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Flunking Sainthood

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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.

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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.

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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
(Westminster
John Knox Press), which highlights the potential that religious
perspectives hold for enriching both the content and civility of public
conversation.

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