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

The Civility Mandate

Richard J. Mouw


April 1, 2011
by Richard J. Mouw

When John Murray Cuddihy gave the title, The Ordeal of Civility, to his important 1974 book on civility, he was not engaging in hyperbole.  Civility is no easy virtue to cultivate for people who are serious about their basic beliefs. Civility is public politeness; it requires us to display tact, nice­ness, moderation—all the stuff that goes into being "civilized." The “ordeal,” Cuddiy argued, was trying to pull this off without compromising the deep beliefs that are embedded in our “sacred particularity.”

So, how do we cultivate civility without compromising our strong convictions? It helps a lot to recognize that the specific traits associated with civility are themselves essential to the Christian life. It isn’t as if our Christianity inclines us toward an arrogant spirit that we must hold in check in the here-and-now as we wait things out amidst the messiness of our sinful world. The call to discipleship is itself a civility mandate. Civility is the kind of spiritual outlook that is appropriate in people who know that we are to seek justice while also loving mercy and walking humbly before our God (Micah 6: 8).

My own interest in exploring the topic of civility was motivated by the realization that evangelical Christians have tended to ignore the passages in the New Testament that encourage a civil spirit.  I grew up with the repeated reminder of the Apostle’s instruction that we must be prepared at any moment “to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you,” but seldom did I hear that the writer immediately adds, “yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (I Peter 3: 15-16). Nor were many sermons preached in my youth on Romans 12: 18: “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

To take the civility mandate seriously is to counter the insistence of many secularists these days who like to depict fervently held religious beliefs as a dangerous presence in the public square: strong religious convictions, they insist, are incompatible with a civil spirit. This perspective goes back at least as far as the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who put the point bluntly in his classic work The Social Contract. People who have strong religious convictions cannot be good citizens, he argued. When you think you are right about theological issues you will inevitably exhibit intolerance in the civil realm, since “one cannot live in peace with people one regards as damned.”

I am convinced that this complaint is based on a misunderstanding of how religious conviction can—and ought to—function in the public square. But I also know that we people with strong religious convictions have our work cut out for us if we are going to demonstrate that we can do it in a way that contributes to the health of society.  The effort must be made, however.  Indeed, I think we have a direct mandate from God to do so. When the ancient people of Israel were carried off into captivity in Babylon, they were confused about how they were to act in their new—very pagan—surroundings. Back in their homeland they had “owned” the political system, and had felt free to shape the patterns of their public life in obedience to the will of God. But now they were a minority group in a culture that was hostile to their deepest convictions. How were they to act?

The prophet Jeremiah brought them a direct word from the Lord on this subject. They were to seek the welfare of the city where they had now been sent into exile, and to pray to the Lord on its behalf, for “in its welfare (shalom) you will find your welfare (shalom)” (Jer. 29: 4-7). Properly understood, civility is the spiritual character that disposes us to be seekers of shalom in our own day.

Richard J. Mouw is the president of Fuller Theological Seminary and the author of 17 books including, most recently, an expanded and revised edition of Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.           


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