Faith & Politics: The Case for Civility

The following is not an endorsement for any political candidate, nor is it advocating for any political party or way of voting. Rather, it is both a plea and a proposal for how to recover the biblical principle and practice of civility in the midst of a culture currently (and acutely) lacking it.

You could hear the pressure of asking the last question at the 2nd Presidential Debate in the trembling of his voice. Karl Becker was no doubt aware that millions of viewers, who had endured the almost 90 minutes of schoolyard cut-downs and tit-for-tat, were already fed up with the circus. No matter their respective answers, his 26-word question was, by far, the strongest statement made that night:

My question to both of you is, regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”

To say that this election cycle has been uncivil is an understatement. Resembling reality TV more than substantive (if conflicting) visions for our society, we’ve hit an all-new low in public rhetoric, to the degree that campaign-ending statements made in any other election cycle are now boring. Like an addict needing an ever-greater fix, the critical weaknesses of an entertainment-driven culture are on full display in candidates’ clamoring to out-shock one another. Though Clinton has significantly contributed to this rhetoric, one can barely keep up with Trump’s escalating dehumanization.

A Complicit Church

In the midst of this, major evangelical leaders have continued to support a candidate whose words and actions are utterly antithetical to the Gospel, citing his stance on key issues as the “trump card” (forgive the pun) that enables them to overlook the candidate’s glaring dishonesty and lack of character. The theological hoop-jumping we’ve seen would be impressive if it weren’t so disturbingly unbiblical. While I cannot know their hearts, a theological amnesia seems to grip many evangelical leaders who have implicitly and explicitly tied Gospel hope to a political agenda, excusing incredibly unchristian behavior for the sake of that agenda. 

The irony here is that politics are downstream of culture. Candidates win elections because they appeal to the wants and needs of voters. If voters want more jobs, candidates will promise (and hopefully follow through on) them. If voters want civility, campaigns will reflect that desire. So if 65% of polled self-identified white evangelicals intend to vote for the least civil candidate in modern U.S. history, what does this say about the spiritual state of that part of the church? 

To answer that question, it’s important to understand scripture’s powerful case for civility. 

Scripture and Civility

Civility does not mean “politically correct.” It is not rooted in whether one’s feelings are hurt, nor is it conditional to another person’s religious or moral beliefs or behavior. Jesus deeply offended contemporary religious leaders in an effort to reach their hearts. For Christians, civility is a moral obligation grounded in the intrinsic dignity present in every image-bearer (a.k.a. "human beings"). It is an honoring and respectful treatment of another because they were made “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (Ps 8:6), unique among all of God’s creation.  

To treat someone otherwise is to say, “God was wrong to create you or give you value.” This is the theological weight behind Jesus’ startlingly strong admonition in His Sermon on the Mount to not call someone a “fool” (Mt. 5:22): literally translated, “fool” means “worthless” and implies that someone is “more valuable dead than alive.” As Jesus sees it, dismissing or dehumanizing another image-bearer is akin to murdering them in their hearts.

A Way Forward

If politics are downstream of culture, civility is upstream of any/all engagement on key issues. As “middle spaces” disappear and our society becomes increasingly polarized (read The Fractured Republic for an outstanding analysis of that reality), the Church is uniquely positioned to anchor civil discourse: both politically for the good of our country and relationally in love for our neighbor. Indeed, the most powerful form of Christ-like love in a culture lacking civility, may be to offer unconditional grace, hospitality and respect to those who offer it least. If anything, this gives Christians a far more powerful opportunity to witness. We Christians are commanded to be civil, to promote peace and cultivate shalom wherever we may - whether we are a majority or minority presence in the world.

This does not mean we abdicate participation in the political process, but that we do so with the humble confidence that puts our hope in a kingdom that is “not of this earth.” It means that our vote is leveraged to incentivize a different way of engaging the same important issues and policies (whatever they are). It means that we hold candidates accountable to civil discourse, elevating the rhetoric and creating more space for all people to engage in the process. It means that we seek opportunities to sit across the table from people with whom we disagree, and affirm the truth wherever we find it. It means that, above all, we treat others with the value, dignity and respect owed to someone who bears the image of our Creator (whether they believe in Him or not).

No matter who you vote for, practice and encourage Christ-like civility.

Karl Becker’s question left both Trump and Clinton stunned (the photo above captured it beautifully). It was a bright, albeit brief reminder of civility that stood in stark contrast to the rest of the debate. What struck me most about it was not its eloquence or how much attention it drew, but by how simple and easy it was to make that significant of a statement.  Imagine the impact we can have - the difference we can make - with the Gospel fueling our civil discourse…?