Mark DeMoss, concerned about the increasingly harsh tone of public discourse, launched the Civility Project in January 2009. The Republican businessman and political adviser enlisted Democratic lobbyist and former Clinton aide Lanny Davis to help him. Together the two friends wrote to all 100 United States Senators, all 435 members of the House of Representatives, and all 50 state governors, asking each to sign a pledge promising, "I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them. I will stand against incivility when I see it."
How many of the 585 recipients agreed?
Two years later, DeMoss wrote to the legislators who had signed the pledge, Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman and Republican Representatives Frank Wolf and Sue Myrick, informing them he was closing the project. "You three were alone in pledging to be civil," DeMoss wrote. "I must admit to scratching my head as to why only three members of Congress, and no governors, would agree to what I believe is a rather low bar."
Thousands of private citizens showed their support by signing the pledge, but others attacked the project. In an interview, DeMoss described his surprise and dismay at the hostile response he received from fellow conservatives: Some of the e-mails contained "unbelievable language about communists, and some words I wouldn't use in this phone call," he explained. "This political divide has become so sharp that everything is black and white, and too many conservatives can see no redeeming value in any liberal or Democrat."
Why were so few of the nation's leaders willing to take such a simple and seemingly uncontroversial public stand? Why did so many web users respond to a call for civility and respect with vulgarity and vicious attacks? What might these events reveal about contemporary American politics?
Today's hyperpartisan and meanspirited political climate makes it difficult to engage in civil and meaningful dialogues. Indeed, the temperature of the political conversation seems to rise as elections draw near. In recent months, presidential candidates have maligned their opponents for their "finger-in-the-wind politics," "ignorance of basic economics," and "frugal socialism." In the 2008 campaign, one candidate said George W. Bush was "brain-dead." Conservative radio host Bill Bennett rallied the crowd at the 2010 Values Voters Summit with the call, "If you voted for [Obama] last time to prove you are not a racist, you must vote against him this time to prove you are not an idiot." Simple differences in perspective can quickly turn into fiery battles and over-the-top attacks.
Heated rhetoric can escalate beyond wars of words. When political opponents spend more time hurling insults and accusations at one another than gathering together to hammer out solutions to complicated problems, stalemates result. Politicians focus on pointing fingers and attributing blame instead of sincerely trying to accomplish the work that voters elected them to do. At its worst, bitter rancor can turn to violence.
If we are to seek peaceful solutions and honor God in politics, we Christians of all people must avoid such hateful talk. James 4:11 commands us to "not slander one another," an exhortation that should extend beyond how we treat other believers. Whether talking with friends or campaigning for our favorite candidate or cause, we should engage our political opponents and their ideas with respect, welcome the opportunity to learn from other perspectives, and find ways to disagree charitably as a natural part of the political process.
Easy and Hard Issues
Growing numbers of Americans are registering frustration with the political process. Why do politicians constantly battle each other? Why does the government take so long to address problems, or appear unable to fix them? One reason policy debates can be so frustrating is that much of the work of government is trying to solve problems that lack easy solutions. If a problem can be addressed easily, government quickly solves it. Everything else—the complex, seemingly hopeless issues—is left for public debate.
One way political scientists divide political issues is by using two categories: "easy" and "hard" issues.
When asked if government should allow gay marriage, for example, most people will quickly answer either "yes" or "no." This is what we call an "easy" issue. We political scientists use the term easy—a misnomer for sure!—for those issues on which people instinctively choose a side. Typically, easy issues are presented as if they have only two sides: someone is either for something or against it; there is a right side and a wrong side, with little room for middle ground. The categories appear simple because the focus is sharply on the end goal. Most so-called moral issues fall into this category; political scientists typically view abortion, gay marriage, and the sale of narcotics as easy issues.
On the other hand, if you ask someone whether the government should try to stop terrorism, almost everyone (except perhaps terrorists and their sponsors) would immediately say yes. But when you ask the necessary follow-up question—What should we do?—the consensus quickly disintegrates. These are what we call "hard" issues. Terrorism is a perfect example of a hard issue. The center of controversy on these subjects is not the desired policy goal; almost everyone agrees about what needs to be done. Disagreements emerge and multiply as people debate the best way to accomplish a goal and attempt to prioritize the problem among all the other matters government might address. Classic examples of hard issues include ending poverty, protecting national security, and maintaining a healthy economy. Voters almost always agree with such goals; the problem is figuring out the best way to achieve them and when to try.
When We Disagree on Ends
Discussion on the easy issues typically focuses on ends, not means, so activists often frame the debate in absolutist terms. They directly or indirectly tell voters that compromise is not only impossible but may even be immoral. Political debates over moral issues often use the language of black and white, us versus them, right and wrong. Slogans such as the National Rifle Association's famous "I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!" or the popular bumper sticker announcing Hate Is Not A Family value create stark contrasts that offer little space for shades of gray.
And here is the problem: Bargaining and compromise are essential to the political process. To an outsider, an easy issue appears to have two distinct sides, but in reality government likely has multiple options for addressing the issue. Consider the debate over abortion. The alternatives are clear: One side wants abortion kept legal, the other does not. But the hundreds of state abortion laws that have passed in recent decades have addressed only pieces of the larger issue, considering questions such as the public funding of abortion, options for physicians to refuse to perform abortions, and parental consent or notification requirements. The two opposing sides may even find common ground on some regulations such as laws that require doctors to perform late-term abortions in hospitals when the mother's life is at risk.
When people stake claims as either for or against a particular end goal, the door begins to close on possibilities for cooperating to find solutions. Some issues raise only two distinct options and require choosing one, but the subject matter of many so-called easy issues is actually multifaceted and complex. On such issues, it often makes sense to look to government to address one part of the larger problem at a time.
Why don't we look more often for areas of potential political agreement? One reason is that activists often have strong incentives not to seek solutions. Ironically, divisive rhetoric keeps the debate raging and fills their bank accounts. Potential donors are much more likely to contribute to a cause if the stakes are high and the situation appears dire.
Most of the debate over easy issues is highly charged and intentionally polarizing, but it need not be this way. Consider some examples of political leaders who took the risk to reach across issue divides and demonstrate respect for those holding opposing views.
Demonstrating a different approach to the discussion of abortion, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made national headlines after delivering a speech to a pro-choice audience, the New York State Family Planning Providers. Beginning with the principle that "every child born in this country [should] be wanted, cherished, and loved," the then senator charged the audience to find common ground on the abortion issue. "We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women." Some observers applauded these remarks, while others scoffed. Clinton captured so much attention because she spoke of room for political cooperation on an issue usually discussed in all-or-nothing terms. Clearly, those on both ends of the abortion debate have significant areas of disagreement. But, as Clinton noted, they share some similar goals. They will likely hold opposing views on more comprehensive policy proposals, but they can find some common ground by seeking incremental, yet notable, change on areas of shared concern.
Another example: When asked about a gay rights group, GOProud, cosponsoring the Conservative Political Action Committee's (CPAC) 2011 conference, Sarah Palin responded, "Should conservatives not reach out to others, not participate in events or forums [where issues arise] that maybe we don't personally agree with? … I look at participation in an event like CPAC … as [the] more information that people have the better." Several conservative groups and bloggers criticized Palin for what they viewed as tacit support for gay activism and demanded an explanation. Palin responded, "I don't have a problem with different, diverse groups that are involved in political discourse, and having a convention to talk about what the answers are to the problems that face America."
When We Disagree on Means
What about the other category of issues, those hard issues? How do politicians, activists, and voters approach these kinds of policy problems? Ironically, it is usually easier to debate hard issues and find room for political compromise. When people recognize instinctively that an issue is complex, they are more open to considering various policy alternatives. At the same time, they are also more willing to accept partial solutions as productive and valuable steps toward solving larger problems. Debate over hard issues can grow intense and polarizing, but most elected officials and activists enter the discussion fully aware that bargaining will be necessary.
Successful public policy is almost always the result of compromise, yet much public rhetoric on hard issues ignores this reality. In the same way that divisive language can rally the troops on easy issues, politicians and party leaders often find they can capture voter attention with polarizing remarks that demean opponents' positions and question their motives.
For example, a recent Internet ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee shows an elderly man working as a stripper and a man with a walker mowing a teenager's lawn. In between these scenes, text displayed on black screens warns, "Seniors will have to find $12,000 for health care because Republicans voted to end Medicare. How will you pay?" Despite the ad's claims, senior citizens were not in danger of losing Medicare. House Republicans had voted to support a plan to restructure Medicare for adults under age 55 that would likely increase the costs for future beneficiaries, but the measure had no hope of passing the Senate. The ad used humor, distortion, and mistruths to score political points instead of highlighting legitimate concerns about the proposal.
Exaggerations, accusations, and distortions are common in both parties. A recent Republican National Committee fundraising appeal accused President Obama of trying to "buy another four years in the White House so he can continue shoving his radical left-wing policies on the American people that have added $4 trillion to the national debt, caused the loss of 2 million jobs, and led to America's first credit downgrade in history." Are President Obama's policies the sole contributor to our current economic woes? Of course not. But appeals like this often entice donors to grab their checkbooks.
To complicate matters, people are most likely to believe lies about their political opponents. Consider the persistent, though false, rumors that President Obama is a Muslim. Despite Obama's discussion of his conversion to Christianity and current Christian practice in his writings and speeches, plus independent confirmation of his religious practice in several biographical accounts, many Americans continue to believe the rumor. In an August 2010 poll, 18 percent of respondents identified Obama's religion as Muslim. One in three conservative Republicans said Obama was a Muslim, as did 30 percent of respondents who disapproved of the President's job performance.
Although it is indeed possible to find and claim common ground on hard issues, such civility is uncommon in today's politically charged climate. But it does happen.
Consider a Politico.com editorial published in the midst of the looming debt crisis last summer. When Democrats and Republicans appeared at an impasse over how to deal with the nation's growing debt, former U.S. comptroller general David Walker and Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition called for meaningful, bipartisan dialogue to address the nation's fiscal problems: "Such sweeping reforms are likely to be politically difficult, so the American people's active involvement is essential. We need a real national dialogue about the massive fiscal challenge, related risks, possible options, and the inescapable tradeoffs among those options."
Exhorting leaders in both parties to speak with civility and seek compromise, they concluded, "Despite the heated rhetoric, neither side is blameless for our current predicament—and neither has a monopoly on American values."
Keys to Civil Civic Conversation
In the midst of a raging political debate, it is difficult to step back from the battle lines and carefully assess a proposed policy's likely success. But if we want our faith to inform our political actions and offer a positive Christian witness, such a measured approach is not only wise—it is essential. Consider three practical ways Christians can demonstrate our faith in the political arena.
1. Admit the Complexity of Political Issues. Many policymakers and citizens talk and act as if they can solve most policy problems in one easy step. A strong declarative sound bite—"We will win this battle overnight!"—captures more attention and praise than an outline of a multistep, and more accurate, long-term path. Who wants to hear an elected official admit that a problem is so challenging that perhaps the best government can do is address a few aspects of it over time? American voters are much more likely to respond to optimism than pragmatism, so politicians love to promise quick fixes. In reality, few can deliver them. As long as voters respond enthusiastically to pledges of easy solutions, few candidates will have the courage to speak frankly about the dilemmas government needs to confront.
One way we can serve those in public office is to uphold the value of truth telling and accept when they have to make hard choices. When we expect and demand instant results from a slow and complex political system, we make it much harder for government officials to do their very demanding jobs. We should hold our leaders accountable when they take positions we disapprove of, but we should also allow them to explain the choices they made and give them a fair hearing.
Further, we should be slow to react to attempts to scare us. When someone sends an alarming e-mail or letter, we might investigate the claims and do a little research instead of jumping to conclusions. Their claims may be valid, but more often than not, they rely on distortion or outright lies. If a story seems too outlandish to be true, it probably is. If advocates claim a policy proposal will fix a major problem overnight, their pronouncements are likely overblown.
2. Play Fair in the War of Words. Christians—whether as candidates or citizens debating among friends—must stand firm against meanspirited, false, and misleading political talk. So much contemporary political debate shows few signs of nuance and creates a harmful Christian witness. We should not engage in vicious attacks, nor should we support others who do so. Instead, we should encourage honest and open dialogue, raise concerns and criticisms when needed, and keep politicians accountable for their actions.
Overstatement is sometimes necessary to highlight important differences and simplify complex points. But candidates can capture media attention with zippy one-liners and provocative statements without demonizing their rivals or distorting their positions.
Before characterizing someone else's political views, apply the simple test of the Golden Rule. Would you want someone speaking of you and your policy positions in the way that you speak of them? It may seem impractical to use such criteria, but practicality is not our ultimate goal. In political dialogue, as in all other interactions, we must first and foremost honor God.
3. Engage Hard Issues. Many Christians focus almost all their attention on the so-called easy issues that raise cultural concerns. Issues of personal morality are important and need to be a part of public debate; God calls many people to raise awareness of these issues and challenge the church to respond. But such issues represent a tiny fraction of the policies and proposals facing elected officials each year. If Christians focus all of their political attention on these issues, they will lose the opportunity to contribute to the public debate on the wide range of policies on the agenda.
Honoring God in Political Talk
Distortion, lies, and political rancor are nothing new in American politics. Electioneering has been a dirty business almost from the beginning. In the election of 1884, Grover Cleveland's supporters mocked his opponent with the chant, "James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine." Pro-Blaine crowds mocked Cleveland and called attention to allegations that he had fathered a child outside of marriage with the famous line, "Ma, ma, where's my pa?" Christians aren't going to change the tone of political debate overnight, but we should lead the way by our example. Instead of fueling partisan fires and contributing to extremism, we can bring salt and light to politics, demonstrating ways to firmly but respectfully disagree, modeling more civil and truthful political engagement.
When we enter political dialogues unwilling to listen, simply viewing those with whom we disagree as enemies, meaningful dialogue and mutual respect become almost impossible. I believe God calls us to enter political debates assuming that our opponents are sincere and acting in good conscience, even if we fundamentally disagree with their policy views. History reminds us that many in politics have been deceitful. But if we lack hard proof of another's motives, we are wise to begin political conversations by extending charity and respect, opening pathways to truthful and constructive engagement.
In 2 Peter 1:5-8, the apostle encourages his fellow believers to
… make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Imagine the possibilities if Christians actually modeled such Christlike behavior in the political arena! We can and should lead by example, approaching politics with humility, grace, and reason, and giving the ultimate glory to Christ.
Amy E. Black is associate professor of political science at Wheaton College. This article is adapted from her forthcoming book, Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason (Moody, June 2012).
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
For more on politics, see Christianity Today's new eBook How to Pick a President: A Guide to the Deeper Issues, available for Kindle and Nook.
Previous CT articles about politics include:
Commander and Chaplain | Gary Scott Smith explores how the personal faith of U.S. presidents has influenced their policies. (January 4, 2012)
No Taxpayer Is an Island | Elizabeth Warren is wrong, and right, about the role of government. (December 6, 2011)
The Defining Issue of the 2012 Presidential Race? | Observers consider what Christians should prioritize in the upcoming election. (November 29, 2011)
The Politics of Being a Good Christian | Why there might be two "God Gaps" in America. (June 13, 2011)
CT also covers political updates on the politics blog.
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