At its most basic level, politics is a discussion between two or more entities about certain choices. That was the definition used by my political science professor, Dr. Robert DiClerico, at West Virginia University.
This definition would make it seem that politics is a noble and civil discourse where various groups are merely seeking to do what is best for a designated set of people, whether it be a community, a state, a nation, or, for that matter, a church. Yet this high view of politics isn’t always what we see played out each election cycle. The definition most often seen played out is this: Politics is about winning victories for one’s ideology over another’s.
It is this definition that has dominated political discourse in American history and has generated the overly political attacks that we see in today’s commentary. In our political debates, we are so interested in winning that we will stop at almost nothing in order to secure that victory.
This is not a modern development. The American political experience is not filled with the ideal political discussion we hope and aspire to maintain. It was commonplace for elections in the 1800s to be fought on the personal level, as well as on policy. The 1800 presidential campaign between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, which was the first between two separate political parties, was filled with personal attacks so partisan that Yale professor Joanne Freeman writes they “threatened the nation’s survival.” A few years later, in 1828, the contest between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson would be rife with personal attacks, which included accusations against Jackson’s wife, Rachel, regarding a previous marriage.
Our modern political discourse follows this tradition. We see it when liberals claim opponents to President Barack Obama are racist in their actions. Recently, we’ve seen it in comments made by conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. The controversial host called Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke a “slut” following her comments to a Congressional committee in support of requiring Catholic universities and hospitals provide birth control to women on their insurance plan. Both sides of the political aisle are capable of calling the other names that are more in line with a schoolyard bully than representatives of a nation.
There is a commonality in all of these instances. It is that our political discourse, and perhaps other areas where there is potential for disagreement, is built on a framework of distrust and disrespect. In other words, we do not respect the person with whom we are debating.
What often happens is we see the person we are disagreeing with as a caricature of our larger thoughts and feelings of their opinion. We are no longer debating a person, but an object representative of a thought. By seeing the person as object, it frees us to unleash derogatory comments geared to win a debate. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that we can separate the individual from the viewpoint and defend our derogatory comments by saying, “We’re only attacking the ideology, not the person.”
This is misguided. We cannot separate the view from the individual. A person’s views and opinions are an expression of their character and soul. It is who they are. To use derogatory comments because of the other person’s views is to attack the individual, even when we believe we are just dismantling a viewpoint.
In all of this, we have forgotten what it means to truly respect the person we disagree with. The ability to respect someone is a key trait we should all have. It doesn’t weaken a person’s views. In fact, it strengthens a person’s ability to engage and seek common ground with another person or group.
To respect someone means we must do some basic things. First, we must be willing to see the basic humanity in all of us. We cannot engage anyone unless we recognize that we are all created in the image of God. Each of us share a common humanity, which makes us equal with one another. If we see the person we disagree with as a human and not a caricature, it tears down walls and opens the potential for dialogue.
It also leads to the second thing we must do, which is to refrain from using personal attacks in our discussions. Granted, we are not always going to get along, but that should not prevent us from being respectful toward one another. Respect must be common and a central point in our discussions. When we do that, we will be able to get to the business of doing what is best for the country and not what is best for our favorite ideology.
The time is ripe for a return to civility in the public square. It is needed, especially in this highly contested political season. For this to happen, there must be men and women to lead the charge for civility. My hope is that the church will be the leaders in this cause, and not followers of the culture’s desires to build foundations of disrespect. To do so follows our calling as Christians to be salt and light in the world.