Increasing calls in the wake of the Tucson shootings for civility in political discourse have given rise to not-very-civil finger-pointing and defiance among many of the nation’s high-profile political pundits. “Wingnut talk-radio did it!” “Leftist twinkie-eating secular culture is the problem!” “The Democrat party supports the assassin!” “Blood libel!” Undeterred, a group of more than fifty interfaith leaders are addressing members of Congress directly, asking them to lead by example. Unfortunately, similar calls have spectacularly failed in the recent past.
The group of evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim leaders took out a full-page ad in Roll Call to publish an open letter to Congress. The letter urges lawmakers to “reject vitriolic and rancorous rhetoric, consider the consequences of their words, and engage political adversaries in a spirit of the shared American values of civility and cooperation.”
This tragedy has spurred a sorely needed time of soul searching and national public dialogue about violent and vitriolic political rhetoric. We strongly support this reflection, as we are deeply troubled that rancor, threats and incivility have become commonplace in our public debates.
We appreciate the sacrifices you make and risks you incur by accepting a call to public service, and we urge you to continue to serve as stewards of our democracy by engaging ideological adversaries not as enemies, but as fellow Americans.
In our communities and congregations, we pledge to foster an environment conducive to the important and difficult debates so crucial to American democracy. In our churches, mosques and synagogues, we come together not as members of a certain political ideology or party, but as children of God and citizens called to build a more perfect union. We pray that you do the same.
Arizona’s Bishop Minerva Carcaño of Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church, Rev. Jan Olav Flaaten, Executive Director of the Arizona Ecumenical Council, and Rt. Rev. Kirk S. Smith, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, joined with the group in signing the letter. The full letter is available as a pdf here.
The letter does not attempt to tie the shootings to political rhetoric. The signatories are looking to seize an opportunity to make a necessary change.
Evangelical conservative Mark DeMoss made a similar push two years ago with his Civility Project. The project sent a pledge to nearly 600 lawmakers and governors asking them to agree to three basic tenets: (1)” I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior”; (2) “I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them”; and (3) “I will stand against incivility when I see it.”
DeMoss reported that in two years three lawmakers signed the pledge. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Reps. Frank Wolfe (R-Va.) and Sue Myrick (R-N.C.). DeMoss shut down the failed project days before the Tucson shootings.
At the end of March last year, as health-reform vitriol about socialists and traitors streamed across the airwaves and lawmaker offices were vandalized, the Democratic National Committee sent the Republican National Committee a “civility statement” to sign. RNC leaders saw the proposal as disingenuous maneuvering.
The statement called for “elected officials of both parties to set an example of the civility we want to see in our citizenry” and called on “all Americans to respect differences of opinion, to refrain from inappropriate forms of intimidation, to reject violence and vandalism, and to scale back rhetoric that might reasonably be misinterpreted by those prone to such behavior.”
The proposal went nowhere and party leaders blamed each other for incivility.