The Common Good

This Election Season, Let's Focus on Truth and Civility

Sojomail - September 23, 2010


"All of the animals, plants, and microbes we use in our food system, our agricultural system, are genetically modified in one way or another. That or they’re wild."

- Bruce Chassy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, on genetic changes in food due to selective breeding and hybridization. (Source: Boston Globe)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

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This Election Season, Let's Focus on Truth and Civility

Let's try it. For the next six weeks before the election, let's focus on truth and civility.

Why? Because it's getting worse. With the campaign season in full swing, the level of our public discourse has hit new lows. From politicians to commentators, I keep hearing the same thing, "We've never seen it get this bad." And some of them are clearly helping to make things worse. The "birther" movement is alive and well, with its evangelists trying to convince the American public that Obama has stolen his Social Security number. Others are trying to convince voters nationally that the biggest issue on the ballot this year is that Delaware Senate hopeful Christine O'Donnell told Bill Maher that she "dabbled in witchcraft" before she became a Christian in college. Democrats are all described as "radicals" and "socialists," while all Republicans are described as "crazy" and "wingnuts."

Truth and civility have often been casualties of elections; but this election and its aftermath promise to be the worst in a very long time. We saw things get pretty ugly in the last presidential election. After his acceptance speech, I defended Barack Obama against real vitriol by holding up examples of Christians who disagreed with him but did so respectfully. I defended Sarah Palin from what I saw as unfair and unnecessary obsession with her wardrobe and rumors about her family. But as the midterm elections get closer, things seem to be getting worse.

How did we get to this place? Last year, I interviewed Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor and author of the book Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do? He said, "I think the reason for the breakdown of civil discourse is not that we have too much moral argument in politics, but that we have too little. What we really have are ideological food fights. Assertions hurled back and forth on cable news …. But what we don't have is a serious engagement with the competing moral and spiritual convictions that citizens bring to public life." We don't need to give up our values, water them down, or throw out our convictions to have civil discourse. It is exactly these beliefs that allow us to engage in real dialogue. (Watch the interview with Sandel to hear why.)

On the blog, through personal commitments, and through online advocacy Sojourners is going to try and lift up positive examples of civil discourse and call out failures in this area. Civil debate and disagreement is possible. A good example was a debate Richard Land and I had at the conservative Family Research Council's "Values Voter Summit" last fall. Another example is when I was joined this spring by Christian leaders across the theological and political spectrum, including Chuck Colson and other political conservatives, in signing a "Civility Covenant," each signer, including thousands of you, committed to civil discourse in his or her life and church.

Between now and the election, I think there are three lessons of particular importance.

First, we Christians are politically different, but unified in Christ. Too often the church has reflected the political divisions of our culture rather than the unity we have in the body of Christ. 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. We can disagree, but how we disagree with one another is a question of our witness for Christ.

Second, we should speak the truth and seek it. It is morally irresponsible to forward "rumor emails" without first checking the facts. Too often we focus on media caricatures of political figures. It might be the belief that Obama is a "secret Muslim" or that Sarah Palin actually said, "I can see Russia from my house." (That was actually said by Tina Fey during her parody of Palin.)

Third, we must hold to the statement, “out of many, one.” “E pluribus unum” was not an admission of weakness but a proclamation of strength. The health of our democracy depends not only upon the outcomes of elections but also how those elections happen. We should all be able to say, in the words of Jon Stewart, "I disagree with you, but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler." In Sojourners magazine this past December, I wrote about the urgent need for civility. Today, the need is even greater. I hope you will join us over the next six weeks as we model civil discourse, and call our media, politicians, and nation to accountability. Truth and civility are too important to lose.

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