Is Civility Dead in America?
The angry voices that you hear on the far left and the far right in America are destroying what little civility remains in our culture. Ten years ago, I wrote a post that posed the question, “Is Civility Dead in America?”
While my answer is a solid “YES,” I do not believe that it has to be an unequivocal or irreversible yes. Can we agree to disagree, even on the most controversial issues facing our culture today? Will political opponents learn to respect one another without resorting to vitriolic name-calling?
Can we be polite — gracious — to those with whom we have very little in common (politics, religion, culture, lifestyle)? Is it possible to civilly discuss issues and not personalities on Facebook and Twitter with friends on the other side of the aisle without casting aspersions on their character?
What is Civility?
Although I was optimistic that civility could be restored in our nation, with the passage of time, I have come to the sad conclusion that civility, as we have known it, is all but lost. I’m not sure that it will be recovered. What is civility anyway and, why is it important to the health and prosperity of our culture? The Institute for Civility in Government offers a good definition of civility:
Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. But it is political, too, in the sense that it is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored.
The destruction of civility did not begin in 2023 or, as some on the left claim, in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. It didn’t even begin when President Joseph Biden, then a Senator and Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, led (along with Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy) in the reprehensible treatment of Robert Bork in 1987 or, a few years later in “the high-tech lynching of an uppity black man” in the Senate confirmation hearings for current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. For all his talk of unity, President Biden has been one of the most divisive political figures in the last 40 years.
The Spiritual Enemy and the Destruction of Civility and Civilization
From a theological perspective, one could trace the destruction of civility and civilization to the spiritual enemy who comes to “steal, kill, and destroy.” Although we are not fighting against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil, those battles nevertheless take on human form. And, in human form, one of the greatest weapons that Satan uses is anger and angry people. Indeed, how many people have died throughout human history because of angry people who hate so much that they kill.
Anger is the opposite of who we are called to be in Christ. The book of James in the New Testament reminds us that, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19a-20)
The Angry Voices and the American Civil War
The United States of America (at least in name only) has experienced periods of incivility before. Perhaps the greatest example of incivility in our nation’s history was in the days leading up to the American Civil War. Three years before the actual conflict began, Abraham Lincoln would prophetically speak to the division that was tearing at the soul of the nation:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
Our nation did endure. But, it would take the deaths of 620,000 Americans in a bloody Civil War for our nation to stay “united.” Our union has always withstood forces from within and without that sought to divide us. However, Abraham Lincoln’s words were true in 1858 and, they are still true today: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Since the late 1960s, with the sexual revolution (including legalized abortion in 1973), widespread rebellion against authority, the disintegration of the nuclear family, and the increasing secularization of American culture (i.e., “kicking God out of the schools”), we have witnessed the forces of division — mainly from within — that have contributed to the steady erosion of civility and civilization. In the last decade, even before Donald Trump descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower in 2015, angry voices have led the way in destroying the social compact that keeps our nation united.
Angry Voices and Deep-Rooted and Fierce Disagreements
Although Donald Trump’s election and Presidency were, in many ways, a symptom of the destruction of civility, it was not the root cause. The root causes are longstanding and much deeper. The absence of politeness and the inability of people to “agree to disagree” without disrespecting those with whom they vehemently and passionately disagree is likewise a symptom of a moral cancer that has infected our culture. If not stopped, the cancer will kill its host, in this case, our country.
It has often been said that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. As I view history, I can’t help but believe that our nation stands at the edge of the abyss yet again, much like in the years leading up to the actual commencement of hostilities at Fort Sumpter on April 12, 1861. Before the nation descended into a hot war, there was a cultural war being fought for the soul of the nation.
As that culture war was being fought, one of the first signs that the “deep-rooted and fierce disagreements” over slavery would eventually lead to real war was the destruction of civility among those on opposite sides of the slavery issue. Now, lest I be misunderstood, I believe that slavery was a moral evil and a great sin that was incompatible with Biblical Christianity.
I write that as a product of my generation, with the benefit of learning from history and our mistakes. Because of the deep divisions that existed in our nation, there was perhaps no other course that could have been taken but a war between the states, although the abolitionist movement in England led to the end of slavery in that country without civil war.
Angry Voices on the Rise Again
Could we, as a nation, ever face such a cataclysmic time again? Yes. And, I believe that we are fast approaching that time. With each passing year, our country and culture become more divided. But, what divides us today? The great moral issues that ultimately center upon the truth as found in God’s Word — salvation, good and evil, sin, marriage and sexuality, creation and gender, law & justice, war & peace. As a people, we a torn asunder by these issues, among many others.
Like in the days leading up to the Civil War, too often we see one another as enemies, not as friends on opposite sides of an issue. If we don’t agree with someone on the pressing moral issues of the day, we no longer “agree to disagree,” but rather call those with whom we disagree “evil.” Instead of graciously communicating with one another, trying to persuade someone to our point of view, we raise our voices in anger, trying instead to shout down the “libtards” or “right-wing Nazis.”
Modern-Day Angry Voices and Their Followers
The angriest voices seem to exert an inordinate amount of power and influence in our culture, particularly within our political system. Someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the far left or Marjorie Taylor Greene on the far right are merely two sides of the same coin: loud, angry voices who attract loud, angry followers. What begins as incivility among leaders in halls of Congress will eventually lead to incivility among their followers in the streets of America.
Sooner rather than later, an angry word, a turned back, or a rebuffed handshake leads from culture wars to war in fact. That’s why we should not turn a blind eye to the incivility that we see all around us. We should not contribute to that incivility, either. Instead of seeing those with whom you disagree — family, friends, co-workers, neighbors — as the evil enemy that must be defeated at all costs, why don’t we offer grace to those on the opposite side of the issue? Are we no longer interested in, or capable of, the “win-win” for all sides? Are there only winners or losers? Maybe that’s because we no longer have an understanding of — much less practice — grace.
Angry Voices and Gracious Communication
What is grace? It is unmerited favor. In other words, grace is an act of love, kindness, respect, and, yes, politeness shown toward those with whom we disagree, even vehemently and passionately at times. Extending grace to someone doesn’t mean that we abandon our sincerely held beliefs or principles. Civility doesn’t require us to agree with someone else’s point of view or accept everything they believe as the truth.
Civility does require us to show respect to people because they are made in the image of God. That will not be easy to do, especially when others do not practice civility in their words or actions directed at us. In fact, it will be impossible without God’s help. For Christians who are walking in the power of the Holy Spirit, civility should be integral to our character. It should be self-evident as we exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
We do have a spiritual enemy that we fight. He will continue to use anger — and angry voices — in his quest to “steal, kill, and destroy” our families, our friendships, and our culture. What will it take to prevent the erosion of civility and the destruction of civilized society? It will take each of us making an intentional choice daily to graciously communicate with others — in-person or online — as we seek to avoid the angry voices all around us and, in the process, not to become just another angry voice in the crowd.