Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil Season
Following Dr. Mouw (summarized in previous post), Ross Douthat of the NY Times spoke about civility from the perspective of the gospel writers’ observations of Jesus. In his position as an Opinion Editorial writer, he tries to live out civility in his public life. However, the question remains: is there ever when enlightened zeal can switch from civil to uncivil? Douthat contends that Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 indicate that there are times for incivility in discourse with others. There are some, of course, who say that Jesus was the Son of God so he can do what we may not. However, setting aside that restriction which we’ll never meet, Douthat presented an analysis of the context in which Jesus and the OT prophets spoke with such harshness.
Douthat proposed there are three critical criteria which need to be met for speaking with incivility:
- The speaker is speaking to his/her own community, who should share the same fundamental premises and beliefs as the speaker.
- The speaker speaks against people of power within the community from a position of powerlessness, and speaks on behalf of those who are oppressed and persecuted by the powerful clique.
- The speaker addresses issues which are primary to the community’s beliefs, not secondary issues. The primary issues are those which address good and evil, justice and injustice.
a. Douthat referenced Michael Walzer’s book, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, which evidently noted that there isn’t much in the OT directly written about politics, but there is plenty of direct theological and moral language directed against those oppressing the poor, doing evil against others and sowing injustice in the community.
So, as a Catholic speaking to fellow Catholics, Douthat said that he could speak more in a form of a jeremiad; however, in another forum, with a different audience who are outsiders to that group (e.g., readers of the NY Times), he phrases things differently. Douthat noted that his recent book, Bad Religion, had been called a “refined jeremiad” by a reviewer.
As examples of people who suit the criteria, Douthat noted that Harriet Beecher Stowe used jeremiad-like language when speaking against slavery as a woman abolitionist. The language employed and the manner in which she spoke were markedly different than that of President Abraham Lincoln, who addressed the nation from the highest position of power, as an insider and as the embodiment of civil authority to the nation.
Douthat believes that our failure to maintain the balance thus illustrated provokes all sorts of problems.
He gave the contemporary example of Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who fought vigorously against Pres. Obama on the issue of contraceptives and Roman Catholic convictions, but who then invited President Obama to the Alfred E. Smith Dinner. Douthat perceived this as a measure of respect for Obama’s civil position despite the RCC’s outspoken opposition on the issue of contraceptives and women’s freedom. However, the invitation enraged many conservative Catholics.
The word, “jeremiad”, offers a unique religious glimpse into the societal confusion we’re experiencing, today. There is less of a Christian “center and focus” for American dialogue about issues, and many people “love Jesus” but want to make him into their own image. Americans are uncertain about the implications of their own positions, and even more uncertain or mistaken about the true positions of those against whom we’re arguing. Furthermore, groups have reasons to see themselves as being in a position of powerlessness. After the 2004 election, for instance, secular liberals believed themselves to have been shoved aside by “morality” voters. Subsequently, conservative believers reacted to the “secular” victory they perceived as endangering their values in the 2008 election. The responses from both ends of the spectrum came from perceptions of personal powerlessness and uncertainty over those with whom they’re arguing. [I’d note that “alienation” might have been a better word choice than Douthat’s use of “uncertainty” in this context. Polarization of groups has made it rare for many people to have friends among the “opposition”.] The result is that people perceive themselves justified in repeatedly resorting to the use of the language of jeremiad. Douthat pointed out that the far right perceives itself marginalized, uses such language, but has identified itself as “The Moral Majority”. The depiction of Obama by a few liberals as a president of messianic proportions was appropriated by many conservatives to justify their turn toward conspiracy theorists, such as Glenn Beck and other Revelation-quoting religionists.
In closing, Douthat connected the de-institutionalization of American “Christians”, on the one hand, with the inspiration of many to pour their disembodied passions into another “body” or institution – “the body politic”. People will split and divide because we do so, naturally; however, it’s important for everyone to see the spectrum of opinions. Neither political party has monopoly on truth from the religious perspective we have as Christians. We can't look to or expect any political party to craft all their party’s positions according to Christ.
Dialogue, conciliation and compromise are imperative in civil society!
Next blog: wrap up, with Q & A session