promotion of traditional values and nation first approaches sound familiar? Btw, the traditional values and nation first aims that Critical Theory first challenged was practiced by the Nazis. Those two ideas were part of Hitler’s campaign promotions while running for office.

          1. >”Did you know that what triggered its start was the rise of fascism and Stalinism?”

            You know, the rise of fascism and Stalinism also triggered the Manhattan Project. I don’t regard nuclear weapons as good things, so it follows that I don’t care if Critical Theory started as a response to fascism and Stalinism. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend.

            > “Do you object to the fact that Western Civilization has through its imperialism, colonialism, abuse of power and so forth created legitimate victims? Just read about how the different European groups that colonized the Americas treated both the indigenous people there and the blacks who were brought over for slave labor. ”

            I did, in fact, take high school history. But the existence of such events does not create the moral right to expropriate millions, nor does it create the obligation to submit to expropriation. And expropriation, inevitably, is where Critical Theorists demand we go. As Najma Sharif said of the October 7 massacres: “what did y’all think decolonization meant? vibes? papers? essays? losers.” From the horse’s own mouth.

            Not worth it.

            > “There is no competition between victims here. For the victims also included Jews and other victims of Nazism and well as Russian victims of Stalinism.”

            We’re watching exactly that competition play out now. Witness the rift in the Democratic party between the establishment, which wants to fund Israel and strengthen speech codes against anti-semitism, and the people blocking the Golden Gate Bridge in order to Free Palestine. That is absolutely a competition! You can’t say “there is no competition because there are a lot of victim groups”…a lot of groups creates competition.

            > “authoritarian thought”

            You toss the term “authoritarian” around like candy corn on Halloween. What do you mean by that? I’d say the left’s cultural taboos are pretty authoritarian, as was the government’s COVID response, but I doubt those bother you. Somehow I doubt this word means the same thing to both of us.

            > “we religiously conservative Christians”

            What do you mean by “religiously conservative Christian?”

            > ” Does the promotion of traditional values and nation first approaches sound familiar? Btw, the traditional values and nation first aims that Critical Theory first challenged was practiced by the Nazis.”

            The Nazis also practiced budgeting. Spooooky, guess we better keep the skyrocketing national debt. Is speedrunning Godwin’s Law the best you’ve got?

          2. CC.
            Stalinism had nothing to do with what triggered the Manhattan Project. What triggered the project was the German experiments that split the atom. Many physicists knew right away that the desired end product would be the atomic bomb. And Einstein wrote to Roosevelt to warn him and suggest that work on splitting the atom and building the bomb be accomplished by America first.

            You comparison does not lead to any conclusions about Critical Theory. For a significant part of Critical Theory was about understanding why people became so loyal to Hitler first, then to other leaders like Stalin later. One study from Critical Theory bemoaned the fact that the family unit could not protect the children from influences like the Nazis. A group of studies looked into to discover the traits of people who easily and loyally submit to abusive, irrational authorities in order to try to prevent that from happening. The work on authoritarianism and authoritarian personalities continues today.

            Your tying together of Critical Theory and the Manhattan Project does not show that you know what Critical Theory is. But that doesn’t stop you from both criticizing it and associating it with the Manhattan Project. The same applies to your claim that Critical Theory leads to expropriation. Critical Theory has nothing to do with the taking over of property.

            As for your comments about the division in the Democratic Party over Israel, there is authoritarianism on both sides. On the one side, they employ the G.K. Chesterton quip, ‘my mother drunk or sober,’ to blindly support Israel in all that it does. The other side has multiple and opposing groups. On the one hand, there are those who want Palestine to be a free democracy. The current form of Zionism embraced and employed by the Israeli government promotes an ethnocracy, not a democracy. Another distinct group on the other side supports Hamas. And Hamas is just as authoritarian in spirit as the Netanyahu government is. My approach can be read on my blog ( ).

            By religiously conservative Christian, I am referring to those Christians who embrace the Fundamentals of the Christian faith that were used to distinguish true Christianity from theological liberalism in the early 20th Century. One of those fundamental tenets supports the belief in the inerrancy of the original autographs of the Scriptures. The other fundamental tenets teach Christ’s deity, His virgin birth, His atonement and physical resurrection for those who believe in Him, and His eventual 2nd Coming, None of the tenets from the original definition of Christian Fundamentalism carries any political implications.

            Finally, again you fail to logically address Critical Theory with your quip about traditional values and nation first approach. For the push for traditional values was a carrot used to lure voters. The nation first approach drove Nazi imperialism.

            BTW, I wasn’t comparing anyone to the Nazis. What I was doing was reporting on the historical context from which Critical Theory arose. If you understood Godwin’s Law, you would not have referred to it.

            Like some others here, your writing more polemic than rational

  3. In my opinion this is like asking a 10 year old boy to dunk a basketball. That would be pretty cool if he could – no one is going to argue that. But he’s working on sinking free throws. He’s not ready for that yet.

    It would be nice to control or influence the Overton window. But we’ve screwed up the way we talked about homosexuality, so much so that our voice is completely ignored on the transgender debate (which is much more important, and more winnable). We completely missed the race issue. The church was at the forefront of the anti slavery movement but white Evangelicals were not at the forefront of the civil rights movement. And now we’re embroiled in scandal after scandal of pastoral abuse – both spiritual and sexual.

    We need to plug our leaks before telling the culture what to do. I would like to see a lot more focus on reforming the church rather than the culture on this site. Once the church is in better shape, we’ll be ready to engage the culture.

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