We are in the midst of an extended, tiresome campaign cycle. Elected officials more than ever before have come under criticism for their continuous campaigning and what seems to be diminished time governing.
Candidates find their voice often by trying to shout louder than the others, even if they are saying much of the same things. But it’s not just the candidates. Try, just try and sit down to have a meaningful, civil, discussion with someone from another point of view, and see if you can do it.
Civility in the public square is gone in America. Whether its politics, elections, religion, spirituality, or even sports, engaging in meaningful debate is as elusive as a photo of Mitt Romney’s hair out of place. What happened? Is it all the result of “opinion TV”? Cable news networks baiting both sides to argue against each other while a powerless host tries to play referee?
Is it because information can be channeled to us by preferences? “A la Carte information.” Today you can receive emails, Facebook messages, and browse websites from the perspective that you choose, while never having to introduce yourself to an idea from another point of view.
Politics and government are not the only playgrounds for civility loss. As a pastor, I see too often within the church a lack of civility between parishioners. However, the bigger lack of decency is often found in leadership. Leaders who are schooled from one perspective, who read from one perspective, refuse to engage others, and befriend people with whom they may disagree only further the divide. Those leaders stifle civility in the public square.
Perhaps we should define what it means to be civil. Dr. Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena California, clarifies civility in his book Uncommon Decency:
Civility is public politeness. It means that we display tact, moderation, refinement and good manners toward people who are different from us. It isn’t enough, though, to make an outward show of politeness. Being civil has an “inner” side as well.
Nothing has challenged the way I as a pastor share my faith than this. How can I effectively engage people radically different than myself if I do not consider them a friend? If I’m not viewed as a friend and a person of peace, then immediately my “outward show of politeness”, is deemed fake, offensive, intrusive, and close-minded.
Mouw further explains:
Many people today think of civility as nothing more than an outward, often hypocritical shell. But this cynical understanding of civility is yet another sign of the decline of real civility. In the past civility was understood in richer terms. To be civil was to genuinely care about the larger society. It required a heartfelt commitment to your fellow citizens. It was a willingness to promote the well being of people who were very different, including people who seriously disagreed with you on important matters. Civility wasn’t merely an external show of politeness. It included an inner politeness as well.
The reality. Most political analysis and Christian thought fail to take into account how much we are shaped by our social networks, familial ties, and church traditions. If you grew up in a Republican family, friends with other Republican families, you’re more than likely a Republican. All of the political analysis, exit polling, and independent swing vote seducing, fail to adequately take this into account. If you’re a Christian, who grew up in a Christian home with other Christian families in networks of Christians, its quite likely difficult to find friends in your life that don’t believe what you believe.
Our social backgrounds and networks influence how we vote, and how (if) we worship.
Unless we break the cycle.
Civility is cultivated when we engage people we seriously disagree with, politely, and lovingly. Political conversations and the exchange of ideas in the public square become MORE civil when we uphold a “heartfelt commitment to our fellow citizens.” The sharing of the Christian faith with others who are seemingly hostile to the message of Jesus Christ changes when we lead with civility. When we lead with love.
This is NOT about the compromise of values, truth, or positions for the sake of civility. It’s about the civil, polite, and loving communication and exchange of those values, truth, and positions.
So, get to know a Republican. A Democrat.
Get to know someone who doesn’t believe the claims of Christianity. Make them your friend.
Get to know a Gay person. A Straight person.
Get to know a NY Jets fan. (Well, maybe not.)
Be decent, people.