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The Religious Case for Less Civility and More Passion

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All this talk about civility is beginning to make me uncomfortable. Civility refers to courteous and polite behavior. But courteous and polite behavior is not, in and of itself, a religious value. At times, it is to be subordinated to other, more important values.

When instructing the prophet Isaiah about how he is to confront those who oppress others, God's instructions are as follows: "Cry with full throat, without restraint; raise your voice like a ram's horn!" (Isaiah 58:1). There is no suggestion here that Isaiah should be civil. What is called for is exactly the opposite: casting civility aside and speaking out with passion, power, and "without restraint" against those who cause or ignore suffering.

Like everyone else in America, I was appalled by the shooting in Arizona, and the religious organization that I serve condemned those who use ugly and violent rhetoric to create an atmosphere of hatred. But in the aftermath of this terrible incident, it seems to me that the enduring emphasis on civility is misplaced. It has become an end unto itself, distorting the norms of democratic debate and distracting us from matters of more fundamental consequence.

In the year ahead, for example, America will continue the discussion on whether all of our citizens are to be granted, as a matter of right, access to a reasonable level of health care. The leading voices of talk radio will not be constrained by considerations of civility; neither will those who remain indifferent to the plight of the uninsured or whose concern is the protection of privilege. When the case is made for assuring that health insurance is extended to every American, I want it to be made with conviction and "without restraint."

Such is the American way. Our political system is constructed on the assumption that it will involve an intense exchange of political views. And as a religious liberal, I attach special importance to impassioned debate. Precisely because I am a religious liberal, I know that I am inclined -- as are others who share my religious outlook -- to avoid absolutes, to reject fundamentalism in all its forms, to be open to subtlety and nuance and to see the other side of issues. These are generally good things, but they can also mean that when I advocate for what I believe, I do so in a tepid way. The challenge for religious liberals is to argue passionately for their beliefs, even as they recognize that they might not always be right. It is to be certain, but not about everything. It is to champion their values with conviction, even as they know that good people may have conflicting values on the same matter.

I do not suggest, of course, that "anything goes." Even if civility alone is not a supreme value, other limitations are suggested in our religious tradition. It states in Leviticus 19:17 that "you shall surely rebuke your neighbor." This passage and others give rise to an extended rabbinic discussion on the nature of disparaging speech (lashon ha-ra). While affirming the necessity of rebuke, the rabbis declare that personal attacks are always forbidden, even when these attacks may be objectively true. This is a valuable insight. As we give full-throated expression to the values that we cherish, we should argue for principle and avoid personal attack. As we articulate our beliefs with conviction and intensity, we should treat our opponents with respect and as children of God. And we must never, ever incite others to violence.

Still, as others fight for their view of justice, we must fight for our own -- with, I suggest, a little less civility and a lot more passion.

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