Before the intensity of this political season was so ramped up, I made several appeals on my talk show to the concept of civility.
Dr. Samuel Johnson lived in the 1700s and was a devout Anglican. He has been described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.” His words: “When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.”
Singer Emmy Lou Harris once said, “As citizens we have to be more thoughtful and more educated and more informed. I turn on the TV and I see these grown people screaming at each other, and I think, well, if we don't get our civility back we’re in trouble.” And she was not commenting on the debates!
Pier Massimo Forni is a professor of Italian literature. Well over a decade ago, he helped create the Johns Hopkins University Civility Project. Its purpose was to learn what influence such character qualities as politeness and respect have on society—especially in the workplace. And then, what happens when these relational enhancers disappear.
Here’s what Professor Forni observed: “Civility means a great deal more than just being nice to one another. It is complex and encompasses learning how to connect successfully and live well with others, developing thoughtfulness, and fostering effective self-expression and communication. Civility includes courtesy, politeness, mutual respect, fairness, good manners, as well as a matter of good health.”
The recent political debates lack most of that description. Instead, led by the new “Don Rickles of Politics”—Donald Trump—opponents and their ideas are held up to ridicule. The recent exchange in the debate with Marco Rubio, and Trump’s followup press conference with Chris Christie, provide ample evidence.
The New York Times headline this week states it bluntly: “To Fight Critics, Donald Trump Aims to Instill Fear in 140-Character Doses.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/27/us/politics/donald-trump.html?emc=edit_th_20160227&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=68618012&_r=0
An example the Times used mentioned a Republican strategist who made a negative comment about Trump skipping a debate. She was then labeled by The Donald as “a dummy” who only acted out of revenge. Marco Rubio is now carrying the “Choker” label. Ted Cruz is “nothing but a liar.” A fellow talk show host from our company was made fun of by Trump for not having a bigger audience.
From the Times, “With his enormous online platform, Mr. Trump has badgered and humiliated those who have dared to cross him during the presidential race. He has latched onto their vulnerabilities, mocking their physical characteristics, personality quirks and, sometimes, their professional setbacks.”
It puts his opponents in a terribly awkward position. They can choose to challenge a Trump position—and face his backlash. They can return insults, and demonstrate the same lack of civility that he does. Or they can be aggressive on their perception of his weaknesses as a candidate and wait for the onslaught of insults.
It’s certainly not limited to Republican candidates. Mrs. Clinton brings her own arsenal of meanness to the campaign by often portraying all Republican leadership as racist, uncaring, and against women. And she claims to be ABOVE the fray.
Here’s what is most unnerving about this to me. Trump claims he’s been audited so much because he is a “good Christian.” He’s proud to be a Presbyterian. Cruz, Rubio, Carson, and several Republican dropouts claim Christian commitments as well. Chris Christie embraces his Catholic faith. John Kasich grew up Catholic, but is now part of a conservative Anglican church. He’s actually written two books about faith, values, and politics! Mrs.Clinton readily identifies herself as a “lifelong Methodist.”
Get the picture? These candidates are on a primetime stage not only representing a political party, but showing to the world how “Christians in politics” act. And it’s not pretty.
I would love to see a one hour television special called, “True Confessions of the Candidates.” Oh, it wouldn’t be a bunch of sordid stuff. It would be a series of admissions as to where civility has been lost in this political season. It would include humble apologies and a perceptible sense of authentic repentance for bad behavior to not only other candidates, but to the electorate!
Matching the confessions would be offerings of forgiveness by fellow candidates. At minimum there would be handshakes to agree to stop the nonsense. There might even be rich, brotherly hugs! Or with Hillary, a fine sideways Christian hug.
Wouldn’t THAT be something!
Offending a brother is not new. In Jesus’s day, one of His followers wanted to know how much to forgive. “At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, ‘Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?’ Jesus replied, ‘Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22, MSG)
Humility. Admitting our wrongs. Granting forgiveness. Civility and faith in action.
As the English aristocrat Mary Wortley Montagu stated, “Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.”
Three cheers for civility!
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