11/11/2010 10:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Putting The 'Civil' Back In American Civilization

By Mark Hanson
Religion News Service

(RNS) The recent election campaign should wake us all and stir us to action. Our nation's political climate has been overrun with bitter and divisive commentary. Reckless incivility has overtaken public discourse in our nation, and it is a travesty.

Our children, sadly, have watched and learned from us. Spiteful rhetoric used to stigmatize opponents on immigration or gay rights has become a script for young people and children to bully and intimidate their peers.

Enough. We deserve better.

I'm adding my voice to those who call for respectful political engagement for the common good, and renewal of common decency in public speech. And I'm not alone.

Many Christians choose to engage public life with a hopeful spirit, one that is very different from the mean-spirited cynicism that has overtaken us. I and others choose to act out of hope, because I am confident that God is at work in the world for the good of everyone.

Behind much of the divisive rhetoric and the partisan posturing are perspectives that are not worthy of us as Americans. Some treat government as if it were God-forsaken unless one religious tradition and its set of moral values are imposed on people of all faiths.

Some view people whose language, culture or convictions are "different" as threats or even enemies to be overcome and controlled.

Still others present themselves as victims and engage the political process resentfully for their own self-interests and the interests of those who are most like them.

Much of the division and hostility we experience in political life flows from these kinds of perspectives. Christians whose hope and confidence come from the biblical witness, however, have a different perspective.

We recognize that government is God's servant, as St. Paul wrote in the New Testament. Regardless of the faith of the people holding public office, government and all public employees serve God's providential care for all humankind. Even when we are convinced that government is dysfunctional and needs reform, public service remains an honorable vocation deserving of respect.

Political life should not be abandoned as hopelessly forsaken by God. We have the opportunity and the responsibility in a democracy to engage the public square with generosity and compassion. Candidates elected to public office have a responsibility to serve the common good, not privileged interests or partisan factions.

When we participate in the political process, we engage others as neighbors whom we have the opportunity and privilege to serve. Christian faith follows Jesus' example of coming to serve, not to be served. Authentic Christian faith serves all our neighbors, both here at home
and around the world.

Even when we disagree on important matters of public life, we respect our neighbors; we need not caricature their words and ideas simply to defeat them. Instead, we engage in vigorous public debate in order to preserve and strengthen the life we share with all. Even when we disagree, we must seek to find others at their best.

Christians do not -- or should not -- view life as a zero-sum competition, where progress can come only at the expense of others. We engage the political life of our nation, presenting ourselves as people confident in a generous God who mercifully provides for the well-being
of all people. We present our best gifts, ready to endure hardship and suffering for the sake of the common good.

God has not entrusted abundant resources and gifts to us for partisan advantage, so we must use them for the good of all, for God is the God of all.

The Rev. Mark S. Hanson is the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.