The theme of election politics in 2016 seems to be “Voters are angry.” According to media reports, the results of the alleged high levels of anger are the three leading presidential candidates: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. If this is what public anger produces, we need a better source of civic motivation.
A case can be made that anger is fertile ground for uncivil talk. Is civility dead? As citizens we should be concerned.
Mark DeMoss addresses Brigham Young University about his civility project during a January 2012 address.
Christians should be even more troubled by the stark absence of civil discourse – not just in politics, but in every layer of human relationships.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Colossae, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).
I recently discussed the subject with two leaders who share my concerns. This editorial introduces one of them. The next edition of the Biblical Recorder will carry the second part of this discussion.
Mark DeMoss is the founder of DeMoss, a public relations firm that specializes in faith-based organizations. Based in Atlanta, Ga., he is an experienced public relations executive who works with ministry leaders around the world.
In 2009 DeMoss launched The Civility Project. Two years later, he closed down the website and ceased the effort.
Five years after the project fizzled, I asked him why he began a public conversation about civility and why he stopped talking about it.
DeMoss said there were several triggers for him. The first came in 2009 when he worked with the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. “As an evangelical (who was) working with a Mormon presidential candidate, I was on the receiving end of lots of pretty vitriolic rhetoric, ironically mostly from fellow evangelicals, and that troubled me,” he said.
The second trigger came as he observed the hostile settings of town hall meetings. “Members of congress were going home and holding town hall meetings where they were being disrupted by shouting matches,” he said.
“Then you had the state of the union address where a South Carolina congressman shouted out ‘You lie!’ while the president was speaking about the health care bill,” he added.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with another person’s statement is not the central concern – it’s how the argument is made.
“The other thing that motivated me to launch The Civility Project was that, on a spiritual level, if we claim to be followers of Christ, civility is not an option,” he said. “It’s woven throughout scripture.” DeMoss pointed to some scriptural examples. “The idea of preferring others above myself, and a soft answer turns away wrath, and there are dozens of scriptures that prohibit uncivil behavior, or casting insults.”
If Christians practiced evangelism the way they practice politics, DeMoss said, “we’d never see another convert. You don’t convert anybody by yelling at them, or insulting their religion, or shouting them down, or protesting at their meeting. … Incivility is quite unchristian.”
Feeling that the tone was getting uglier, DeMoss purchased the web domain for The Civility Project. He did not want the effort to look like a conservative was lecturing the left, so he looked for a “liberal counterpart” to join him.
He recalled a conversation earlier in the year with Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Bill Clinton. “I remember one night watching Lanny on TV and I found myself saying, ‘There’s a liberal guy I really like. He’s respectful; he’s pleasant; he doesn’t interrupt people.’”
So DeMoss wrote him a letter that said, “Dear Lanny, I’m a conservative, Republican, Southern Baptist, evangelical who spent the last two years trying to elect Mitt Romney as president. I suspect that politically we have very little in common. However, as I’ve watched you conduct yourself in the public square, I’ve admired how you handle yourself and your civility. I just want to encourage you in the heat of a tough battle.”
Davis responded by sending a book he had written with a note on the first page, “Mark, thank you for your kind words. Best wishes, Lanny Davis.”
DeMoss was a bit let down, thinking, “I wrote him a pretty special letter, and just got that short response.”
Months later as he contemplated the launch of The Civility Project, he sent Davis an email that read, “Lanny, I wrote you a letter back in the summer commending you for your civility, and I’m launching a civility project, I’d love to talk to you about it. Could I come and see you?”
Davis replied the next morning. “Mark, I would love to meet with you. Your letter sits in a frame on a bookshelf in my office. Call my assistant.”
DeMoss traveled to Washington, D.C. “When I got to [Davis’] office, he’s on the phone but he motions for me to come in. I’m looking around the office. I wanted to see if my letter was actually on his bookshelf. Sure enough, in an office filled with framed pictures of him with presidents and heads of state and other significant people and handwritten letters from President Bush and President Clinton, there is my letter in a frame on his bookshelf.”
When Davis ended the phone call he pointed to the framed letter and said, “That’s the nicest letter I’ve ever received.”
From that simple exchange DeMoss and Davis sealed a friendship. “He’s a liberal, Democrat, Jew, and I’m a conservative, Republican, evangelical [but we] became fast friends, and he said ‘I’ll be glad to join you in this civility project.’”
The Civility Project was launched by the two men with an op-ed piece in The Washington Times on the eve of President Barak Obama’s first inauguration.”
They crafted a very simple pledge that, in their opinion, anybody should be able to agree to regardless of political affiliations. It read,
1. I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
2. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
3. I will stand against incivility when I see it.
They mailed a personal letter to every member of Congress and every sitting governor – 585 people. The packet included a letter, a certificate copy of the pledge and a few articles about civility. No governor replied. Only three members of Congress responded: Senator Joseph Leiberman of Connecticut, Frank Wolfe of Virginia and Sue Myrick of North Carolina.
“I thought it was revealing that more people couldn’t agree to those three simple things,” DeMoss said. “One of the ironic things I encountered was that some people equate civility with capitulation of your values and convictions. Others equate it with unilateral disarmament, meaning ‘If I agree to be civil and you attack me, then I can’t attack you back.’ That’s essentially what Bill O’Reilly said one night on his show. He had Lanny Davis on the show and O’Reilly said, ‘I wouldn’t sign it if I was running for office.’”
DeMoss said they weren’t against debate, disagreement or dissension. Rather, they believed arguments should be won on the strength of ideas, not decibels, antics or disruptive behavior. “We seem to have lost the ability to carry the day on the strength of our ideas, so we’ve resorted to shouting, name-calling and now you see with a guy like Donald Trump, the most uncivil behavior we’ve ever seen maybe in public life – certainly among candidates for the office of president. I’m troubled by it. This is not a good trend.”
According to DeMoss and Davis, civility is politeness, respect, common decency and courtesy. “It’s what we might have called good behavior in the old days,” he said. “Certainly calling people who disagree with you morons, losers and sleazy is not only uncivil, it’s unintelligent to belittle your political, philosophical or theological adversaries.”
Political incivility gets good ratings in the press, DeMoss said.
“I can get a lot more attention calling somebody a bad name than I could making an articulate, intellectual case for why I think their position is wrong.”
He continued, “Civility should permeate our marriages, our businesses, our neighborhoods, our highways, our legislatures – it almost doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe, it should be a universal quality we should desire. I don’t see any encouraging signs that very many people feel this way. It seems like we reward incivility. Donald Trump’s incivility has been rewarded with the Republican presidential nomination.
“A lot of people will be looking at me saying, 'Good luck with your civility, but we gotta do what works, and this apparently works.' So the tide seems to be going the other way.”
In the second installment of this article we will hear DeMoss’ thoughts about the long-term consequences of incivility. I welcome your thoughts about the state of civility in our culture.