This past weekend at his satirical rally "to Restore Sanity”, Jon Stewart presented awards to individuals whose words and actions exemplify reasonableness.
Jon Stewart isn't the first to point out what seems to be an escalating lack of civility, respect, and common courtesy, in public conversation. Although there is much debate concerning the appropriate place of the Christian voice in public life, it is my opinion that the key area of influence for Christians is the arena of respectful public engagement. Too often the Christian voice is an active participant in angry public rhetoric. At the very least the Christian population is not speaking up in a significant way against such demonizing behavior, thus condoning it and helping to perpetuate its existence.
This is not just a matter of manners. Key democratic virtues such as equal opportunity, justice, fairness etc, are at stake in how we approach strong disagreement. Respect and tolerance for one another must be evidenced by use of language that reflects these core democratic virtues
Irresponsible language is language that, encourages fear, supports intolerance, and promotes suspicion of individuals or groups, demonizing them for the sake of scoring political points, manipulating public opinion, and turning opponents into enemies. It is an example of irresponsible use of language to go on national T.V. and say that Muslims killed US citizens on 9/11. Although it is an indisputable fact that the perpetrators of this crime were Muslim, it was irresponsible to infer that being Muslim was the cause of the crime. Juan Williams, and Bill O’Rielly have both used language this way to encourage hate and fear of the Muslim people.
Irresponsible use of language is in play also when either a direct or indirect assertion is made that President Obama is Muslim. Currently Muslims and political party candidates are among the many targets of defamation from the inflammatory unsubstantiated language used in our public discourse. The intentionality of rhetoric is recognized in the use of the term swift boating which was coined to mean slandering someone to the point of destroying their chances of winning and also in the verbiage of harassment and bullying.
Defamation also leads to physical harm. It is irresponsible to run ads on T.V that suggest that gay marriage will lead to the teaching of a homosexual agenda in public schools. This type of public language is dangerous because apart from being a gross manipulation of the truth, rhetoric of this variety can and has led to acts of violence. Examples of this abound. It is not a stretch to see the recent string of suicides and other acts of violence against young gay men as connected to a general environment of intolerance perpetuated by anti gay T.V. ads.
Timothy McVeigh committed his unspeakable crimes during the height of anti-government rhetoric and militia movements that closely resembles statements and campaign advertisements produced by the Tea Party movement today. It is also easy to make a connection between anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media and the Florida pastor's intention to hold a public burning of the Koran. In short our language itself can be violent. Even when our language carefully treads on the border of inference and suggestion, it has actively contributed to a hostile political environment.
In a recent commentary for Religion Dispatches Gary Laderman argues that one can “Pick any decade from American history and find political leaders encouraging hate—both to protect American values and interests and to strengthen the civil religious ties that are supposed to bind us all together… hate Indians, hate blacks, hate Jews, hate anarchists, hate war protestors, hate government, hate the North, hate the South, hate the gays…” Laderman points out that political discourse, including an appeal to shared religious values, (often white Christian and protestant) is frequently used for the tactical purpose of demonizing any group with which we find ourselves in disagreement.
Although Christians are guilty of participating in this type of destructive rhetoric, religion is not solely responsible for the negative direction of public conversation, and people of faith are not solely responsible for its existence. Despite the despicable ways religion and has participated in these political tactics, an appeal back to Christian virtues can contribute positively as a corrective to hateful discourse.
I strongly believe that Christians can and must speak prophetically about the need for an environment of tolerance and even charity toward one another. The center of Christian ethics being neighborly love can make a powerful and positive contribution in the framing of public conversation. As Christians in community we should hold one another accountable when we fall short of anything less than civil, respectful public discourse. This can occur in our daily lives among friends, family and colleagues, but it also has broader implications for shaping and discerning everyday media content. Individually, but also collectively we must form standards for civil conversation and then demand that standard be met in public discourse. We must use the Christian language of goodwill as the measure against which we judge our public discourse. To not participate in intolerant, demonizing speech is not enough; we must speak out against violent and hate-filled language both as responsible Christians and good citizens.
Although Laderman is correct in his assessment that religious language has been used to demonize people and institutions, it is also within the American tradition to use religious language to call back and correct our moral failings. I find powerful Lincoln’s second inaugural address as a powerful witness in his use of deeply religious language to explain the just cause of the civil war. Despite the horrific nature of the war, Lincoln spoke prophetically about bringing an end to slavery, using Christian language not for rallying hate toward the confederate states but “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” as Robert Bellah points out “he closes on a note of reconciliation” (Robert, Bellah “Civil Religion in America”, 177)
President Jimmy Carter is a more recent example of a Christian politician who has used his Christian values to positively shape public discourse. In his book “Our Endangered Values” Carter states that “many members of the general public, legislators, federal judges, Christians and other believers are still searching for harmonious answers to most of the controversial religious and political questions. It is in America’s best interest to understand one another and to find as much common ground as possible.” (Carter, Our Endangered Values, 5) Carter speaks candidly and civilly as a born again Christian, employing that language of goodwill for charitable conversations even with his strongest opponents.
Today Christians must become again a model of civility and reconciliation. If we fail to rescue our prophetic voice then the Christian contribution to the political community will be regrettably linked to violence, ignorance, and intolerance. As Christians and Americans this would be a failure to live up to our religious principles as well as our democratic values.