In late March, a document flashed across the Internet: “A Covenant for Civility: Come Let Us Reason Together.” It was a very nicely worded statement that affirmed seven points, each reinforced with a Scripture verse or two, and it conveniently fit on one sheet of paper. Because no person of good will could quarrel with the sentiments contained therein, it attracted a modest amount of attention – for a few days at least.
It apparently originated within the Sojourners circle, and a large number of the 114 “faith leader” signatories moved in that orbit. The organizers roped a wide array of white evangelical and mainline denominational figures into appending their signatures (but not Rick Warren or Franklin Graham) as well as a handful of African-American, Hispanic, Roman Catholic and Orthodox personalities.
Even a few notorious neo-cons like Charles Colson and Robert P. George were included among the largely middle-of-the-road group of signers. Many on the list are people I greatly respect, and more than a few of them are personal friends or at least acquaintances.
It was a well-meaning response to the “incivility” that has come to mark American political discourse in recent months. To be sure, this sad situation is hardly a novel development. Look at the bitter animosity manifested by opponents to the civil rights movement, the violent opposition to Vietnam War, the conservatives’ effective politicization of the abortion question as a wedge issue, the militia movement of the 1990s and the Oklahoma City bombing, the failed attempt to impeach Bill Clinton, and the “stolen” election of 2000 that culminated in the deep divisions over the policies of George W. Bush and Richard Cheney.
The collapse of the American economy at the end of the Bush years and the narrowly averted global depression, together with the election of the first African-American president, further accentuated the rending of the American body politic and brought political polarization to a level unseen in generations. To be sure, some of the hatred directed toward Barack Obama was rooted in racism.
But something new had happened that made the situation far worse. The right-wing opponents to President Obama and almost any sort of progressive political change now controlled a significant portion of the mass media.
By far the worst is talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. He claims to be an “entertainer,” but in fact he devotes most of his time to a daily three-hour radio program carried by stations across the country on which he spews anti-Obama and anti-Democrat propaganda.
MSNBC journalist Chris Matthews recently challenged any Republican legislator or spokesperson to come on his show and criticize Limbaugh. As of this writing, none has had the inclination or courage to do so.
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Sadly, the call for civility has a strong hint of moral equivalency inherent in it. That is, the moderate and liberal voices in the current political controversies are just as in need of chastisement as those disgraceful Tea Party people who shouted racial epithets and threatened their opponents with violence, the political figures who stood totally against any kind of health care reform, and the talking heads in the media who misrepresented President Obama and declared publicly that they wanted to see him fail.
Such a covenant on civility is meaningless when the most uncivil people of all refuse to have anything to do with it. One looks in vain for Religious Right leaders – James Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Tony Perkins, Al Mohler, Richard Land – as signatories.
The U.S. right wing, as commentator Daniel Schultz aptly stated in Religion Dispatches, is only interested in meeting you halfway, insofar as that position is defined as changing all your positions to meet theirs.
In other words, these people are not interested in dialogue or coming to a meeting of the minds. They want only victory. The few who do bother to respond to the covenant continue to pour out vitriol against “liberals” (whoever or whatever that means), and they are unimpressed with the call for civility. By its failure to challenge the perverted views and values of the rightists, the statement essentially lets them off the hook.
The current situation is painfully reminiscent of the struggle for control of the Southern Baptist Convention. The moderates did not grasp until it was too late that the fundamentalists cared not a whit about compromise or civility. They intended to win, whatever the cost and regardless of who might be hurt in the struggle. The efforts of those who sought peace in the SBC conflict situation were viewed with as much disdain as the Religious Right regards the beautiful words of the covenant for civility. The result is a stagnant denomination managed by fundamentalists with no spiritual vision, and a largely ineffective group of demoralized moderates on the outside.
This should serve as a historical lesson for those seeking civility in the present struggle for the soul of America. If we fail to challenge those on the Religious Right, they will simply take the opportunity to dismantle more of our social justice infrastructure while thumbing their noses at those wimpy critics calling for civility. Moderates and liberals are constitutionally ill-prepared to do battle with a determined foe that seeks nothing short of victory for its values and political program.
When Fox News commentators and other political conservatives acknowledge that they are contributing to the current mood of incivility, then I may begin to believe this treacly covenant actually is something more than just a “noisy gong and clanging cymbal,” to quote 1 Corinthians.
Until then, I will have to second Schultz’s observation that it is not worth the pixels it takes up on your computer screen.
Richard V. Pierard is professor of history emeritus at Indiana State University. He lives in Hendersonville, N.C.