Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Does Civility Work?

Harold Heie


August 17, 2012

By Harold Heie

In commenting on the reasons for the latest deluge of vitriolic advertisement released by both the Obama and Romney campaigns, a political pundit gave a simple explanation: “Civility doesn’t work.” 

But there is a prior question that must be addressed before one can discuss what “works” or not: What is one trying to accomplish? 

If the primary goal of politicians is to get elected or re-elected, then there is ample evidence that negative advertising works. 

But imagine the possibility of politicians committed to the goal of governing, proposing and passing legislation that promotes the common good. For this goal it is clear that incivility doesn’t work, and civil political discourse is required. Politicians on both sides of the aisle must listen to the each other’s points of view, and talk respectfully about their agreements and disagreements as they seek to forge legislative common ground.

The prevalence of political posturing in place of a commitment to govern well became painfully obvious once again in the aftermath to the recent tragic massacre in Aurora, CO. What possible reason is there to allow any U. S. citizen to purchase an assault weapon? Freedom without limits is license. Why is it so difficult for those on both sides of the political aisle to find the common ground of legislating reasonable limits on the freedom to purchase guns? A major reason for this failure is that taking a courageous stand on gun control is viewed by many politicians as committing political suicide. 

As if the call to politicians to commit to the goal of governing is not radical enough, try to also imagine what seems like an even more utopian goal: Political discourse that is informed by a commitment to creating a polity where all persons are treated with the decency and respect that is due to another human being. For this lofty goal, it is also clear that incivility doesn’t work; civil political discourse is again required. To accomplish that goal, we must respect each other enough to listen well and then engage in civil conversation about our disagreements. 

I can only imagine the protests of some of my readers: “Get real, Harold, that isn’t the way politics works.” That shot of realism is well taken, given present practice in the political realm. But if politics is the endeavor by which citizens seek to uncover and promote a common good that will enable human beings to flourish, both individually and collectively, then the problem lies not with the two lofty goals that I embrace, but with the impoverished goal of just getting elected. 

So, what to do? A possible place to start is with us, the electorate. We reward those who resort to viscous advertising that demeans other human beings by electing them to office. We reward those who resort to political posturing in place of governing by electing them to office. We provide little external incentive for politicians to govern well or to treat their political opponents with dignity and respect. 

And some of us who profess to be followers of Jesus are among the worst culprits. Too many of us have uncritically jumped on the bandwagon, adding our voices to the prevailing incivility of political discourse. That is especially tragic since my two loftier goals are deeply informed by a Christian faith perspective (at the same time that they can be shared by all persons of good will because of our common humanity). To commit to governing in a way that seeks a common good is a deep expression of what it means to “love my neighbor,” to which Jesus has called all Christians (Mark 12: 30-31). To create a welcoming space for someone who disagrees with me and to talk respectfully about our disagreements is another deep expression of what it means to love that person. 

As the political pundits are quick to point out, “Christian voters” are a significant portion of our electorate. Now would be a good time for Christians to stand up in huge numbers and say: “We are fed up with the incivility in political discourse! We will cast our votes only for those who are committed to governing well and treating their political opponents with dignity and respect. Our Christian convictions will settle for nothing less.”

This dream pushes utopianism to an unprecedented level. But, through the eyes of faith, I dare to envision that possibility. 

—Harold Heie is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College and a former Trustee of the Center for Public Justice. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”