THE BLOG
01/24/2011 11:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Do Americans Fight Over Civility?

Following the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, which left six dead and thirteen injured, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), civility is back on the agenda. But serious disagreements, running largely along party and ideological lines, remain over whether our harsh political atmosphere contributed to the horrific actions of an unbalanced individual. This disagreement -- one largely about why civility matters -- provides a window into the dramatically different world views of liberals and conservatives that lie at the root of our current political conflicts.

Giving testimony to these fissures in his eulogy at last Wednesday's public memorial service, President Barack Obama found the need to urge Americans to discuss with civility the need for more civility in the public square:

"If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate -- as it should -- let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle."

On two points Americans largely agree: our current political climate is toxic, and it is a serious problem. The PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey, conducted following the November election by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, found that more than 8-in-10 Americans believe the lack of civil or respectful discourse in our political system is a serious problem, with nearly half (49 percent) calling it a very serious problem. This sentiment is shared by members of all major religious groups and by Americans across the political spectrum.

Most Americans also believe the country is more divided now than ever. The PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll found that 6-in-10 Americans, across the religious and ideological spectrum, believe the country is more divided over politics than it was in the past. A recent CBS News poll similarly found that about half of Americans believe politics, whether discussed by all Americans or debated by Members of Congress, has become less civil over the past ten years. And twice as many Americans believe the tone of the 2010 election, when compared to past elections, was more negative (41 percent) than positive (22%). Notably, after witnessing the unprecedented amount of negative advertising launched disproportionately at Democrats in the 2010 election, Democrats (51 percent) were twice as likely as Republicans (26%) to believe the election's tone was negative (PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll, Nov. 2010).

Despite this broad agreement about incivility in public life, however, Americans disagree about its full implications. For example, Gallup found that the public is evenly divided about whether heated language in politics today was a factor in motivating the Arizona shooter to commit the attack (42 percent said it was a factor, 42 percent said it was not). But the partisan differences on this question tell the real story. By a margin of 2-to-1, Democrats say the heated language was at least in part a factor (54 percent factor, 27 percent not a factor), while Republicans say it was not by an even larger margin (27 percent factor, 62 percent not a factor).

The fundamental difference lies in two conflicting worldviews that have historically run not only through American politics but theology. Liberals, both political and religious, argue that civility matters because violent rhetoric at the very least provides a fertile context for violent individual action. They tend to see people as socially embedded beings strongly influenced by social forces and institutions. Conservatives largely reject this claim, emphasizing that individuals, not social context, cause violence. They tend to see people as rational individuals operating largely free of social constraints.

The fact that Americans deeply disagree not only over politics but even over why civility matters makes it likely that the charged political atmosphere may be with us for some time. But correctly grasping that these debates illuminate clashes of worldviews may at least help us get to the root of the matter.

This article was originally posted by Dr. Jones at the Washington Post's On Faith section. To read more from Dr. Jones, find his blog, "Faith in the Numbers," at the Washington Post's On Faith section, here.