The Blog

Where Are the Better Angels of Our Nature?

Most Americans want civility in our politics. Most. But not all. U.S. Rep. Randy Weber was busy being uncivil before the speech even began. I wanted to respond to this as a minister and American -- and did so.
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President Obama made a compelling case in his State of the Union Address about the nation we should be and not just the nation we are.

In telling the story of Cory Remsburg, a wounded Army Ranger, who made great sacrifices for our country, President Obama called on our political leaders to reach for common ground to confront difficult issues:

My fellow Americans -- my fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged.

But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress: to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice and fairness and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.

Most Americans want civility in our politics. Most. But not all.

U.S. Rep. Randy Weber was busy being uncivil before the speech even began. He tweeted out:

I wanted to respond to this as a minister and American -- and did so.

The New York Times picked up the exchange and the response from Rep. Weber's fan base has been sadly predictable:

Civility in our politics has gone downhill since the rise of the Tea Party. During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, the National Council of Churches called on the American people to tone down the rhetoric and to be civil:

...The essential nature of our national compact, to enfranchise the views of all, is imperiled in a hostile and suspicious environment. In this moment, then, we call the members of our churches, our political leaders, and all people of good will to somber reflection on the ways we might restore dignity and civility to our national discourse both as a matter of social ethics and to bolster the highest traditions of democratic process.

The prophet Isaiah (1:18) declares God's message to the people to "Come let us reason together". This injunction might serve us well in the present moment. Reason, (yakah), in this passage does not refer to a dispassionate meeting of the minds but, rather calls for convincing, persuading and presenting a case for a point of view. Vigorous, principled debate advances our thinking and clarifies the challenges before us. Respect for neighbor strengthens the fabric of our communities.

Let us then, as a people, draw from our deepest traditions of faith and heritage to gain a renewed sense of community marked by honesty and mutual respect. Let our moments of rigorous debate be tempered with a profound sense of the dignity and worth of each person. Let us debate ideas on their merits and exercise restraint in expression of our own best conceptions. Such a disciplined dialogue holds great promise, honoring our differences and confirming our perception that we are a people joined in our mutual aspiration to live the lives for which we were created.

I often disagreed strongly with President George W. Bush and fought his policy initiatives. That is what happens in a democracy. But when I was invited to hear President Bush speak in Portland, Oregon by then U.S. Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR), I went and showed respect for the office and the man. At no time did I yell "you lie" and call President Bush names. Still, I fought hard against his policies and the wars he waged. It is patriotic to offer fair minded criticism of elected leaders.

President Obama offered an agenda that was hopeful and respectful. He spoke of the need to reform our broken immigration system, the need to make sure no one who works lives in poverty, and our obligation to address climate change. These issues have strong support from faith communities and the American people in general. Our national community will only move forward when voices like Rep. Weber understand that the challenges we face require not angry tweets but "the better angels of our nature."