3 ways to practice civility after a very uncivil election

Voters check in to cast their ballots during voting in the 2016 presidential election in San Diego on Nov. 8, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Sandy Huffaker

(RNS) Have we made civil discourse an oxymoron?

The once noble goal of decency in politics seems to have gotten lost, and the Christian’s call to love along with it.

For the sake of the Kingdom of God and the good of the world, Christians are called to lovingly engage people as Jesus did. But what does this look like when we all dig our heels into one side of a sea of red and blue?

The last few elections have pointed to increasing division, and this one has shown us at our worst. We talk past each other and don’t listen. We are so entrenched in our views that we are willing to vilify each other. Democracy sees the value of dialogue for the common good and with the goal of solutions. But I don’t hear many people talking about that anymore.

In 2013, I was part of a gathering with the Faith and Politics Institute in Washington, D.C., to discuss such civility. This was a small, diverse group of religious leaders, along with some U.S. senators and members of the House. The group created a statement to foster civility in our country. I was glad to speak about the draft, but leaned against signing because I just don’t sign many group letters. However, as I watched the political climate become more polarized, after prayer and reflection I changed my mind.

In this case, I hoped religious leaders standing together as co-belligerents against incivility would help in some small way. That was 2013. After this year, it’s clear more is needed. Perhaps 2016 is how it feels to hit rock bottom.

If the only way to go is up, how do we begin? Here are three suggestions, easily drawn from the Christian Scriptures, but often absent from this election cycle:

1. Practice the golden rule.

“Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them.” (Matthew 7:12)

It’s unfortunate that one of the most practical and powerful teachings in Scripture is often too quickly said and too rarely practiced. When love for neighbor is genuine and deeply felt, it changes not only what we feel for others, but also how we treat others.

What if we looked at those we disagree with through the eyes called to bear burdens, to be concerned for them more than ourselves?

Don’t we want to be understood? Don’t we want our positions honestly considered? Too often we think of others’ views in the worst way and demand others take our views in the best way. That’s hypocrisy. Without love, we are just “clanging cymbals” (1 Corinthians 13:1). Love is the fuel for disagreeing without being disagreeable. Love elevates our dialogue and seeks the greatest good.

2. Be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.

This may be one of the best ways to explain what the golden rule looks like in an actual conversation, and it comes from the the epistle of James 1:19. As we engage with those who have different views, we should focus on listening. Too often, we engage by preparing our responses while others are still laying out their case. We can do better by listening well. It not only makes us respond better, but it shows respect.

Good listening leads to good understanding, and good understanding leads to good and accurate responses. When others do respond, we should refuse to get easily angered and offended. We take the words of others in the best way possible and focus on the discourse. 

3. Model Christian discourse.

The first and second point flow naturally into the third: Leaders should teach the values of civil discourse. Before we expect it from anyone else, we must be the ones to model the path. It starts with truly loving our neighbor. It makes us better listeners, wise in using our words and not easily offended or angered.

More than a good zinger to win an argument, we should desire real discourse for the good of the causes we believe in and for the good of the world that we care to convince.

We can’t have civility if we don’t assume the other person desires the best for the community and country. Let’s pray and seek God’s guidance on how to relate and engage the world around us for the common good.

This season has been rough, and we have a lot of baggage. But God’s mercies are new every morning, which means we can try again. After the vitriol, it may seem impossible. But it isn’t. We can start today. It’s time to love our neighbors, even those with the wrong political sign in their yard.

(Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism)

About the author

Ed Stetzer


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  • I can be civil to someone with a Trump/Pence sign, sticker, shirt, etc. I can’t be civil to someone with a “Trump that Bitch!” shirt, a “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required” shirt, or anyone calling for mass deportations based on religion or ethnicity. I am hopeful that the hateful voices will die down as the Trump team realizes that their rhetoric won them the election but it won’t help them govern a democracy.

  • I truly detest saccharine nonsense articles like this. They inevitably appear too late – where was Mr. Stetzer during the election? – and amount to little more than tone trolling. Civility was not lost during this election. It was abandoned, and not because people had the “wrong sign” in their yard, but rather because one candidate in particular relished provoking animosity. In any case, civility doesn’t resolve anger. It merely dresses it in kid gloves. Weary hearts may find it appealing, but in my experience it’s better to be blunt and deal with the issues openly and in unvarnished terms.

  • “Golden living dreams and visions,
    music crystal revelations.”

    That’s all I can remember G. I hear the 5th Dimension singing it. It’s that right? ?

  • You have a point J.C. I’ve had the most success discussing difficult stuff if I keep an open tone of voice while bluntly dealing with the issues.

  • “Golden living dreams of visions
    Mystic crystal revelations
    And the mind’s true liberation…”

    I really miss Marilyn McCoo… and civility…

  • I did not vote for Trump. “Both sides” huh. Ok. If you are White, pull your head out of the sand. Watch Colin Flaherty videos on youtube. Or read — White girl bleed a lot.

  • By supporting Trump and his bigotry, hate and fear platform, I have seen many , so called Christians, support KILLING the Muslims, Hate anyone who has a different opinion or belief, FEAR freedom and the constitution and FORCE others to do as they say.

    The election has shown me that Christians do not believe God is Love.. they believe God is Hate.. That they believe love does not win over hate and being an honorable person has no value.

    I assume that more will be leaving the pews after this.. and I see that as a good thing.

  • Ed, not listening, are they? What might you have to say about why it’s gotten so hard to hear one another?

  • Where do you encounter such people? I have never seen anyone with any such shirt (or any offensive message from a Trump supporter), nor have I ever seen or heard anyone call for mass deportations based on race or ethnicity.

    There are always offensive people out there, but I have to wonder if there happens to be an unusually high concentration of offensive Trump supporters in your area, since I have been unable to find any in mine.

    There has been serious violence associated with the campaign season in my area, and 100% of it has come from Trump opponents.

  • What happened to Christian discernment, not Judeo-Christian “civility”? Why do we take literally Trump’s words spoken as a PAID actor on an unscripted reality TV show meant to titillate the public with outrageous talk, and taken out of context, as a reflection of his bad character or of uncivil speech?

  • 1. Practice the Golden Rule – Laws protecting one class of persons over another should not be Christian and should be abolished along with their entitlements.
    2. Be Quick to Hear, Slow to Speak and Slow to Anger? Or throw the money changers out of the Temple?
    3. Model Christian Discourse. Christians should be able to get angry with evil and corruption and should model that as well as politeness and tolerance.

    Which is the lesser evil? Public speech mocking political correctness or the institutionalization of political correctness creating a protected class of persons and, ergo, an unprotected class of persons by definition?

    “All animals are equals but some animals are more equal than others” — Animal Farm by George Orwell
    “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” – Gospel of Matthew
    “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing” – Thales
    “Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” – John 13:16
    “For God does not show favoritism” – Romans 2:11
    “If you really keep the law found in scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’, you are doing right. But if you show favoritism you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers’ James 2:8-9

  • Ms. Daily – What we both see is in the eye of the beholder and mostly depends on our social class worldview, unless we can transcend that. I suspect you see a misogynist, racist who relies on bombast, bragging and ridicule, especially of women. All I am pointing out is that we can’t take Trump’s words seriously spoken on Access Hollywood as a PAID actor. Moreover, we have to look at behavior as well as speech (“by their fruits you shall know them”). You accuse me of excusing Trump’s bad manner of speech. Fine, I don’t want to change your viewpoint but get you to understand mine. But I also look at the children Trump has produced, not one of which uses offensive words. I look to the women Trump has had relationships with, not one of which has said he is anything but he is a perfect gentleman. I am not looking for the “fly in the ointment” to delegitimatize Trump any more than I am in invalidating Hillary for saying that her husband’s former campaign manager was a “Jew bastard”. It is impossible to elevate ourselves above our social class views, but we can try and understand and respect the views of others and judge others, as sinners like ourselves, based on the totality of their actions, including their behavior and what they have produced.

  • Nothing Trump said was morally equivalent to selling out the country as Hillary did with her private email system and her Foundation taking Saudi, Qatar, and other money for political influence. Forget Huma Abedin’s computer might have been hacked — all her father, mother and brother, all high members of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood, had to so was be given the password to her email account to access classified and top secret information. I personally know someone who has fled here from Egypt because of what Hillary did to her country in 2012 by supporting the murderous Muslim Brotherhood.

  • Why don’t you do something productive instead of posting here as a paid operative of whatever organization sponsors you? Why don’t you call for the diverting of all Federal and private foundation funding of global warming research toward health insurance for the medically vulnerable?

  • reminds me of something i can almost quote verbatim from a collection of college humor around 1950. it was called ‘a rotten day’ and at one point the narrator asked a fellow student for his vote in a campus election. ‘i’d rather vote for one of those red-assed blue-faced baboons in the zoo,’ replied his classmate. that’s the way we folks in these here parts felt about hillary

  • I haven’t encountered such people in person, I am basing this on media accounts which pictured the shirts.