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Can civility restore America?

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Charles C. Haynes
January 21, 2008

Is it just me, or is America experiencing culture-war fatigue?


Consider the presidential campaign, once forecast to be the most divisive in modern times: It’s shaping up to be (let’s pause here to knock on wood) downright civil.


Sure, we have the usual media hype over she said/he said about Martin Luther King and other manufactured controversies. But thus far, calls by candidates for more civility and bipartisanship appear to be resonating with many voters in both parties.


A civility climate change might prove ephemeral, but for the moment at least more and more Americans are demanding more statesmanship from the two major parties—or else face formation of a third.


That was the message out of Oklahoma earlier this month when a VIP list of Democrats and Republicans met to issue a “bipartisan invitation to civility.” Although the group recognized vigorous debate as vital for a healthy democracy, they also argued that, “without a modicum of civility and respect in our debates, forming a bipartisan consensus on the major issues after the election will be virtually impossible.”


This may not be Rush Limbaugh’s year after all—or Al Franken’s, either.


But let’s not get carried away. In the age of Net rage and gotcha journalism, it will be tough to make the case for the virtues of civility over the din of name-calling, personal attacks and distortion of facts. America’s increasingly crowded public square has become an angry, divided and often hostile place.


That’s why I want people to read “The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It,” a just-released book by Os Guinness—an influential Christian writer and public philosopher. Guinness is perhaps best known to many Americans as the architect of the Williamsburg Charter, a widely hailed reaffirmation of religious liberty signed by some 200 national leaders in 1988.


Guinness urges us to focus on the urgent question that confronts the United States and the world: How do we live with our deepest differences, especially when those differences are religious and ideological?


The answer, he argues, begins with a rejection of extremes on both sides of the culture wars. Say no to a “sacred public square”—where one religion is privileged at the expense of others. And say no to a “naked public square”—where all mention of religion is removed from public life. Both are unconstitutional and unjust.


Guinness proposes an alternative vision of America, a vision consistent with both the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment: A “civil public square” where people of all faiths and none are equally free to enter public life on the basis on their convictions and where the government neither imposes nor inhibits religion.


Among other things, a civil public square requires forging a civic agreement to uphold the rights of others, even those with whom we deeply disagree, and a commitment to debate our differences with civility and respect.


Civility doesn’t mean we all pretend to agree; it isn’t “niceness” that papers over disagreements. Differences matter—and we should debate them openly and freely. But how we debate, not only what we debate, also matters.


Civility, argues Guinness, doesn’t stifle debate or dissent. On the contrary, genuine civility “helps to strengthen debate because of its respect for the truth, yet all the while keeping debate constructive and within bounds because of its respect for the rights of other people and for the common good.”


Of course, it’s not enough to wring our hands about the lack of civility. We need to practice it and demand it from the people we elect to high office.


For far too long, culture warriors have set the agenda. Now the rest of us need to find the wisdom and courage to move beyond division and hate—and finally tackle the major problems confronting our nation.


And we need leaders who will appeal once again to “the better angels of our nature” as an earlier president did at another time when our nation’s character was deeply tested.


Americans didn’t listen in 1861. Let’s hope we do today.


Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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