Understanding ‘Incivility’

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Is the religious right uncivil? Conservatives Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner think so. In a joint Huffington Post column titled “The Success and Failure of the Religious Right,” they argue:

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.”


I’m not entirely unsympathetic to issues of civility
— after all, I was raised to be gentlemanly and courteous in all circumstances and was told these qualities should belong to every man. But I quickly noticed three things: First, those who note the rudeness of their political opponents seemed oblivious to the same behavior displayed by their allies.

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

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Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of "Church and Culture," a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ Formerly publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine for ten years, his articles and comments have been published widely in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, and U.S. News and World Report. He has also appeared on TV and radio news shows such as the O'Reilly Factor, Hannity & Colmes, NBC News, and All Things Considered on National Public Radio. Hudson worked with Karl Rove in coordinating then-Gov. George W. Bush's outreach to Catholic voters in 2000 and 2004. In October 2003, President Bush appointed him a member of the official delegation from the United States to attend the 25th anniversary celebration of John Paul II's papacy. Hudson, a former professor of philosophy for 15 years, is the editor and author of eight books. He tells the story of his conversion from Southern Baptist to Catholic in An American Conversion (Crossroad, 2003), and his latest, Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States, was published in March 2008. He is married to Theresa Carver Hudson, also a Baptist convert, and they have two children, Hannah and Cyprian who was adopted from Romania in 2001.

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