Civility and Christian faith

November 4th, 2016

Worst ever!

Many are proclaiming that this year’s campaign is the worst ever, most uncivil and full of name-calling and bluster. Chuck Lorre, in his Vanity Card #539 at the end of The Big Bang Theory, may have said it for all of us: “A Nonpartisan, Nondenominational prayer for America. God, make this election be over soon. Amen.” The candidates seem to hurl a variety of insults, insinuations and, yes, sometimes lies at each other, with the hope that something will stick in the voters’ minds as the one thing that sways more opinions. It has seemed to be the most uncivil campaign season ever.

Yet, it may not measure up to the campaign of 1828, when Andrew Jackson was running against John Quincy Adams, the incumbent. In that campaign, Adams was accused of providing a Russian czar with a young American woman’s time and sexual favors. In essence, he was accused of being a pimp. Meanwhile, Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was accused of being “a convicted adulteress” and a bigamist because it wasn’t clear whether her divorce was final from a previous marriage before she married Jackson. Between the election and Jackson’s inauguration, Rachel died. In his inaugural speech, Jackson blamed those who raised the bigamy charges as being responsible for her death. He said, “May God Almighty forgive her murderers, as I know she forgave them. I never can.”

Presidential political seasons always seem to be rough and tumble, even more than lower-level elections. The stakes are high — the highest office in the land — and in many minds that justifies the incivility, the win-at-all-costs lies, and the name-calling. Some would justify all actions by saying that the campaign is equivalent to war because the stakes are so high. Even war, however, has its limits.

What’s lost?

Kyrsten Sinema, a member of the House of Representatives from Arizona, was quoted as saying, “I’m very concerned about the tone of politics in recent years. We’ve seen a decline in civility and bipartisanship, and a rapid increase in hostility between those who have differing opinions. I think this has led to the alienation of the public in governance, which jeopardizes democratic participation.” In that view, incivility leads to a lack of ability to work together (bipartisanship), hostility and, ultimately, an apathy of the citizens who are required to make democracy function well. In some sense, one might say that democracy is, therefore, broken. Indeed, in recent years, working together with those across the aisle seems to be anathema to both major political parties.

When one speaker interrupts another and both speak at the same time, no one can be understood. It’s hard to respect any candidate who spends a lot of time in name-calling and labeling, as those are common practices of bullies on the playground. When the issues facing our country aren’t the primary topic of discussion, we aren’t likely to find solutions to those problems. These are just three common acts of politicians that hamper the democratic process.

Another way — civility

Civility is a way of relating to one another that enhances civic discourse, which allows us to seek solutions to problems together and which allows everyone’s voice to be heard. The Institute for Civility in Government (ICG) says, “Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. But it is political, too, in the sense that it is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored.”

If we’re part of that apathetic electorate, we’re likely to want nothing to do with politics. However, politics, at its core, is about how we make decisions in any group for the group. Unless we live entirely as hermits, we cannot avoid being involved in politics in some way, shape or form. Therefore, we as Christians can practice political civility in the midst of our everyday lives. And, if part of our discipleship training were to be training in civility, the church could impact the larger society in a powerful way. One of the major contributions the church can make to larger society is to model the process by which we make decisions.

Practicing civility

Politeness is the grease for the wheels of interpersonal relationships. When we practice everyday politeness, many personal interactions are much smoother, preventing unnecessary conflict and disagreement. When someone practices politeness as a norm, we often call that person “graceful.” For us as Christians, to be filled with grace is a good witness. At the same time, being polite doesn’t mean we don’t express ourselves with confidence when we have disagreements with others.

Disagreeing without disrespect is a second component of civility. We often feel that if we speak harshly and rudely, we’re winning our points and that we’re showing our strength. That sort of disrespect of the other, however, can lead to a defensive posture that easily can shut down communication. Stephen Carter, author of the book Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, says, “Civility represents the sum of all the sacrifices that one makes in a democracy for the sake of living a common life.” One of the sacrifices that we make would be not always to need to win points and show strength. Another sacrifice is to treat others who have different ideas respectfully, when, honestly, they just make us angry.

In a video called “Is Civility Important?” Carter relates a story about Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, who spent decades as a civil rights lawyer earlier in his career. As Justice Marshall reflected on his career, he would say “wonderfully nice things, and apparently mean them” about even those who had been strong advocates for segregation. When asked about how that could be, he replied that one could be wrong on a particular issue, but that doesn’t make that person any less human.

The opposite of respect is demonizing the adversary, which is a popular political tool. This makes an opponent seem less than human, even demonic, simply because that person is on the other side of an issue. That’s one way in which we disrespect those with whom we disagree.

Staying present in conversation is difficult to do, especially when it’s a free-flowing debate and it’s quite easy to get caught up in formulating our next answer. Part of the sacrifice of civility is that we listen and seek to understand, even when someone is expressing views that are antithetical to our core beliefs, which may even nauseate us. One line of the Prayer of Saint Francis is “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek … to be understood, as to understand.” Very few guests on today’s news shows seek more to understand than to be understood.

If civility means we make sacrifices in order to live a common life, we will often be countercultural. If we go about politely, respectfully, listening to others, seeking to understand the other’s points of view, even when we strongly disagree, then we will change the world — or at least our part of it.

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