A Crisis of Civility

The bitter name-calling, hostility, and rancor that have been so much a part of recent election campaigns have only deepened the popular hunger for a significant reform—if not a complete re-creation—of the way Americans do politics. In his forthcoming book Who Speaks for God?: An Alternative to the Religious Right—A New Politics of Compassion, Community, and Civility (Delacorte, 1996), Jim Wallis challenges the role the Religious Right has played on the American political scene and lays the groundwork for a new politics shaped by three spiritual tests: compassion, community, and civility. The following excerpt is from the chapter on civility. —The Editors

In the midst of his fight for India's independence, Mohandas Gandhi remarked, "My first fight is with the demons inside of me, my second fight is with the demons in my people, and only my third fight is with the British." There were times in India's long march to freedom that Gandhi would actually call off the movement for years at a time, much to the frustration of his colleagues in the Congress Party. The great Mahatma would say that they weren't ready for freedom yet and that more work on social, economic, and spiritual development was necessary, often including periods of fasting.

If you ask people what they find most offensive about politics today, they will often cite the bitter rhetoric and attack campaigns of modern political warfare. "All they do is shout back and forth and call each other names," said one disgusted citizen after an early 1996 primary debate. Gandhi's self-examination and political introspection contrasts dramatically with our Democratic and Republican partisans today. Across the political spectrum, we suffer from a loss of civility.

"Civility" is really about two things: the quality and integrity of our public discourse, and the level and depth of citizen participation in the political process. The two are deeply connected.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1996
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