A Policy Statement Adopted by the House of Delegates, North Carolina Council of Churches, October 28, 1998
In a letter to a friend in the spring of 1776, John Adams said, “We may please ourselves with the prospect of free and popular governments, God grant us the way. But I fear that in every assembly members will obtain an influence by noise rather than sense, by meanness rather than greatness, and by ignorance and not learning, by contracted hearts and not large souls. There is one thing, my dear sir, that must be attempted and most sacredly observed, or we are all undone. There must be decency and respect and veneration introduced for persons of every rank, or we are undone. In a popular government, this is our only way.”
Sadly, Adams’ advice is routinely ignored. While this scarcity of decency and respect is seen in many political settings, it may be most evident during the electoral season. Political rhetoric appears to be less courteous and more coarse; personal attacks are uglier. Year after year, the problem appears to be getting worse. Candidates for office, when called upon to disavow personal attacks in favor of an issue-oriented campaign, are often candid in their refusal. Attack ads “work,” the experts say, so they continue unabated, a most dangerous “end justifies the means” approach. As one well-known former purveyor of the product, Charles Colson, has observed, “Politics is degenerating to the level of mud wrestling.”
One disturbing result is that citizens are being driven away from the political process. A unique experiment may shed some light on the issue of citizen participation. In January 1990, a group of 50 randomly selected voting age citizens were gathered together in Berkeley, California, to discuss the life of their city, a milieu that is more politically active than a comparable group in most other cities. Moreover, half of the sample citizens in the Berkeley gathering had been involved in political life in some form, including PTA. The surprising finding from this randomly selected group of citizens was that the reason most active ones did not get more involved in political life (going to neighborhood meetings or city council events) and the reason the rest of the participants maintained a low level of activity was that they abhor the language and badgering they see in public discourse. On this point they were unanimous. Ordinary citizens reported consistently that they are offended by the yelling and invective they hear at political meetings, they are offended by personal insults directed at public officials and between elective candidates. As a consequence, they stay away from public life or participate at a minimal level. We are now routinely seeing elections being decided by fewer and fewer voters.
Another unsettling result of the verbal “mud wrestling” is the diminishing regard for our political leaders. Surveys held to rank various professions in America according to the respect in which they are held are finding that politicians are continuing to lose esteem with the populace. Our youngsters who, in years past, might have considered elected officials as role models to be emulated, are now less inclined to do so. We are alienating the very people in whose hands the political process will soon be held.
We are concerned with this “mud wrestling.” In a democracy, civility is not an option; it is a precondition that makes our system possible. As Yale’s Stephen Carter says in his book on the subject, civility is a “pre-political virtue,” one of the “elements of good character . . . without which political views and values are useless.” Without civility, political discourse becomes hostile and polarized. The result is mean-spirited chaos and a political atmosphere that is abhorrent.
What Can Be Done?
By the Church
Of all the voluntary associations in our society, faith communities have a unique opportunity to present a model of love and grace in human relationships, a model of speaking various truth claims in love. Sad to say, the picture we present is often not pretty. Some of the ugliest rhetoric and meanest fights occur in churches. Instead of demonstrating “a more excellent way” of dealing with one another, we mirror the hostilities of the world around us. Congregations and denominations have been torn by squabbles over personal, social, political and theological issues that have driven people away from our churches in droves. Differences are inevitable, of course, but it is crucial to our witness that we handle them lovingly and graciously. If we do not set that as a standard for ourselves, how can we expect such a standard from anyone else?
By Church Members and Other Individual Citizens
As has been noted, conventional wisdom says the “mud wrestling” only continues because it works. Issues rise and fall, candidates are elected and defeated by negative, ad hominem attack-filled campaigns. How sad! The civility will return and the level of political discourse will rise when voters (which means, among others, millions of church members) accept responsibility for saying ENOUGH! An unmistakable word must be sent at the ballot box to those who insist on campaigns of ugliness and sleaze that this will no longer be tolerated – we will elect candidates who air issues, not dirty laundry. As a tangible statement, we call on candidates to sign “civility pledges,” promising to run campaigns of common courtesy and decency.
By the Media
“Six-second messages and ten-second news coverage drives incivility within our society, because it encourages people to jump to conclusions, and to speak without thinking, and to say bombastic things in order to capture attention.” The media have a role to play in fostering greater civility by giving political leaders the opportunity to explore and explain issues without having to create a catchy headline or give a sound-bite response. The media have an additional responsibility of investigating the truth of claims made. The McCarthy era demonstrates too plainly the danger of reporting unsubstantiated statements. Granted, this is no easy task, but responsible journalism demands it. The media definitely have an important role to play if we are to regain the “civil” in our civil society.
By the Politicians
Partisanship, in and of itself, is neither evil nor sinful. American voters expect politicians to advance the positions, goals, and philosophies of one party or another in opposition to those of competing parties. We realize that there are some debates and campaigns that will be acrimonious because of the depth of feeling involved. At issue is the manner in which the partisanship is exhibited.
Incivility frustrates the full airing of honest differences. “It is difficult to focus public attention on choices among legitimate alternatives when rhetoric is dominated by personal demonization. Civility is no obstacle to passionate advocacy, partisanship, wit, and yes, even humor, but it requires some agreement on fundamentals, and it certainly requires mutual respect.” Our call to our political leaders is PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, BE CIVIL!
In President Bush’s inaugural address on January 20, 1989, he said, “This is the age of the offered hand…Let us negotiate soon and hard. But in the end, let us produce. The American people await action. They didn’t send us here to bicker. They ask us to rise above the merely partisan.” Eight years later to the day, President Clinton, in his second inaugural address, echoed that call. He said, “The American people returned to office a president of one party and a Congress of another. Surely they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore. No. They called on us instead to be repairers of the breach and to move on with America’s mission.”
With all due respect, we ask participants in political discourse to heed that call, and to do it “with all due respect.”