Faith Leaders: 2016 Election Needs Civility

Political season is in full swing, and no one is happy about it.

People say they want civility - and many do - but voters, particularly those that support Donald Trump, are rewarding anger and outright bigotry.

Can't we do better?

President Obama mused on the subject during a recent return to the Illinois State Capitol, the place where he launched his hope and change campaign in 2007:

"...next year I'll still hold the most important title of all, and that's the title of citizen. And as an American citizen, I understand that our progress is not inevitable -- our progress has never been inevitable. It must be fought for, and won by all of us, with the kind of patriotism that our fellow Illinoisan, Adlai Stevenson, once described not as a "short, frenzied outburst of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." It requires citizenship and a sense that we are one.

And today that kind of citizenship is threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in our public life. It turns folks off. It discourages them, makes them cynical. And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void. When that happens, progress stalls. And that's how we end up with only a handful of lobbyists setting the agenda. That's how we end up with policies that are detached from what working families face every day. That's how we end up with the well-connected who publicly demand that government stay out of their business but then whisper in its ear for special treatment.

Few have been treated with less civility in public life then President Obama. There was the moment in 2009 when U.S. Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) interrupted the president's State of the Union address by yelling out: "You lie!" Then, in 2004, U.S. Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) tweeted out that he was waiting for the "Kommandant-In-Chef... the Socialistic dictator" to begin his State of the Union address. Fueled by Trump, and egged on by too many to count, the president's birthplace has been questioned as has his "Americanism." Racism has fueled this vitriol directed at President Obama.

The front-runner for the GOP nomination, The Donald, has made his name by insulting Mexicans, prisoners-of-war like U.S. Senator John McCain, people of faith (particularly Muslims), and women. GOP debates resemble World Federation Wrestling matches. A far cry from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

Fortunately, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (disclaimer: #ImWithHer) and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders have run a more civil race in the Democratic primary, even if their supporters have sometimes gone too far in support or defense of their preferred candidate. We should hope both campaigns stay on high ground. It is okay to contrast your positions but another matter to make personal attacks. There have been ugly online attacks against the candidates, often made by anonymous people who show only cowardice in their statements, which have rightly been condemned.

The National Council of Churches has called on "all candidates for office to refrain from utilizing speech that reflects hatred of others and results in the division of society as a way to promote their candidacies."

We call for an end to hostile and demeaning rhetoric based on race and gender. In the 21st century, such rhetoric should be a thing of the past, read about in history books and not part of the history we make today.

We, the member communions of the National Council of Churches, admit we have much to confess about our own hostile actions and demeaning language about race and gender. We have become critically aware of how our own language has contributed to the divisions in this country. We ask the candidates to engage in the same kind of self-reflection, to speak to our highest common ideals, and to work together with those who elect them to form a more just society.

It would seem near certain that it will get worse as the primaries move forward and the November general election nears. Our times demand that those concerned with civility speak up and require better from political candidates before the damage to our democracy is lasting. As we demand better from the candidates we need to demand more from ourselves as well. Citizens can set the tone.