In God-fearing USA, where is the decency?

By Tom Krattenmaker

USA Today, October 25, 2010

If there’s anything about politics on which Americans might agree, it’s probably that our pitched battles over elections, policy and power are not summoning our better angels. Truth-telling? Be serious. Humility? Hah! Civility? Don’t be a fool.

If only the extreme unpleasantness were the extent of the fallout. Sadly, the vitriol and meanness are making it virtually impossible for those we elect to do their job and govern. When the two sides of the aisle seem mainly interested in scoring political points and landing rhetorical punches, it’s no wonder we have what pundit Thomas Friedman calls our national power failure — “the failure of our political system to unite, even in a crisis, to produce the policy responses America needs to thrive in the 21st century.”

A curious element of this is the religiosity that permeates American public life, to a degree unmatched in other Western countries. Shouldn’t a public square teeming with so many religious people and religiously derived principles display a little more decency?

We should expect something better from a political arena animated by so much faith — something more principled, good-hearted and dedicated to the common and higher ground that is so desperately needed. We should, at the very least, expect the religion in our politics to stay out of the mire in which the latter seems ever more stuck.

America’s ‘blood sport’

Given the direction things are headed, disentanglement from politics-as-usual would be a smart first step for Christianity and other faiths that influence civic life. Back in the 1990s, author James B. Stewart used the term “blood sport” to describe American politics. These days, “gutter sport” seems more apt.

Watch the non-stop political ads on local television this election season for Exhibits A through Z. One “highlight” comes courtesy of U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, who ran commercials dubbing opponent Daniel WebsterTaliban Dan” — a reference to the Republican‘s supposed religious fanaticism. From Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana came a sterling case study in below-the-belt punching: An ad accusing his Democratic opponent, Charlie Melancon, of supporting taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal immigrants — depicted in the spot as dark-skinned Mexicans pouring through a hole in a fence.

What’s especially sad about Vitter’s dishonorable ad, and his well-publicized affair with a prostitute, is that he’s all about traditional Christian morality when it comes to his rhetoric and policy positions. You’d think the misbehavior of pious politicians of this ilk — and Vitter has plenty of company — would have decent religious folk running for the political-arena exits. But all too often, religious leaders themselves end up playing by the same hard-ball rules.

Apparently, one of those rules states: “Thou shalt not consort with the other side, even for a good cause.” An example of this played out this year after a top official of the Assemblies of God, George Wood, signed a Covenant for Civility that was making the rounds in Christian circles. Upon discovering that he was keeping company on the rolls with persons who “reject the moral teachings of Scripture” (liberals, evidently) Wood asked that his name be removed.

Some approach to civility: Sure, I’m willing to be civil — so long as you agree with me!

As that civility covenant attests, there are some who are trying valiantly to curb the escalating ugliness. One of the more noble efforts was launched in 2009 by Atlanta-based public relations executive Mark DeMoss and former Clinton administration attorney Lanny Davis. DeMoss, an evangelical Christian with conservative political leanings, teamed up with Davis, who is Jewish and liberal, to create the Civility Project.

How has the project gone? “In all honesty, not very well,” DeMoss told me this month. The biggest disappointment was the almost complete non-response to the mailing DeMoss and Davis sent to every member of Congress and every sitting governor asking them to sign and return a civility pledge. DeMoss figured they’d easily net 100 signed pledges. They got two — from Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

Speaking of those hard-ball rules, another seems to require that thou shalt not acknowledge anything good about anyone, or anything, on the other side of the figurative aisle. Neither shalt thou say anything negative about one’s own team.

Karl Rove, of all people, experienced a public slap-down from radio host Rush Limbaugh and many other top conservatives for violating that latter precept. Rove’s offense? Acknowledging the undeniable problems with the candidacy of Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party favorite who beat the more electable Mike Castle in the Delaware Senate primary. Such candor simply will not do.

Civility and a higher calling

Thank goodness we have the DeMoss-Davis duo and people like Jim Wallis, leader of the progressive evangelical group Sojourners, to remind us that politics should be dedicated to the common good, not one’s own party, and that civility lines the path to a higher place.

Wallis, in announcing Sojourners’ civility campaign this month, laced his declaration with biblical references that show how civility should be a special calling of Christians active in the public square. Among them: James 1:19 (“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry”), Ephesians 4:31 (“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice”), and Ephesians 4:25 (“Put off falsehood and speak truthfully”). Wallis also invoked the Sojourners motto: “No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent issues.”

To say the idea has deep historic roots and an eminent source would be an understatement. In his farewell address to the nation in 1796, George Washington spoke of the perils of “inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others,” which could, Washington warned, make the nation a “slave to its animosity or to its affection.”

Washington was talking about America’s relationship with other countries, but his words have profound relevance to religion and politics. For when Christianity (or any faith) becomes permanently allied with politicians or parties, when religious leaders dedicate themselves, first and foremost, to political victory, then religion surrenders its ability to lift our politics, not to mention the people in the pews.

The wise course is not withdrawal from public life. The task is to find and hold an appropriate distance, a place from which faith can exert principled influence and inspire the body politic’s best instincts and intentions.

Especially these days, politics as usual seems to drag all who play right into the gutter. That’s no place for religion.

Tom Krattenmaker, a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. His book Onward Christian Athletes was published last year.