Incivility in the Public Square and in the American Church

A virulent debate came to a head over this past Fourth of July (2018) weekend, in Washington, D.C., and throughout the United States, over the lack of—and the utter need for—“civility” in the public square. As CNN producer Harmeet Kaur noted, with the “growth [of] outrage” over our country’s “immigration policies and [its] separation and detention of migrant families, some people engag[ed] in forceful protest” against government officials and their policies. Meanwhile, others “denounc[ed such protests], saying that [they were] counterproductive [and even] un-American” (“How a ‘Lack of Civility’ Helped Propel the Civil Rights Movement,’ CNN.com, July 1, 2018).

Positioning himself somewhere in between these two contending groups, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson endeavored to understand and explain the current incivility. Citing a particularly “compelling” explanation offered by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana Mutz, Gerson noted in a recent column that much of the incivility, furor, and vitriol that Americans are experiencing is rooted in their beliefs regarding America’s place in the world, and “the rise of a majority-minority America” (“How Do We Tame Trumpism’s Virulent Nostalgia for An Old Status Quo?,” Washington Post, April 26, 2018).

Essentially, much of America’s current incivility is based on fear, Mutz suggested. Many Americans are “convinced that the United States [is] losing status abroad, and that the American way of life [is] changing beyond recognition—symbolized by the country’s increasing and, for some, disorienting diversity. Both [of these concerns] were confirmed, [in their] eyes, by the presidency of Barack Obama.” As a result, they “lon[g] for a more stable, hierarchical past,” and they are hostile toward outside groups.

Mutz’s argument “has the ring of truth,” Gerson noted.  President Trump’s “centerpiece message, after all, is a return to lost greatness”—based on “resentment of outsiders—violent migrants, suspicious Muslim[s, and] exploitative Chinese.”  His campaign evoked “nostalgia” for a halcyon past when White Christian men had more control politically and socially over the nation.

Yet other observers see the current rudeness and incivility as an over-reaction to the political correctness that they believe had captured American political and social discourse in recent years.

If Gerson and Mutz found value in trying to take measure of the current national temper, liberal journalist and radio talk show host Michelangelo Signorile saw such an endeavor as a waste of time. Signorile pointed to a series of Supreme Court rulings that were announced in late June 2018, in which the high court narrowly upheld the president’s travel ban against Muslims, struck blows against women’s reproductive rights and labor unions, and allowed the racial gerrymandering of congressional districts to continue.  “If you care about America and its future,” he concluded, “your blood should be boiling” (“F**k Civility,” Huffington Post, June 27, 2018).

Signorile argued that the rightward tilt of the High Court is fundamentally out of touch with the moderate political and social beliefs of most Americans, and he “called for vigorous protest” against the Trump Administration.

Incivility and protest are “about something much larger than partisan politics [or] impulsiveness,” the journalist and radio talk show host noted. They’re “about standing up against abuse, and for what’s morally right—so it’s time to raise hell. It’s time” to awaken people.

The relative merits and weaknesses of Gerson’s and Signorile’s arguments are debated every day by American teachers, business people, political leaders, journalists, clergy, and citizens. These debates are fraught with important lessons for America and for the Church:

First, incivility is pervasive in America—it is all around us. We see it in government. We see it in the church. And we see it in our social and family relations. As yourself:  How easy or difficult is it for you to empathize, or even to exchange in small talk, with someone you disagree with or do not like? Chances are that many of us are unwilling or unable to compromise.

Second, in Gerson’s words, “the United States is experiencing not just an ideological disagreement but a cultural showdown.” For example, “when liberals speak of gun control, conservatives hear contempt for their entire manner of living.” Our language—and even the simplest words and sentences that we think everyone understands—are complicated by our cultural filters (Gerson, “How Do We Tame?”).

Gerson was also right in asserting that much of the “cultural nostalgia” that Mutz had identified in her research “will eventually lose in a nation [that is] growing more diverse and progressive in its social views”—but the operative word here is eventually. It is not likely to happen quickly or evenly. In the meantime, “the quality and bearability of [life in America] will be determined [largely] by the grace and understanding” of all its citizens.

Third, American citizens and churchgoers are challenged with this important question: Why should any of us—Conservatives, Mainline Christians, Liberals, or Evangelicals—be civil in our social, political, and church-related interactions? Indeed, why should those of us who are United Church of Christ (UCC) authorized ministers follow the rules, endeavor to respect and understand one another, and seek peaceful ways to engage in controversial discussions?

To be sure, many of us genuinely want to be polite, civil, and nice. Being uncivil would prompt others to say that we are “not being very Christian.”

Then too, we want to protect the churches we love—as well as our jobs. The great truth about the UCC is that it is not a liberal Church, but rather, it is a diverse Church. Many of our congregations consist of heady and complex mixtures of conservative-Evangelical and liberal-progressive congregants who do not always agree with one another, politically, theologically, or culturally. Some of these folks are ready to attack each other—and perhaps, even attack their pastors!—over any number of hot-button issues. Little wonder that many of us have concluded that the best way to keep the peace is by not engaging in controversial discussions of any kind!

Even so, incivility and protest can produce positive results. Signorile compared the current social and political scene to the late 1980s, when many people were dying of AIDS, and the federal government was slow to react. Protest movements like ACT UP staged demonstrations and used various uncivil tactics to successfully pressure the Reagan and Bush Administrations as well as big drug companies to respond.

Similarly, some of us remember the massive antiwar protests and “moratoriums” that shut down entire American cities in 1969 and 1970. In May 1970, those protests shut down America’s colleges and universities. And eventually, the protest movement shut down the Vietnam War.

And as Kaur noted, “the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s relied on acts of civil disobedience,” such as sit-ins, marches, and boycotts, “to agitate and pressure government officials to honor the equal rights of African-Americans” (Kaur, “How a ‘Lack of Civility’”).

In the final analysis, civility is important, Kaur reflected;  nevertheless, “Americans have a long history of protesting, a right enshrined in the U.S. Constitution—and those protests have often been disruptive and controversial.” Indeed, throughout much of American history, the appeal to civility has been little more than an excuse for doing nothing, and not changing things.

That is an important perspective for us in the UCC to keep in mind. May the words, “They were civil, but they did nothing and they changed nothing” not be the epitaph of our denomination.

Chris XenakisRev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.

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