The political polarization of our society has now reached a new and dangerous level. Honest disagreements over policy issues have turned into a growing vitriolic rage against political opponents, and even threats of violence against lawmakers are now being credibly reported.
Just a few months ago, a deeply concerned, veteran member of Congress called me to express real despair about the alarming level of disrespect, personal attacks, and even hateful rhetoric that was occurring among her colleagues -- reflecting a degeneration of public debate in our national culture. This month, another member of Congress called to express real fear about threats of violence he and other elected officials had experienced against themselves and their family members. Political debate, even vigorous debate, is a healthy thing for a democracy; but to question the integrity, patriotism, and even faith of those with whom we disagree is destructive to democratic discourse, and to threaten or even imply the possibility of violence toward those whose politics or worldview differs from ours is a sign of moral danger, and indeed, a sign of democracy's unraveling.
Both members are people of faith and were calling to ask for help from the community of faith to lead in this dangerous moment and to begin to help heal what was becoming an increasingly alarming and frightening situation. I recently had lunch with a friend, a political conservative with whom I both agree and disagree on various policy issues. He expressed his real discouragement over how more and more Americans now get their news and information from only highly ideological and partisan media sources with whom they already agree, and who daily fuel the most passionate emotions of their loyal followers -- on both sides of the political aisle.
So for several months, a group of Christian leaders have been praying, talking, and discerning how the churches might lead by example to help create a more civil and moral tone in our national politics. We have confessed that, too often, Christians have merely reflected the political divisions in the body politic instead of trying to heal them in the body of Christ. People of faith from all our religious traditions could help create much-needed safe, civil, and even sacred spaces for better public discourse at this critical moment in our nation's history. What has come from our prayerful discernment is "A Covenant for Civility: Come Let Us Reason Together." Church leaders from across the political and theological spectrum -- who have voted Democratic, Republican, and Independent in recent elections -- have come together around this civility covenant, and the breadth of the signatories is a powerful statement in and of itself. Together we offer what we feel is a strong biblical statement motivated by deep concern about our present situation; we are now inviting thousands of other pastors and lay people in all of our churches to sign this covenant and then seek to implement it in our congregations, communities, and nation.
The Covenant for Civility begins:
As Christian pastors and leaders with diverse theological and political beliefs, we have come together to make this covenant with each other, and to commend it to the church, faith-based organizations, and individuals, so that together we can contribute to a more civil national discourse. The church in the United States can offer a message of hope and reconciliation to a nation that is deeply divided by political and cultural differences. Too often, however, we have reflected the political divisions of our culture rather than the unity we have in the body of Christ. We come together to urge those who claim the name of Christ to " put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:31-32).
I offer the full text of the covenant here (as well as a link to the list of initial signers) and ask our readers and friends to consider both signing on and acting to make the commitments of this covenant in our lives and faith communities -- and offer a much-needed prophetic witness to the nation at this time of crisis.
We need to behave differently, for both the sake of our spiritual integrity and the health of our democracy. We have forgotten some of the key values of faith: respect, truth, honesty, humility, patience, kindness, confession, forgiveness, prayer, and the unity of the body of Christ. It is time to recover them again. Let the change we call for begin with us.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, CEO of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.