Two Reasons for Civility

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January 28, 2011
by Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

One of the most important decisions made by people in politics is the manner in which they treat those who disagree with them.  There has been a great deal of attention on civility since the Tucson attack.  It was the focus of President Obama’s memorial remarks and a theme of his state of the union address.  

The American system of checks and balances was designed for disagreement. It assumes conflicting interests and spirited debate. But our government is undermined by bitterness and contempt, which makes it difficult to achieve any common purposes.  

But what is the reason we should be civil?  The Western tradition offers two main answers.  Many Enlightenment thinkers asserted that doubt is the basis of civility.  The only way to avoid wars of opinion—especially religious wars of opinion—is for people to recognize that absolute truth is inaccessible, that all our beliefs are uncertain.  When people are humble about their views, they will be more peaceful.  

There is some truth in this point.  On many specific issues, we should recognize that our beliefs are partial and provisional.  We should be open to argument and evidence, precisely because we don’t have all the answers.

Doubt is important at the margins of an ideology.  But it is destructive when it reaches the center of our beliefs.  Doubt may cause us to leave our neighbor in peace.  But it does not motivate us to fight for the rights of our neighbor, or to sacrifice for the common good.  The great reform movements in American history—from abolition, to the civil rights movement, to the pro-life movement—have been motivated by a passionate belief in human rights and dignity.  And for many reformers, this dignity is the reflected image of God.

So there is a second foundation for civility, this one found in the Christian and natural law traditions.  We treat others with respect, not because they agree with us, but because of who they are.  Even when we disagree with others strongly, we affirm their inherent dignity and right of conscience.  We reflect our deepest beliefs by showing them respect.  

This is a challenge for many people concerned about politics, including myself.  Sometimes the stakes are so high—the outcomes are so important—that we lose sight of the humanity of our opponents.  We need a civility that allows for strong disagreement without mutual contempt.  And this requires a strong belief in human dignity—not a philosophy of skepticism and doubt.  

America’s founders got this balance right.  They constructed a system of government that assumes and channels political conflict.  But they based that system on a firm belief—that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. This is the firmest foundation for civility—a recognition of the image of God in one another.    

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

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Topic(s): civility

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.