Whatever Happened to Civility?
Incivility in American politics is hardly new. Politicians and ordinary citizens alike have long bemoaned “the divisive tone of politics.” But this year’s presidential race seems to have broken new ground. We’ve beheld an embarrassing litany of personal invective, verbal aggression, puerile put-downs, and playground insults. We’re now at the point where the presidential debates overwhelm the viewer with anxiety, a sense of genuine uncertainty as to what might happen next, including the possibility that someone might finally drop an F-bomb or throw a right hook — at which point, as in the case of that “Access Hollywood” video, we’d be disgusted, perhaps devastated, but not at all surprised.
We long for the lost virtue of civility in public life and discourse. But what exactly is it? And how do we recover it? Here are some pastoral and theological reflections on some ingredients of civility — the “habits of the heart” that need to be cultivated for its recovery.
The bedrock of civility is the inherent dignity of all people. Every human being is the very “image of God” (Gen. 1:27). Therefore, regardless of belief or behavior, all are worthy of your respect. Scripture is unrelenting on this point.
The Imago Dei serves as the primary grounds for James’ prohibition of contemptuous speech: “With the tongue we … curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (Jas. 3:8). “Honor the emperor,” the apostle Peter commands the covenant community, in stunning reference to the very one who authorized their persecution (1 Pet. 2:17). As modeled by the Apostle Paul, even when they’re wrong, even when their political or moral beliefs are “offensive” or absurd, a person’s dignity demands they be treated with civility (e.g., Acts 17:22-28; Rom. 12:18). Indeed, civility is a moral commitment to fight the temptation to dehumanize those who disagree with us or mistreat us.
In this regard, it is important to note that civility is more than “good manners” or mere “politeness.” It is something far more robust. It must have the moral durability to weather opposition with poise and self-restraint. Neither is civility equivalent to passivity or silence. Jesus honored all, yet did not withhold prophetic protest or rebuke when needed. He never did so, however, with ad hominem disdain. Civility is not the avoidance of unpleasant dialogue; rather, civility is what makes unpleasant, but constructive dialogue possible.
Poverty is essential to civility. I’m not talking about material poverty, but the grace of inward poverty that Jesus had in mind when he taught, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). To be poor in spirit is to be emptied of Self. To be poor in spirit is to acknowledge moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Switchfoot’s paraphrase is pretty close to the truth: “Blessed is the man who’s lost it all.” Civility is the rare possession of those who are poor in spirit.
How so? Incivility is inevitable for the self-righteous and the know-it-all. For such as these, everyone else is only and always wrong. There’s little to be gained by listening to the foolishness of others. But the poor in spirit are eminently “teachable” — and civility flourishes when one is motivated to listen to and learn. The poor in spirit cultivate an ethos of interdependency — and civility flourishes when one can say, “I may not always agree with you, but I know that I need you.” Indeed, the poor in spirit are remarkably charitable to others, being keenly aware of their own flaws. They refuse to retaliate; they exercise self-control. Civility is the fruit of humility.
Any mention of “diversity” as an ingredient for civility may at first seem surprising. After all, our differences — political, religious, or otherwise — provide occasion for conflict. But there’s a particular kind of diversity we’re lacking in the public square that I think adds to its dysfunction. It’s the diversity of publicly expressed personality. Let me explain.
Jesus Christ himself was the portrait of true humanity. We might therefore use the threefold office of Christ as a rubric of human personality: we are “prophetic,” we are “priestly,” and we are “kingly.” Here’s what I see: We have plenty of “prophets” speaking truth, naming the problem, but far too few “priests” bringing people together, building bridges with the masonry of mercy and kingdom empathy, and far too few “kings” leading, bringing order to the chaos, and administrating actual steps of change. We need a balance of assets and temperaments to collaborate for the sake of human flourishing.
But everyone celebrates the prophets. (“She’s speaking out!”) Everyone thinks they need to be a prophet — that is, if they care. (“Silence is complicity!”) And with the rise of social media, there are more outrage-amplifying outlets of prophetic communication than ever before. We’re surrounded by prophetic anger. We’re surrounded by incivility.
I am certain Christian activists overplay Jesus’ fracas in the temple (Mark 11:15-17) as a guiding principle. This holy display of indignation was without question the exception rather than the rule in his ministry. I am also certain the problem in civic discourse isn’t outrage itself. It’s outrage that is exclusively prophetic in its expression.
The late Elie Wiesel famously declared indifference to be more dangerous than anger and hatred, reasoning that “anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses.” Civility isn’t indifference. Indeed, civility can be angry; Jesus often was. Holy indignation can be a creative force. But all we’ve got are prophetic outlets of public indignation, fuming diatribes in verbal and written form.
What we desperately need more of are priestly and kingly outlets of indignation leading to creative action. What we need are constructive working-dinners, counter-intuitive friendships, collaborative public policy, the advancement of creative ideas. Or a symphony.
The “prophets” among us have been the exclusive stars on the field, and we are the worse for it. It’s time to hand the ball to the “priests” and the “kings.”
I’ll be brief here. Civility is not an isolated act, but a habit of the heart: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6). Showing respect and disagreeing well takes practice. In other words, as with all virtues, civility is cultivated, learned, formed. And this happens best in community, particularly “diverse” community, which is to say, communities in which a range of political and cultural perspectives can be found, so that one’s capacity for civility is tried and tested on a regular basis. That’s how character is formed (Rom. 5:3-4; cf. Jas. 1:2-4).
That is an argument for belonging to a local church. Civility creates community. The reverse is also true: Community creates civility.
By no means is civility an exclusively “Christian” value. Rather, it is a civic virtue, and some of its best examples are not professing Christians (and some of its worst are). Yet I believe a Christian worldview can uniquely provide the spiritual and moral resources for the practice of civility in a pluralistic society. After all, civility is not optional for followers of Jesus. In the words of Richard Mouw, “The call to discipleship is itself a civility mandate.”