Whether they rally behind
Fox News’ Glenn Beck to “Restore Honor” or Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart to “Restore
Sanity,” Americans agree on one thing: our political system has a civility
Four out of five Americans,
regardless of party or religious affiliation, think the lack of respectful
discourse in our political system is a serious problem, according to a PRRI/RNS
Religion News Poll released Nov. 11.
The findings echo sentiments
expressed by a range of religious leaders, including Richard J. Mouw, president
of Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Uncommon Decency: Christian
Civility in an Uncivil World, and Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish
Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).
Alarmed by the 2010 campaign
season, which four in 10 Americans consider more negative than past elections,
Mouw, Gutow and others are calling for a kinder, gentler tone — even on
hot-button topics like Islamophobia, homosexuality or abortion.
“We’ve had heated public
debates before, but the level of discourse in this campaign and even following
the campaign has been atrocious,” Mouw said, citing as an example Senate
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge to prevent President Obama’s
reelection, as opposed to advocating for policy shifts.
“There’s a real hostility
now, and Christians with very strong and more conservative convictions really
don’t seem to be contributing much to a civil discourse and a calming of the
heated discussions in the larger culture,” Mouw said.
In fact, white evangelicals
and Republicans are less likely than other Americans to say the 2010 election’s
tone was more negative than past campaigns, which PRRI research director Daniel
Cox said may reflect their satisfaction with the outcome.
Mouw has another theory:
evangelicals are more accustomed to inflammatory rhetoric from the pulpit, and
therefore don’t see it as a problem in politics.
Other findings from the
poll, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with
Religion News Service, include:
- One-third of white
evangelicals report that the election was more positive than past elections, a
figure that’s significantly higher than among white mainline Protestants (17
percent), the unaffiliated (17 percent) or Catholics (23 percent).
- Two-thirds of Americans
say that people in their local community work well to overcome differences, and
more than eight in 10 Americans who attend religious services say people in
their congregation work well to overcome differences.
- Nearly 6-in-10 Americans
think the country is more divided over politics today than in the past; more
than four in 10 Americans said the country is more divided over religion than
in the past.
- About half of white
evangelicals and black Protestants think the country is more divided over
religion than it was in the past, compared to less than 40 percent of Catholics
and white mainline Protestants.
- Young adults (50 percent)
are less likely than seniors (61 percent) to say Americans are more divided
over politics, but more likely to say Americans are divided over religion (42
percent of young adults and 33 percent of older adults, respectively).
Americans are justifiably
afraid and upset about the stagnant economy and terrorism, Gutow said, but he
agreed with Mouw that 24/7 cable news channels and the blogosphere have
encouraged and magnified negative, fear-based rhetoric.
In his organization’s new
Statement on Civility, prompted by polarizing debate over Israel as well as
domestic concerns, Jews agree to “treat others with decency and honor and to
set ourselves as models for civil discourse, even when we disagree with each
The JCPA pledge has
collected more than 1,100 signatures in its first 11 days and will form the
basis for dialogue amongst Jews and with people of other faiths. The pledge was
launched Nov. 1.
“I don’t think this country,
and I don’t think our community, are going to make good decisions if people can’t
talk to each other rationally and pragmatically,” Gutow said. “We need to lean
back, talk to each other, look each other in the eye and respect each other’s humanity.”
Calls for civility have
clear religious roots. In Judaism, Talmudic study encourages back-and-forth
conversation, Gutow noted. In the New Testament, Mouw said, the Apostle Peter
tells Christians to express their convictions “with gentleness and reverence.”
“In the world where our
Savior has not yet returned to make all things right, we’re going to have to
find our way of coping in the present and trying to do as much good as we can
without oppressing other people, without bearing false witness against other
people,” Mouw said.
“We have to defend the faith,
that’s clear, but it says to do it with ‘gentleness and reverence.”’
The PRRI/RNS Religion News
Poll was based on telephone interviews conducted Nov. 5-8, after the midterm
elections, with 1,022 U.S. adults. The poll has a margin of error of plus or
minus 3 percentage points.