Is the religious right uncivil?
The language and tone of the religious right have often been apocalyptic, off-putting, and counterproductive. "Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews," said Jerry Falwell, "so liberal America is now doing to evangelical Christians." In 1994, a conspiracy-mongering video promoted by Falwell associated President Bill Clinton with drug dealing and murder.
Such melodrama, or hysteria, is good for fund-raising, but bad for American politics. It makes a civil political conversation impossible, and does a disservice to the cause of a Christian witness to society.
Gerson and Wehner's complaint is rooted in a concern about being politically effective. They realize, correctly, that the occasional rude or crazed outburst from a religious right leader has led to a loss of credibility affecting the entire movement.
While that's true, it's nevertheless unavoidable. Those men and women of faith who are drawn into politics to fight for the endangered values they believe in do so because they're passionate about combating evil. I've always found it surprising that anyone would expect only calm and rational discussion from large groups of citizens who are outraged by the murder of unborn children, the destruction of the institution of marriage, government attacks on religious liberty, and the pervasive takeover of education by postmodern multiculturalists.
Further, I've yet to see a successful political movement that wasn't fueled by a considerable amount of passionate outrage. That was true for Obama in 2008, and it will be the same for the GOP in the upcoming election. Passion is like fuel – sure, you can waste it unproductively, but at the same time, you can't drive a grassroots movement without it. Nor can you control it from the perch of a Washington, D.C. think tank.
The next time you hear someone complain about the religious right's (or even the Tea Party's) so-called lack of civility, I would suggest you say something like this: "Of course they speak with passion – they're concerned about losing the character of the country they love, and are outraged that the core values that once guided our nation are being ignored."
Second, the "incivility" charge is almost always used against conservatives, and rarely against those on the political Left (Armstrong Williams's Friday column is an exception).
And third, the "incivility" charge is too often used as an excuse to shut down discussion. This has become particularly obvious in the pro-life debate. Having lost the public argument, abortion supporters resort to characterizations of those who oppose abortion as angry, extreme, and violent.
They miss the mark all around. For example, those pro-lifers who carry pictures of aborted fetuses on the street are not being uncivil, even if their methods may not be effective. These pictures only appear uncivil to those who don't want to be reminded of what it means to be "pro-choice."
In the case of pro-life leaders, given the substance of their concerns, I am often surprised not by their "incivility" but by their restraint and observance of public decorum. Leaders such as Rev. Frank Pavone, Marjorie Dannenfelser, Doug Johnson, and, among the episcopate, Archbishop Charles Chaput are always calm and compelling witnesses to the truth about the most controversial issue in politics.
No doubt, there is a genuine civility problem in our culture – the evidence is everywhere: the popularity of reality TV, foul rap and pop lyrics, the explosion of Internet porn, and the vulgar texting habits of our teenagers. But these sources of cultural corruption are generated not by political passion but by a deliberate and cool-headed plan to generate profit by appealing to our most sordid impulses.
Maybe that's the problem Gerson and Wehner should be worrying about.
Deal W. Hudson. "Understanding 'Incivility'." Inside Catholic (October 25, 2010).
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