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

Civility in Public Discourse

Michael J. Gerson


??November 26, 2010
?by Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

We have just finished an election season in which civility was often a casualty.  It is true that rough elections are part of the American tradition.  The first genuinely contested presidential election, between John Adam and Thomas Jefferson, was among the most partisan and bitter of our history.  The cruel treatment of Abraham Lincoln by his newspaper critics is thankfully not equaled today.    

But our political system has its own, unique vices.  Before Election Day, negative ads are repeated so often that they numb our outrage.  Recent American presidents have been subjected to vicious rumor campaigns, amplified on the Internet, concerning the legitimacy of their elections, their background and religious faith.  One religious right leader promoted a video accusing Bill Clinton of murder.  The current president is accused of being a Muslim.  Opposition in our political system sometimes seems unhinged.

Political debates often concern the deepest moral principles, which makes some intense conflict inevitable.  But a pervasive atmosphere of incivility makes it difficult for a representative government to function. The American political system was designed for conflict; it is undermined by contempt.   

In a democracy, we govern ourselves through public arguments, whose goal is to persuade people to believe certain things and vote in a certain way.  Anger is usually the enemy of persuasion.  There are good, practical reasons for using language that is reasonable, judicious and sober rather than aggressive, abrasive and abusive.  On the whole, people drawn to a cause like to feel that those representing the cause are both amiable and peaceable.   
But, as my co-author Pete Wehner and I argue in our new book, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, for Christians civility is more than a utilitarian principle.  It has to do without a certain view of human beings and their inherent dignity.  If we view every person as a bearer of God’s image, we should treat people with respect and good manners regardless of the views they might hold.  If we treat them with disdain, we publicly dishonor our belief in human dignity.  

None of this precludes rhetorical tough-mindedness.  Conflict can be clarifying.  And sometimes, when injustice is great, a confrontational approach is called for.  When Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” it was fairly vivid language, even by today’s standards.  Civility is not a synonym for hollowed-out convictions or lukewarm moral commitments.

But Christians should be known, not only for what they argue, but for how they argue.  Religious people who adopt a harsh, personal, conspiratorial tone don’t understand or exemplify their deepest beliefs.  Civility is effective in a democracy, where persuasion is power.  But it is also the proper way to treat men and women created in God’s image.  A little generosity in victory, a little grace in loss, can go a long way.  

Michael Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).   

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
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.”