Over the last few months, the political polarization of our society has reached a new and dangerous level. Honest disagreements over policy issues have turned into a growing vitriolic rage against political opponents; threats of violence against lawmakers are now being credibly reported. With the upcoming debates on immigration reform and a Supreme Court nomination, it will likely get worse as the fall election campaigns approach.
Political debate, even vigorous debate, is a healthy thing for a democracy. But to question the integrity, patriotism, and even the faith of those with whom we disagree is destructive to democratic discourse. And to threaten or even imply the possibility of violence toward those whose politics or worldview differs from ours is a sign of moral danger and, indeed, a sign of democracy’s unraveling.
This fundamental disrespect in the political debate has harmed the public square.
Treating opponents and opposing ideas with contempt has consequences that affect us all. It poisons the debate, polarizes the options, and prevents us from finding real solutions to our many problems. Public discussion should be vigorous, sharp, and competitive. All of our often-competing interests, values, and constituency needs must be brought to the table for democracy to remain healthy. But disrespect is a different thing altogether. We cannot function together as citizens of the same community unless we are mindful of how we treat each other in pursuit of the common good in the common life we share together.
This lack of civility actually hurts people and damages the democratic process. To put it spiritually, much of our political discourse today dishonors the image of God in each other and in the fragile process of human beings trying to govern themselves in peace. An honest political search to find answers to serious problems has been replaced by a politics of warring factions, where winning and losing become the only considerations. We must do more than simply change our language; we must learn to honor the process and its participants by treating disagreement with respect. When we disagree, we should do so respectfully, without falsely impugning the other’s motives, attacking the other’s character, or questioning the other’s faith. We ultimately need a moral debate.
So for several months, a group of Christian leaders has been praying, talking, and discerning how the churches might lead by example to help create a more civil and moral tone in our national politics. We have confessed that, too often, Christians have merely reflected the political divisions in the body politic instead of trying to heal them in the body of Christ. People of faith from all our religious traditions could help create much-needed safe, civil, and even sacred spaces for better public discourse at this critical moment in our nation’s history. What has come from our prayerful discernment is “A Covenant for Civility: Come Let Us Reason Together.” More than 100 church leaders from across the political and theological spectrum—who have voted Democratic, Republican, and independent in recent elections—have come together around this civility covenant, and the breadth of the signatories is a powerful statement in and of itself. Together we offer what we feel is a strong biblical statement motivated by deep concern about our present situation. We are now inviting thousands of other pastors and lay people in all of our churches to sign this covenant and then seek to implement it in our congregations, communities, and nation.
The Covenant for Civility begins:
“As Christian pastors and leaders with diverse theological and political beliefs, we have come together to make this covenant with each other, and to commend it to the church, faith-based organizations, and individuals, so that together we can contribute to a more civil national discourse. The church in the United States can offer a message of hope and reconciliation to a nation that is deeply divided by political and cultural differences. Too often, however, we have reflected the political divisions of our culture rather than the unity we have in the body of Christ. We come together to urge those who claim the name of Christ to ‘put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4:31-32).”
We need to behave differently, for both the sake of our spiritual integrity and the health of our democracy. We have forgotten some of the key values of faith: respect, truth, honesty, humility, patience, kindness, confession, forgiveness, prayer, and the unity of the body of Christ. It is time to recover them again. Let the change we call for begin with us.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.