"You son of a %^&*#!" barked an elderly protester at a local political event. This is just one of several encounters I had with uncivil public discourse last week.
The angry senior citizen was part of a group of people organized by liberal Catholics United that gathered in Grove City, Pa., Monday to voice opposition to the Susan B. Anthony List's "Votes Have Consequences Express" bus tour. He directed his venom at one of the SBA List's pro-life employees, a large man, who responded firmly and nose-to-nose: "Don't call my mother that! You don't know who my mother is and neither do I. But I know she's a wonderful person because she chose to give me up for adoption rather than abort me."
While I spoke on behalf of the SBA List a few minutes earlier, the Catholics United crowd flashed "LIE" signs at me. The angry old man told me I should be ashamed of myself and another asked me rhetorically which side of the abortion conflict was the first to act violently. "The side that entered the mother's womb and killed a baby," I said calmly.
Two days later, a co-worker stopped me in a parking lot and told me that he's frustrated with the vitriol in American politics. On Thursday, I participated in a discussion forum on Richard Mouw's book "Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World" with 23 Grove City College faculty members representing several academic departments. Mouw's work seems to be a thinly veiled critique of conservative Christians. That's OK with me. Christians at all points on the theological spectrum---including this conservative Christian---need to work on civilizing our discourse and I appreciate Mouw's Scriptural advice.
Consider another example I bumped into on Friday while on a business trip in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
The lead story of the Daily News Journal read "Comments 'ridiculous'" and featured photos of the Christian Broadcasting Network's Pat Robertson and the mayor of Rutherford County, Ernest Burgess. You'll recall that the area is in turmoil over a proposed mosque that received questionable expedited approval from county government. Burgess was critical of Robertson's 700 Club commentary suggesting that Muslims could have bribed the commissioners. "I don't know whether anybody's getting a payoff but it's entirely possible," Robertson said. "Can you imagine what $10,000 does to a small local politician in a little town? . . . Well, you can corrupt with two or three hundred [dollars] . . . in some areas but now we're talking about thousands." Did Dr. Robertson unfairly assail the integrity of Rutherford County commissioners on national television? Is this a violation of the ninth commandment not to bear false witness?
Contemplating the week while flying home late Friday evening, I thought of my mother-in-law's command to my wife and her sisters when they were children. Hearing a squabble, she'd holler, "Fight nice!" Note that the matriarch didn't say, "Stop fighting!" There's wisdom in her words because it's impossible to avoid conflict and our challenge is to disagree agreeably. Mouw might add, "Civility is an elusive goal." And, "We need to form good habits." As sinners it's important to understand that civility is not a natural resource. It's something we need to create and develop daily for those inevitable times when we fight for what's right in today's increasingly polarized world.