A Statement on Civility: A Desperate Need for Cooperative Spirit, Collective Vision, and a Common Goal in Politics.
This big civility news this week is Rick Warren's explanation for canceling the Saddleback Civil Forum. The fact that a civil forum was cancelled due to a lack of civil discourse is akin to a psychic convention being cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.
Though I am aware of some debate about the circumstances, Rick Warren was certainly right about the lack of civility. I think the United States is in a civility crisis.
As we approach this election, one can't help but notice the continual decline in civility we have seen in Washington. It's getting ugly.
There are many reasons but here are a some I have observed:
1. We are too quick to label others who disagree with us.I wrote last week about the shooting in Washington D.C. at the Family Research Council offices. This shooting led to a conversation about the danger of the "if you're not for gay marriage, you are a hater" idea. It does not foster civility on either side. It creates inaccurate perceptions and puts people on the defensive. A defensive posture is a cynical and closed posture. Cooperation does not result from a defensive posture.
2. We misrepresent others' views to make them look stupid or evil. Political campaign ads are full of misrepresentations. Voting records are twisted, legislation is misstated, and generalizations are made. Then the other side just ups the ante and the vicious cycle continues. This happens because, in many cases, it is easier (and often more beneficial politically) for us to point out the faults and gaffs in our opponents rather than make the case we have.
3. We use fear as a weapon against the uninformed. In our soundbite culture, if commercials or pamphlets say something enough, people who know no better will begin to believe it as truth. That's what worries me the most about undecided voters. Some voters are engaged and informed on issues and candidates. However, many are not, and many times they are the ones who unfortunately cast the deciding votes.
So where do we go from here?
I wish it was an easy answer. I do see three things that might help, however. We need a cooperative spirit, a collective vision, and a common goal.
A cooperative spirit is essential to success in any process. With more than 300 million Americans, this is nearly impossible to enact all at once. However, you can foster a cooperative spirit in your neighborhood, your community, your city, and so on. We don't have to agree on everything, we just have to cooperate and be willing to understand things from others' perspectives-- for the common good. We can learn from one another if we would simply talk with those who disagree with our political positions. We can't have civility if we don't assume that the other person has the best in mind for the community and country.
A collective vision is desperately needed in our nation. As terrible as this sounds, the only time we as a country seem to be in agreement collectively on anything is during times when we have been attacked. National tragedies rally us together. But that is not at all what I'm advocating here. I'm simply stating that to show that it is possible for us to work together. We should use that same mentality in times of peace and prosperity. We don't have to have a common enemy to bring us together, we simply need a common vision for a better country-- less divided, more concerned about the common good.
A common goal might be the most difficult part-- as if the other two were simple. It's difficult because someone has to set the goal, and we can't even agree on who that should be. A common goal can't be pushed down onto the people. It must rise from the people. It is a result of the cooperative spirit and the collective vision-- but we can and must work toward figuring that out together.
Recently, I was part of a national gathering in Washington D.C. for the Faith and Politics Institute to talk about such cooperation. This was a small meeting of a diverse group of religious leaders including a handful of evangelical leaders, along with several Senators and Members of the House.
The group created a statement to rally around and foster civility in our country. I was glad to speak into the draft, but was leaning against signing. Politics, Senators, religious leaders, and statements are not my thing. However, the events of the last few weeks-- arguing, calling people "haters" for disagreeing on marriage, the coarsening political culture, the Rick Warren cancellation, and some prayer and reflection-- changed my mind. So, that statement, which I have signed, was released today.
This "Better Angels Statement" is an attempt by respected religious leaders from across the country to call for a more civil tone before our country is torn apart. It has been signed by diverse leaders such as Richard Land of the SBC, the James Forbes of Riverside Church, Pierre Bynum of the Family Research Council and Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. That is, to say the least, an unusual list.
Like any group statement, it is not exactly how I would word things, but I hope it helps our cultural conversation and provokes politicians to value civility just a little bit more. It reads:
I. As people of faith in leadership positions, we will seek to model civility and achieve the following goals in our personal spheres of influence:
1. Lead by example, modeling civil discourse with and respect for those with whom we disagree.
2. Lead by recognizing that our deeply held beliefs, values and principles will not be compromised by courteous, respectful and civil disagreement when we interact with those with who whom we disagree.
3. Lead by tackling the controversial issues of our time without resorting to clichés, resorting to stereotypes or putting people into preconceived boxes.
4. Lead by establishing relationships that will allow each of us to express our convictions openly in our interactions with each other knowing that we will be heard and respected.
II. We agree to the following "Commitment to Reconciliation."We are faith leaders from various Christian traditions and have different, sometimes opposite, opinions on important subjects of religion and politics. While we do not agree on some issues, we are concerned that excessive polarization in politics is harming America. We affirm that differences on some matters should not create polarization on all issues. We believe that where we disagree, we should do so in a spirit of mutual affection, showing honor to one another. We believe we are called to a ministry of reconciliation. We shall make our best effort to seek understanding of and respect for our differences and identifying areas where we can work together with mutual respect.
III. We agree to begin working toward a broad initiative that will influence church members, media, and all of society toward greater civility.
IV. We agree to pray for each other and for our leaders of all different political views.
I will share more about this soon, but since they released the statement today, I wanted to share it here. I don't do interfaith things often due to my theological convictions and views on such approaches (read the cover story I wrote in Christianity Today about multifaith engagement). But, in this case, I hope that religious standing together as co-belligerents against incivility will help in some small way.
That's my prayer.