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A Season of Civility: Religion and Public Life

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Want to undermine American democracy?

Start by making citizens so distrustful and dismissive of each other -- especially of those who are "different" in their political/religious/philosophical convictions or their sexual orientation/ethnicity/race -- that the power of "We the People" dissipates as we tear each other apart instead of confronting democracy's true enemies.

How do you do that? Not to worry. It's already being done by the fear mongers and dividers-and-conquerers who have made the public arena so abusive that many citizens have fled from it.

The result? A void where "We the People" should be -- a void that non-democratic powers like big money are ready, willing and eager to fill. As Bill Moyers has said, "There's only one way to counter the power of organized money, and that's with the power of organized people."

Political civility is not about being polite to each other. It's about reclaiming the power of "We the People" to come together, debate the common good and call American democracy back to its highest values amid our differences. The civility we need will come not from watching our tongues, but from valuing our differences and the creativity that can come when we hold them well.

America was founded on the historically novel and radical premise that conflict and tension, rightly held, are the engine, not the enemy, of a better social order. By holding our differences with hospitality instead of hostility, we can act on that premise, rebuild our civic community and hold power accountable to the will of the people.

From Theory to Practice: A Model Project

In service of these goals, the Wisconsin Council of Churches -- with the backing of Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities -- has launched a state-wide project called "A Season of Civility" amid what they call "the partisan rancor of the recent recall campaigns and the anticipated divisiveness of the fall election cycle."

They ask,

"Are you weary of the increasing polarization in our public discourse at the very time we need government leadership to address our biggest problems? You can help begin a different kind of conversation in our congregations and communities. We should neither remain silent nor go along with the prevailing bitterness in our politics. We must create 'safe spaces' for respectful conversations across the partisan divides. And we must move beyond the walls of our congregations to include everyone in our local communities in this dialogue."

Please note that "everyone in our local communities" includes secular humanists and others who subscribe to no religious tradition. There's no conceit here that religious believers are better at civility than others. Instead, there's a commitment to the notion that we all have a lot to learn from people who see things differently from us.

As the text for this project, the Council is using my new book, "Healing the Heart of Democracy," with special focus on the five "habits of the heart" I explore in it:
  • An understanding that we are all in this together
  • An appreciation of the value of "otherness"
  • An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways
  • A sense of personal voice and agency
  • A capacity to create community
Representatives from the five religious communities involved with this project have translated these habits into the language of their own traditions and cite supportive texts. These translations (available as downloadable PDFs on the Council's website) can serve as wonderful discussion starters in settings of many sorts.

Do you have a Council of Churches and/or an Interfaith Council in your city or state? If so, please let them know about this model project. It reaches wide and deep, and seems to me to hold great promise.