Political Tone and the Faith Community: Can We Close the Divide?

Concept of where Religion and Politics intersect.
Concept of where Religion and Politics intersect.

This Thanksgiving week marks a pause in the frenetic campaign season during a presidential cycle. We have so many things to be thankful for as Americans, and I think most folks will probably be thankful that they can turn away from the rhetoric and often mean tone of the campaign, at least for the family celebration of Thanksgiving.

Historically, one of the beauties and strengths of the American democracy has been the ability to disagree on politics constructively, and not destructively. Partisanship can be healthy if it produces more competition of ideas and better public policy; partisanship can be dangerous if the tone is personal and intolerant.

In the modern political season, there seems to be so few voices calling for the restoration of a thoughtful and sensible tone to our political rhetoric. One group especially needed to speak to good behavior and tolerant rhetoric during the wars of presidential politics, and that is America's religious institutions. Our faith communities often seem to be missing in action when it comes to engaging the outrageous political and excessively personal discussions of the times. The tone of our political debate is totally disconnected with the norms and values that underpin all of the world's great religions. Tone and respect are often undervalued elements of a functional democracy. Negativity and crassness in political debate and politicians who express such vitriol serve to divide more than unify the country. Such tone leaves voters embittered and disengaged.

Where is the voice of religious leaders on the tone of the political rhetoric in today's politics? Where are the powerful words, rooted in the scriptures of all the great religions, combatting the pettiness and disrespect? Why are millions of Americans not hearing scolding words and calls to a higher level of respect in political dialogue from the pulpits of the churches, synagogues and mosques? Where is the expression of the Golden Rule calling on America's aspiring political leaders to smooth the roughness and toughness of political discourse?

The faith-based community is still a powerful moral authority for the tens of millions of Americans attending religious services each week. Notwithstanding the differences on theology and policy of different denominations of faith, a common element of most religious is the requirement to treat people, privately and publicly, with dignity and respect. Does that religious treatment stop where presidential politics begin? It seems that religious leaders do not comment on the behavior of our national politicians. While some religious leaders weigh in on policy, all religious leaders should encourage mutual respect in the process of electing the next president. Religious leaders can provide "teachable moments" to their communities that, notwithstanding often deep divides in beliefs and issues, that the public should care about the civility and tone of our political leaders, and not be afraid to call out bad behavior. Calls to civility have been significant inflection points in American politics before, so why not again?

One such moment happened in 1954. Then Senator Joe McCarthy charged the U.S. Army with having limited security measures that led to possible communist infiltration. The hearings resulting from this accusation became known as the Army-McCarthy hearings. During the proceedings, the Army's chief counsel Joseph Welch was astounded that Senator McCarthy would attack one of his aides for being part of a specific club at his former university. Welch stood up for the young man and a television audience looked on as Welch said, "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lady further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

These immortal lines ultimately ended Senator McCarthy's national popularity and his career. Perhaps it is time for leaders in America's religious community to ask the question of our political leaders: Have they no decency? Religious leaders could spur Americans of all political affiliations to demand better behavior from candidates.