The Urgency of Civility

The call from the member of Congress was almost desperate. This veteran representative lamented how divisive and hateful the political rhetoric in our nation’s capital has become. Never, in the decades this member has served, has it been this bad. Political opponents are no longer just other public servants with whom we might disagree on various matters; they are now evil people who regularly lie and who desire the worst for the American people.

Every day on talk radio, cable news channels, and in the blogosphere, the political opponents of the media screamers are vilified and attacked in the most vicious ways, with the kind of language you teach your children not to use about others: “Liars,” “Nazis,” Democrats who want a “government takeover,” Republicans who want their fellow Americans to “die quickly,” “enemies of America,” “unpatriotic” if they disagree with you on foreign policy, “un-Christian” if they don’t agree with your morality, and either “baby killers” or “misogynists” or “fundamentalist extremists” or “God-haters,” depending on which side of the debates they’re on. And now, with the first black president, the edge of racism in some of the most hateful comments is evident, either subtly or not so subtly.

The other day a friend, a principled conservative, expressed his genuine worry about the growing number of people who get most of their information from singular news sources that simply bolster their predisposed ideological viewpoint. The stridency of cable TV and the Internet retrench us in our preconceived perspectives, and then ratchet up the public passions and attack the other side as horrible people who don’t share any of “our” values.

I also get calls from people in churches who describe how the political warfare is creeping into their life together in the body of Christ. Pastors are under attack for trying to preach on divisive issues such as health care or immigration reform. I have even heard of some pastors fearing for their personal safety in the midst of such political rancor. The church, which is supposed to help overcome the polarization of society, is instead being overcome by it. The call from the congressperson was an appeal to the faith community to reassume the role of seeking to overcome the political polarization that has gripped the nation.

Our own biblical texts speak to a different kind of spirit. “Come, let us reason together,” says the prophet Isaiah. We didn’t see much of that in the town-hall meeting shouting matches this summer. What a change it would be to reason together in a civil and moral tone. Our lack of civility is really a deep disrespect for those with a different experience or perspective than ours. And that disrespect now goes far beyond the boundaries of healthy debate, to a debasing of both our opponents and our public discourse.

Our faith traditions remind us that all our fellow human beings are created in the image of God. The respect we owe to God should be reflected in the honor and respect we show to each other. Our increasingly uncivil discourse seems to deny the basic humanity of our political adversaries. To respect the image of God in one another also means to respect the differences that we have, even if we vigorously disagree with one another politically. For Christians to treat each other with such disrespect is an assault on the unity of the body of Christ. Our political differences, even on major issues, are simply not supposed to separate us in the body of believers.

We must learn to be mindful of the language we use in expressing our disagreements and to be neither arrogant nor boastful in our own beliefs. When we disagree, we should do so respectfully, without impugning the other’s motives, and recognizing in humility that in our limited and quite human opinions, “we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror,” as the apostle Paul writes. He also enjoins us to be “humble,” “gentle,” and “patient”—qualities not much evident on talk radio.

Ultimately, we cannot function together as citizens of the same community, whether local or national, unless we are mindful of how we treat each other in the common life that we finally have to share together.

Perhaps the faith community could lead by example in a country where civil discourse seems to have broken down—by showing a “better way” in how we treat each other in our faith communities, even across religious and political lines. Congregations might even become safe spaces for such discourse to be repaired and help fill a need for genuinely civil forums. In a religious spirit of humility and respect, could congregations help provide the discipline of civility that has all but disappeared from our heated political rhetoric?

What is really at stake is our ability to find genuine solutions to our many challenging problems, instead of just increasing the volume against those we think are to blame. To find those solutions will likely require not one political faction winning over the others, but rather the collective wisdom, experience, and perspectives that our American diversity really offers us.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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