Posted July 20, 2012
"We found ourselves drawn to each other's love for this country and a conviction about the importance to its future of trying to change the polarizing, attack-oriented political cultural that has become all too common in recent years and, instead, to bring civility back as the staple of American politics and life."
- Lanny Davis and Mark DeMoss, Op.Ed., The Washington Times, January 18, 2009
With this statement, on the eve of President Obama's inauguration, the Civility Project was born. Mark DeMoss, an evangelical conservative and Lanny Davis, a liberal of the Jewish faith, while agreeing on almost nothing, did agree that solutions to the most pressing problems facing our nation would be found only through a more civil exchange of ideas. Together they reached out to every sitting governor and member of Congress to sign a pledge that said:
- I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
- I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
- I will stand against incivility when I see it.
Three people signed the pledge....that's right, three. In 2011, DeMoss dissolved the project, admitting to surprise and disappointment as to why only three members of Congress, and no governors, would agree to what he believed was a rather low bar. (For more on the Civility Project, see http://www.demossnews.com/resources/civility_project.pdf)
So where do we go when our elected officials won't agree to civility? In Wisconsin, after the recent and bitter recall election that left the state more divided than ever, a group of religious leaders decided to carry on where the Civility Project left off. Last month, thirty-six regional and statewide religious leaders called upon the citizens of Wisconsin to enter a "Season of Civility" to overturn the bitterness of political rancor and create safe spaces for respectful conversation across partisan divides.
What is exciting to me about the "Season of Civility" is that it moves beyond simply asking for pledges - it provides resources and training. Rev. Winton Boyd and Barbara Hummel, Courage & Renewal facilitators and Wisconsin residents, have designed workshops to prepare teams of clergy and lay leaders to lead their congregations in respectful dialogue. Resources include the Healing Democracy Action Circles Guide developed for the Center for Courage & Renewal by fellow blogger Courtney Martin. The guide explores five "habits of the heart" that are essential to a healthy democracy and civil society:
- An understanding that we are all in this together;
- An appreciation of the value of 'otherness';
- An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways;
- A sense of personal voice and agency; and
- A capacity to create community.
In addition, the Council provides faith community supplements that connect these habits with appropriate religious texts and teachings from five faith traditions: Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and Baha'i.
"Season of Civility" is a not only a wonderful example of ecumenism and interfaith cooperation, but also of faith communities providing appropriate leadership in connecting our faith to our citizenship. Rather than taking partisan stands on divisive public issues such as same gender marriage, health care, or the upcoming presidential election, the Wisconsin Council of Churches is helping congregation members redefine and reclaim faithful citizenship. When our elected officials seem unable to show us the way back to a civil society, perhaps our faith communities can. What do you think?