Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

Before You Attend Jon Stewart’s Rally, Read This from James Calvin Davis


If you’re like me, you’re cheering about the national rally that Jon Stewart is planning for October 30 in Washington, D.C. With all the fearmongering and hatred being spouted these days, we need Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” (as well as Colbert’s ironically named “March to Keep Fear Alive”) to help restore the middle ground in this country.


Today Flunking Sainthood welcomes guest blogger James Calvin Davis from Middlebury College, author of the just-released book In Defense of Civility, to discuss the levels our nation has sunk to lately — and how we might return to civil discourse without shouting past each other. The bad news is that this month we’ve descended to new lows. The good news is that America has a history of resurrecting civil discourse precisely when we need it the most. –JKR

“Muslims, Puritans, and the Elusive Art of Civility”


by James Calvin Davis

Mark September 11, 2010 down as the day civility died in America. For the most part, the past eight anniversaries of the al Qaeda attacks have been occasions to mourn as a national community while also reaffirming the best in the American spirit–our commitment to solidarity, mutual concern, and a celebration of democratic ideals. But this year political divisiveness finally managed to infiltrate our sacred national observance. Protesters used the day to object to the Muslim center proposed for near Ground Zero, while politicians circled ominously above, looking for electoral carcasses to pick. Islamophobes used memories of that fateful day as fuel for questioning the loyalty of all American Muslims, and in at least one case for attacking a mosque. Some of President Obama’s detractors reminded us of their certainty that he is a closet Muslim, as they took for granted that adherence to that religion should disqualify him from being leader of the free world. This year 9/11 featured shouting matches, mutual disparagement, distortion of facts, and at times the absence of anything that might resemble civil discourse or respectful remembrance.



Elsewhere I have defined civility as the exercise of patience, integrity, humility, and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree. American democracy depends on this virtue, and at its best I believe religion contributes to the cultivation of civility in this country. But in this latest episode of what passes for “civil discourse,” the absence of mutual tolerance has been palpable, and religion has been the pretense for demonization rather than a source for more respectful conversation.


Of course, it’s not quite accurate to suggest that civility died as recently as this week, because the tenor of the current debates over the Muslim center looks awfully familiar to anyone paying attention to American politics since the 1990s. In fact, incivility has plagued American politics since its earliest days, and religious difference has often been used as its tool. The insinuations about the current president’s religion resemble charges that President Adams’ supporters made against Thomas Jefferson in the brutal presidential campaign of 1800. Adams’s allies suggested that Jefferson was a closet atheist and a friend of the French (gasp!), and that his outlook on religion made him unfit to lead the nation. The charges almost cost Jefferson the election, and they alienated the two Founding Fathers for years.


Substitute “Catholic” for “Muslim” in the arguments and attitudes we’ve seen since the New York Muslim center was first proposed, and it looks like a script ripped from the nineteenth century.

Similar to the charges hurled at Islam today, Protestant Americans argued in the nineteenth century that Catholicism was a cult, and therefore not protected by the First Amendment. Catholics couldn’t be trusted, because their political allegiance to a foreign “prince” (the pope) compromised their loyalty to the United States and their beliefs were inherently hostile to democratic freedoms. Besides featuring a revision of Protestant Christian history that sometimes borders on the delusional, the charges against Catholics then and Muslims now peddle in generalizations, mischaracterizations, and blissful ignorance regarding the religion so effortlessly dismissed as “anti-American.” Yes, we’ve been down this road before, but unfortunately many Americans don’t know this history well enough to avoid repeating it.


But just as reliably, the virtue of civility rises like a phoenix to reassert itself as a fundamental American ideal. Throughout our history, leaders have held up civility as the essential bedrock to our collective future. My favorite of its prophets is Roger Williams, the fiery Puritan defender of religious freedom, whose brand of Christian zeal makes today’s evangelicals look downright liberal, but who nonetheless refused to disqualify people from the rights and liberties of citizenship just because they subscribed to convictions different from his. Williams would not endorse the assumption (popular in his day and since) that adherence to the Protestant majority religion was necessary to be a trustworthy member of the political community. Religious diversity and democratic citizenship were compatible, argued Williams, and he insisted that all citizens should relate to one another with civility, regardless of their philosophical differences.


This was powerful countercultural stuff, because most seventeenth-century Protestants assumed that there was a necessary connection between their religion and healthy political values. A couple of decades after Williams, no less an intellectual than John Locke–yes, that John Locke, the father of political liberalism–would argue that Catholics, Muslims, and atheists did not qualify for religious tolerance because their religion (or lack thereof) made them politically subversive. In contrast, Williams believed the evidence clear that adherents to these worldviews were just as capable of discharging the obligations of citizenship as their Protestant neighbors–often more so. He absolutely insisted that they be treated with the respect and dignity afforded fellow contributors to the project of stable society. And he maintained this respect for religious diversity and civility all the while subscribing to a theological perspective that assumed an awful lot of his contemporaries were probably going to hell.



In the fog of incivility and religious bigotry that has descended on the latest anniversary of 9/11, we need more Roger Williamses, religious people who despite their theological disagreements with Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or Christian neighbors nonetheless call for a return to civil co-existence and conversation. Truth be told, I don’t think civility in America is dead. Or at least I think that it’s capable of another in its long line of resurrections. But for that to happen, we need to seize ownership of the ideal and insist that it is a nonnegotiable part of what it means for us to be the American community. And given that religion is the pretense for our current mode of incivility, nothing would be more powerful than for religious citizens to lead the way in the reclamation of this political virtue.


James Calvin Davis is an associate professor of religion at
Middlebury College. His main interests include religion in the public square,
church-state issues, the Puritan legacy in American culture, and
contemporary bioethical debates. He is the author of the new book In Defense of Civility: How
Religion Can Unite America on Seven Issues that Divide Us
John Knox Press), which highlights the potential that religious
perspectives hold for enriching both the content and civility of public

  • Alicia

    This is terrific. I’m already quoting the passage about Roger Williams and couldn’t agree more that his is the example to follow. Re: Stewart’s rally (and Colbert’s counter-rally) I’m totally going and organizing everyone who will join me to come along.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    All of the negative things said by some Americans about Muslims now have been said (and in many cases are still being said) about Mormons, often by the same people. They are people who think Obama is unqualified to be President because of his elementary education in a Muslim society (Indonesia), and who think that Mitt Romney is not qualified to be president because he is a Mormon. The people who refuse to accept the fact that Allah is the Arabic name for “God” (related to the Hebrew name Elohim) similarly claim that Mormons worship “a different Jesus”, as though there were two different people who were born in Bethlehem to a virgin named Mary, grew up in Egypt and Nazareth, was baptized by John in the Jordan River, and taught and performed miracles in Galilee for three years before being crucified and then resurrected.
    The actual differences between the attackers and the people whose religions they attack are not enough to justify their discrimination, so they have to exaggerate and distort and deny all of the commonalities they share with people of those other faiths so they can declare them totally OTHER and not deserving of the status of fellow citizens in American society.

  • Dan

    Oh thats right, in the 19th century Catholics killed thousands of Americans (my crazy “right wing” history book must have left that out)… what an uneducated comparison, Davis seems like he would be a better fit making fries at Carl’s Jr, but I guess they’ll publish anything these days. “People who think Obama is unqualified to be President because of his elementary education in a Muslim society”… it couldn’t have anything to do with having the most liberal voting record in the senate, or kicking off his senate campaign in the living room of a domestic terrorist, or sitting in a church with a hate filled pastor that has an insatiable contempt for America… no… those shortcomings would be entirely acceptable if only he weren’t a black man who studied in an Islamic elementary school. Not all of us want to live in your socialist utopia… we want to live in a society where an individual is free to succeed or fail based on his own will and merit, and one that encourages hard work over a sense of entitlement and near innate victimhood. Those are the principles of true conservatism, and because President Obama stands to expand the federal government at alarming rates at the expense of private citizens, I stand against his agenda. It shows true incompetency to simply label the Tea Party and others who believe in freedom through conservatism and preservation of the constitution as bigots. These labels have become the indisputable, unguardable weapon for the left, but they are becoming less and less effective. There are bad apples in any group, but the left continually uses them to label the bunch.

  • Anon

    @ Dan
    Aaah…So now the real reason comes to a head. It’s just because you’re a bigot! OF COURSE! It’s been in front of our faces the whole time. You hate Obama because he’s black.

  • Kate

    The most bothersome thing to me is a mean-spirited attack on anyone who disagrees with an OPINION. Are we not entitled to an opinion without having to defend our mental capacity or reasoning ability? Nearly as bothersome is the arrogance displayed by some who are sure they are always right. You might be right, and someone else’s opinion might be wrong-headed, but chill, people, and ask yourselves if it will really make a difference in a hundred years.

  • James Calvin Davis

    I absolutely agree with Dan that the fact that “there are bad apples in any group” doesn’t give us license to “label the bunch,” which is precisely what we are doing when we claim that “they” (meaning Muslims) killed thousands of Americans and therefore justify our suspicion of all Muslims. Catholic Americans in the 19th century weren’t going around killing Americans, which is why the suspicion of them as a group was generally so ludicrous. (Raymond is right that this suspicion was also leveled against Mormons, so thanks for that additional historical illustration!) Similarly, the general population of American Muslims is not responsible for the few who distort their religious tradition to justify hideous acts, so why treat them as if they are? Sweeping generalizations, convenient dismissal of arguments, and personal attacks are what I’m objecting to in our current public debate, not the convictions of traditional conservativism being raised up by many members of the Tea Party. But thanks for sharing.
    Oh, and I’m not offended by the suggestion I should be serving food instead of publishing books. You may be right. But your use of it as insult probably is offensive to the hard-working Americans who make a living just that way — and for whom the Tea Party claims to speak.

  • Alicia

    A shorter version of James Calvin Davis’ excellent article is what another blogger on this site says in response to “ad hominem” attacks: “Insult isn’t argument.” Of course, insulting someone is a great way of changing the subject, in the hopes that the insulted party will become angry and respond in similar vein.

  • rocinante

    I am at a loss to understand how two public events hosted by comedians whose entire raison d’etre is mockery (of politics in general and of conservative ideas and policies in particular) will help ‘restore civility’ to our national debate.
    The lack of civility isn’t entirely due to a lack of grace or empathy and we won’t overcome our current differences by simply listening and speaking with respect and trying to be nice to each other.
    Our culture has reached a point where there is no longer a consensus on the first, underlying principles. Our differences now are not over this or that particular policy, but over very basic things like what it means to be an American, the role of government in our society and the economy, etc.
    I listen to the rhetoric of politicians from the President on down, to pundits and academics, and I don’t recognize myself or the country in which I thought I lived in what they say and do.

  • rocinante

    “Fearmongering and hatred”: see, you’ve just dismissed a large number of the very people you claim you’d like to reach, and reason with. Have fun talking to each other.

  • Mitch Carnell

    It is good to be reminded of Roger Williams for it reminds us that there were times when most of us were not welcomed at the table. That is why the First Baptist Church of Charleston, now in its 328th year, started Say Something Nice Sunday on the first Sunday in June each year. We have been joined by Catholic, Episcopal, Methodists and Presbyterian churches and we invite all. It is also why I gathered a group of leaders from different denominations to compile, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. Churches need to lead the way if we are to restore civility. At the moment many church leaders are adding to the rhetoric which is anything but Christ-like. It takes each of us to restore civility to the public and religious square.

  • Jana

    Fearmongering and hatred, eh?
    Having watched many episodes of Stewart’s show, which can be, at times, very funny. However, to imply that he is somehow going to “restore sanity” is questionable at best. That there is whispering among the Beltway elite of this rally robbing Democrat candidates of much-needed doorbelling, phone banking, and other various and sundry pre-November election activities speaks to it being simply an answer to that one guy’s giant rally from a few weeks back. Those of a center-left to left political persuasion don’t want to give he-who-shall-remain-nameless the last word on big old rallies.
    Rally on, I say. But “restoring sanity” and fighting back against “fearmongering and hatred”? Don’t fool yourself. I’m sick and tired of people being portrayed as haters, racists, or whatever for being opposed to the agenda of the current political elite. Attend one of the events, talk to the people, and THEN tell me they are motivated by hate and fear. Until you’ve walked and talked among them, then you’re just another talking head.

  • Glenn

    This is just yet One more Liberal poke in the eye to those awful, Evil Tea Party folks, I suppose they appeared evil to our former British oppressors too. The onkly group that had a weird, paranoid reaction to the beck rally were the Liberal folks that are told by their press, their media that everyone that isn’t liberal is a Hate Monger, a Racist and many other choice words that the “Real Party of Lies is famous for, especuially around election time. Do you think the timing is coincidental? Their entire schtick now is to distract from the huge failures of the present administration and to attempt to SCARE us all into making yet another huge mistake, like the one we all made in the Last election. Do we want more of the same?? NO, I am pretty sure that no matter what they try to do, NO One wants any more of that garbage.

  • Nona

    The comments here prove the observations of your guest, James Calvin Davis. I bet most of the commenters are gospel doctrine teachers who teach like they are members of the Church of Ronald Reagan instead of the Church of Jesus Christ.
    I cherish the few sane members of the church who are not disciples of Glenn Beck.
    “I’m not alone, say it one more time, I’m not alone!”

  • Amy

    As a conservative Christian, I truly agree with civility as one of the fruits of the Spirit (temperance). God’s providence formed this great nation in which we live and he holds the key to the world’s problems. Those who are intolerent of those who disagree with our views do not show trust in His saving grace. We all should protect the 1st amendment rights of all to speak freely, assemble peaceably, and worship as they choose. This is why I have served in the military for 16 years. We edify others not only by our speech but by our actions. This should be the pattern of civility, contrary to what the author espoused above. I believe his generalizations of other faith groups (that many others do as well) only divides our nation more.

  • Mike J

    @Nona and @Amy. I read your comments with interest. I was in DC for the Beck Rally and was happy to see that it was a well run, reasonable event. I hope the same can be said of the Stewart rally.
    My concern was not the rally, it is with the fear mongering that eminates from Beck’s show and other communications (correlated with his selling of gold). As a liberal/progressive, I disagree with the positions of the tea party (at least as I can discrern them), but I understand the frustrations that spawn them. What I can’t abide (and I think is the point of the Stweart rally), is the notion that somehow America has descended into tyranny in the short space of two years. That the pursuit of very moderate policy change is defined as socialism and Marxism, and in the face of all factual evidence, that Obama is not a citizen or is a Muslim. Don’t forget that he and his Democratic colleagues were elected quite handily with a clear mission for change. Just because you don’t like the change, doesn’t make it tthe policies that define the change despotic.
    As Stweart points our, the left is not blameless in this regard. I shudder at those who claim that Bush created 9/11, or when liberal protesters shout down speakers.
    Lets have the discussion. More regulation vs less. The structure of the tax system. America’s role in the world. How to handle the sticky problem of immigration reform. But lets have it on the issues, and yes they are very complicated.
    This is why I’m proudly attending the restoring sanity rally.

  • Ounbbl

    Defending civility? How charming it sounds.
    Does it comment on how a religion is fermenting hate and terrorism around the world?

  • Kitty Katz

    I still want to know why Obama hasn’t produced a copy of his birth certificate. If he is NOT a US citizen, he is NOT eligible to be president of our great country and should be impeached immediately!

  • Rita

    Please do not compare us Catholics to those people.
    We condemn sexual abuse, child abuse, women battery, and other similar crimes. Those among us who does it, are given to the law. We let them know that it is wrong. We do NOT go to the streets and call them saints. Very different Saints to us are the ones who does not do those things, but take care of the ones that can not care for themselves like Mother Theresa. She does not stoned girls for using lipstick, or kill any child just because the child wants to go to school and try to learn to write and read. Mother Theresa provided it. Any Catholic man or women who miss treat another person is seen by us as a bad person. We do NOT give them 72 more virgins to be raped over and over, as prize.
    I am sorry you like people who does this kind of things. I will pray for you.
    Thank you.

  • EllieDee

    Sorry but it seems Mr Davis has forgotten the time right after 9/11, when we came together as One Nation under God. I never was a believer in President Obamas relgion. Where he stated “salvation” was a group thing. If 9/11 was a reason for irrationality by some, wouldnt Mr Davis, been better to show us, the reason for such hatred leveled on George Bush? Where was the hatred for Islam,then? And please dont make another attempt to distort history..we know thats a tool of left, and it no longer works, for those of us, who didnt fail sainthood.

  • Jana Riess

    I am astonished that people continue to ignore the considerable documentary evidence about Obama’s birth in Hawaii in 1961 (which was by then part of the United States). The document in question has been available for public scrutiny since early 2008, so it is untrue to claim that Obama has failed to produce a copy of his birth certificate. One of the many places you may view the documentation is here:
    This document’s legitimacy has been accepted by all government agencies which have examined it, as well as independent, non-partisan organizations such as
    One final comment after you have checked out the veracity of this information. Because we live in a free country, Americans are blessedly free to choose our own political opinions. If we are to live in a civil society, however, we are not free to choose our own facts.

  • Ben

    I like how Catholics ask not to be generalized and stereotyped by the bad apples in the group, yet they go ahead and do the same to other groups.

  • Joe

    Poor article.
    Author seems to miss the daily suicide bombs, threats, beheadings, stonings, etc in the news.
    Nice try, but the catholics didn’t fly a plane into a building blowing people up.
    But of course you might try to lump them altogether.
    No one buys that anymore.

  • BHodges

    In response to Dan, “Oh thats right, in the 19th century Catholics killed thousands of Americans (my crazy ‘right wing’ history book must have left that out)…”
    I have to wonder if you were being deliberately ironic in your obviously uncivil response to Davis. Regardless of whether you agree with him, do you think there is a less jerky way to point out differences? That’s what Davis is arguing for above all, IMO.

  • BHodges
Previous Posts

Another blog to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Flunking Sainthood. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here is another blog you may also enjoy: Fellowship of Saints and Sinners Happy Reading!!! ...

posted 3:12:01pm Jul. 05, 2012 | read full post »

Thank You, Flunking Sainthood Readers!
OK, I admit it. I have a Google Alert on the title Flunking Sainthood, so that the search engine lets me know when there are new reviews or discussions about the book. In the last few weeks it has been exciting -- and humbling -- to see the many ...

posted 12:41:10pm Jan. 25, 2012 | read full post »

NYC Conference on Mormonism & American Politics, February 3-4
"First Mitt won Iowa, then he lost Iowa? That's a classic Romney flip-flop." --Stephen Colbert     Working with the theory that there hasn't been nearly enough attention to Mormonism and politics this year, what with it being ...

posted 11:09:19am Jan. 23, 2012 | read full post »

Writing Retreat
Friends, I will be offline until January 23 for a writing retreat. I'm bringing my computer, ...

posted 8:47:20pm Jan. 14, 2012 | read full post »

Fun with the Book of Lamentations
Actually, no. That title was just a ...

posted 11:33:13am Jan. 13, 2012 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.