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Conviction and Civility in American Public Discourse

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When I decided to explore the subject of civility two decades ago, I was especially concerned about the ways in which religious convictions seemed to be at the root of much of the mean-spiritedness in the world. There were growing tensions at the time -- soon to be vicious warfare -- between Muslims and Christians in Bosnia; Arabs and Jews in the Middle East; and Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

Some of those polarizations no longer loom large. The Middle East is certainly still a mess, but things have cooled down considerably in Ireland and the Eastern Europe. Indeed, many of the worst incivilities are much closer to home for Americans these days.

When my book on the subject, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, appeared in 1992, I was interviewed frequently by journalists on the subject of civility. At first I was surprised by how often they wanted to talk, not about the "big" incivilities of tribal and international hostilities, but about more mundane displays of anger: road rage on California freeways and rudeness in the aisles of supermarkets. But they were onto something. These less global manifestations of incivility have increasingly become preoccupations for all of us. Kids in middle-class schools are driven to the point of suicide because of bullying by their peers. Campus gossip sites spread salacious stories about students who are identified by name. Bloggers sit daily at their keyboards to spew forth hatred. "Experts" shout at each other on our 24/7 cable news channels.

In recently revising my book, I still had to deal with the fact that religion continues to be a big part of the problem. Christians denominations are torn apart by angry debates over sexuality. Both sides in the ongoing culture wars engage in sloganeering. Religious extremists, on the left and the right, propagate their own conspiracy theories about their religious and irreligious enemies.

As the Lutheran scholar Martin Marty once observed, people these days who are civil often lack strong convictions, and people with strong religious convictions often are not very civil. What we need is convicted civility.

I made that line from Professor Marty the centerpiece of a public talk I once gave about civility on a university campus, and I suggested some ways in which that people of faith could work on the project. After my lecture, a representative of one of the evangelical campus groups came to the front of the lecture hall to talk with me. "I wish we could have heard what you had to say tonight a couple of months ago," he said. He explained that his group had gotten into a acrimonious public exchange with a gay-lesbian organization on campus. The evangelical group had run an ad in the campus newspaper explaining what they took to be the Bible's objections to same-sex intimacy, and the gay-lesbian group had responded with an ad angrily denouncing the evangelicals. The whole thing was kept going in the letters column in the campus paper. "It has really gotten out of hand," the evangelical said. "Any thoughts about what we should have done differently?"

At the very least, I said, his folks might have talked with the gay-lesbian leadership privately before going public with their views. "You could have sent them a copy of the ad you planned to run, and asked them whether there was anything in it that they found abusive. And you could have invited them to have lunch with you to talk about the topic before going public with your views."

His response, expressed in a genuinely regretful tone: "I wish we would have done that!"

A month later he wrote me a letter. "After you and I talked," he said, "we contacted the gay-lesbian leaders. We told them that we are very sorry we had not met with them privately before publishing our ad. And we asked them if we could meet over lunch, and they accepted."

The encounter had started out badly, he reported. The gays and lesbians were very angry. But at one point one of them told about some terrible experiences she had as a teenager in in an evangelical church. "We were very moved by her story," he said, "and we told her so." Some tears were shed on both sides. "We agreed not only to disagree, but to keep meeting on a regular basis. It was a tough conversation, but we evangelicals were so glad we reached out. It sure beats angry public name-calling."

Not a bad place to start at cultivating convicted civility. Agreeing to talk to each other without the glare of a public spotlight. And we conservative religious types paying for the food!

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