Krauthammer’s column today is about immigration, but it’s also about political civility. It makes me wonder if the best way to become truly civil isn’t precisely to stop being “civil” as that concept is now defined, not by becoming uncivil but by striving for a different model of civility.

As Krauthammer observes, those who talk loudest about the need for “civil” discussion of political differences tend to be the worst offenders against real civility. Unfortunately, the whole discussion about the need for civility seems to have been captured by people (in both parties) who want to use it uncivilly to delegitimize their opponents. “Stop demonizing people!” is a great way to demonize people. More broadly, the narrative “I am reasonable and civil” makes a great counterpart to the narrative “my opponents are irrational and illegitimate, motivated by a combination of religious and ideological fanaticisms as well as pure lust for money and power.”

I’ll admit that for my whole adult life, the cultured despisers of incivility have irritated me. The word civility has meant, to me, a tool for (uncivilly) demonizing those of us who have strongly held opinions that are out of alignment with the reigning orthodoxy.

Moreover, there was no lost golden age when politicians were civil. No one should be permitted to talk about the problem of civility without first spending two minutes watching this . (For some reason the video won’t embed. Go on, I’ll wait.)

Yet I’m coming to understand that this issue of civility is closely related to another issue I’ve cared about for a long time: the long-term viability of religious freedom as a social model. The political community can’t survive if we don’t somehow “own” one another across the boundaries of our deepest differences. Politics can’t be simply a mechanistic legal machine in which people with unlimited hatred for one another (or even just an absolute indifference to one another’s interests) work out their competing desires.

This mechanistic model of politics is what many people seem to think Madison had in mind in Federalist 10 - everyone is out for himself, and politics is about keeping all the competing self-interested claims as balanced as possible so no one gets to exercise too much raw power. But that’s not what Madison has in mind at all ( read it here ). In spite of their frequent acts of incivility toward one another, the founding fathers did live in a political community where something other than mere self-interest was assumed to be at the heart of politics. The incivility didn’t reach all the way down.

The merely mechanistic approach to politics doesn’t work even on its own terms. A merely mechanistic political process couldn’t operate if it couldn’t enforce rules. But you can’t enforce rules without a community that agrees on the meanings of words. It’s easy to say you’ll make “murder” and “theft” and “fraud” against the law. But what actions count as murder and theft and fraud? You may well have a minutely articualted account of what is and is not “murder” that seems to you to be utterly logical, objective and convincing - but your neighbor doesn’t find it so, and his vote counts the same as yours. Think about how persistent our disagreements on what counts as murder have been; think about how the economic crisis has revealed the different ways people in our society define theft.

If we don’t have deep and wide social agreement on these terms, then the real content of the law will change depending on who is enforcing it. This would annihilate the rule of law, which is the beating heart of our liberty.

Real social agreement on contested terms like “murder” and “theft” can’t be restored except by taking politics beyond the reductionist legal machine and somehow establishing a political community that has some shared metaphysical commitments. And that, in turn, is going to require us to own one another on more than a reductively mechanistic level.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers on how to do that, but I do know that in our politics, this is what we need to be working on. Politically, this is the great challenge of our age. And it looks like civility will be part of the equasion.

But the civility we need is real tolerance for real diversity - a civility that is comfortable with the strongest and firmest expression of our most troublesome differences. We need thick skins - not because we’re indifferent to what other people think but because we care enough about what other people think to keep our attention focused on the ideas and not immediately personalize everything. We need to own the fact of extreme and uncomfortable disagreements, as well as owning each other in spite of these disagreements. In fact, I don’t think we’ll really be able to own each other in spite of our differences until we first own the fact of the differences.

At the 2009 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society I witnessed a panel discussion of “Loving God and Neighbor Together,” a document signed by some evangelical scholars and leaders in response to Islamic overtures for mutual love and toleration. “Loving God” focuses primarily on asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, and building on that as a basis for mutual love. Al Mohler and John Piper spoke on the panel as critics of the document, and the debate was almost entirely taken up by the question of whether Christians and Muslims really do worship the same God. Evangelical supporters of “Loving God” and two Muslim scholars spoke on the other side.

All participants conducted themselves with exemplary sensitivity and respect, and nothing was personalized. But that’s not why I mention the event. I mention it because at one point, Piper actually cried out—in what seemed to me to be a very deep frustration—something like this: “If we want to talk about loving each other and tolerating each other, why are we even debating whether we worship the same God? Don’t we have to love each other whether we worship the same God or not?”

Indeed we do, and it seems to me that the whole problem with “civility” as commonly practiced is that it’s predicated on denying the real depth and discomfort of our differences. While all the panelists that day were civil in the superficial sense, that exclamation from Piper was the manifestation of the deeper civility we really need.

blog comments powered by Disqus