Recovering the civil discourse our nation needs
November 19, 2019
We often reflexively use the phrase from Scripture that we are called to action “for just such a time as this,” but has that ever been more true than today? We are a nation deeply polarized and growing more divided in partisanship by the hour.
What role can the church play in bridging divides and encouraging more civil discourse?
I have had feet planted in politics for almost four decades, from the time I first joined the staff of the U.S. Senate in the 1970s. I have worked on many presidential campaigns, at the U.S. State Department and in the White House. Only recently have I come to appreciate the despair that many in government and politics feel about the condition of our democracy.
Many people assume that politics and religion, like church and state, are supposed to be separate and unconnected. I argue the opposite. Loving faith communities provide a unique context for people to discuss the issues that divide us in mutually respectful ways.
It is no secret that I am a Democrat, but increasingly friends from more conservative and Republican backgrounds ask me what we can do about the sulfur in our political climate and the toxic rhetoric spreading throughout the body of our Republic.
Certainly, part of the answer is to turn off the angry debates on television and spend more time listening to each other. But I think it will take more than that.
Granted, there is now no such thing as a Golden Rule in politics — that you should treat an opponent in the way you would expect to be treated. And, yet, at the Last Supper, Jesus offered a new commandment that could benefit all of us: that we love one another. At the risk of being considered naïve, I suggest we start right there with Jesus at the Last Supper. No, we don’t have to wash the feet of our adversaries, but we do have to show them respect and appreciate what they bring to public service. Maybe invite them to lunch. Consider the impact of angry things people might say about them or their family members. Have some compassion for the political forces that shape their reality in the public square.
Churches, synagogues, mosques and all places of worship are spaces where people come to celebrate their respective faiths. They can also be places to enjoy spirited and civil dialogue about the public issues of the day. Many people assume that politics and religion, like church and state, are supposed to be separate and unconnected. I argue the opposite. Loving faith communities provide a unique context for people to discuss the issues that divide us in mutually respectful ways. That type of dialogue is what we are dedicated to at Wesley Theological Seminary through our Center for Public Theology. If the next generation of church leaders can go into the world confident that they can promote real dialogue without getting scorched by their congregations, we might just create places for reasonable men and women to recover the civil discourse so desperately needed by our nation.
Mike McCurry is professor and director of the Center for Public Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C. He served as White House press secretary for President Bill Clinton, 1994–1998. First published in The Christian Citizen June 12, 2017.