Review: In Defense of Civility

February 24th, 2011

In a political climate marked by division, name-calling, and misrepresentation of facts, James Calvin Davis’ call for religious intervention may seem naïve, if not a bit insane. Religion has always been a topic of debate, and has lately found itself at the service of the very political factions Davis criticizes for their rancor. How could religion possibly have anything to offer in the midst of such political and social strife?

According to Davis, the answer lies not in finding the correct solutions, but in changing the nature of the debates altogether.

With In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us (Westminster John Knox, 2010), the author tackles questions of so-called moral values and their place in public discourse. He begins by exploring the history of religious involvement in public debates, a subject far more complicated than glib references to America as a Christian nation or to separation of church and state. Rather, religious (particularly Christian) thought has played an important role in every major American struggle, and has not been the sole property of any single ideology.

Once he establishes religion’s right to participate in American public discourse, Davis turns to what he calls the “Big Four”: abortion, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, and end-of-life issues. While he acknowledges the near impossibility of ever resolving those conflicts, he insists that religious adherents refrain from claiming that their position is the “moral” one. He carefully presents how each side shows a deep concern for justice and holiness in their position, and calls on faithful people to reject extremism and rhetoric in their dealings with one another.

Finally, Davis looks beyond the Big Four to areas that show more promise of cooperation among liberals and conservatives: economic justice, ecological responsibility, and the struggle for peaceful resolutions to conflicts. He points out how evangelicals such as Rick Warren have found commonality with liberal rock stars like U2’s Bono to combat AIDS, raise concern for the poor, and promote care for the environment. These strange but fruitful partnerships are possible only because individuals of deep religious convictions were able to listen respectfully to those with whom they often disagree.

The author does not suggest that the world’s problems will be solved if everyone will just try harder to get along. He does insist, however, that religious people can model a way of disagreeing that still allows for mutual respect and partnership on creating a better society for everyone. In particular, he calls on his readers to speak with patience, integrity, humility, and mutual respect—especially to those with whom they disagree.

In Defense of Civility provides a voice of well-reasoned encouragement to people of faith who fell a tension between their religion and their politics. By his careful examination of some of the most complex issues of our time, the author models the kind of dialogue he encourages. His clear, lucid prose gives the book a wide potential leadership, including individuals and small groups.

James Calvin Davis teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he serves as Associate Professor of Religion. His previous works include The Moral Theology of Roger Williams: Christian Conviction and Public Ethics.

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