What Happened to Civility in Politics?

Roger Oliver

Some say that Trump’s inimitable style killed political civility. First of all, political civility is an oxymoron. At best, words of honey are loaded with venom. Always have been. But whatever imagined civility may have existed in the past had already been killed long before Trump came along. Trump isn’t the murderer, he is just the coroner who kicked the dead body and said, «Hey everybody, this is a corpse. Stop pretending it isn’t.» Political civility was DOA a long time ago.

Of course, there have always been exceptions, people of character who God places in positions of influence. Such folks have been able to stand firm against the corruption of political power without lowering their standards to join the pigs in a mud fight. In the English I learned as a child, we called these people statesmen to distinguish them from politicians. Unfortunately, they rarely win the popular vote.

A recent example of political incivility: Senator Schumer spewing threats against two supreme court associate justices by name. That was as over the top as it gets. Schumer’s antics dominated the press coverage of the event. What was not reported was the hysteria in the gathered crowd to celebrate the murder of the unborn. It was as rabidly irrational as the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel crying out to wake up their false god to set their sacrifice on fire. 

One of those vivid memory I have from high school is a political TV ad the LBJ campaign launched against the Republican candidate, Berry Goldwater. The ad showed a little girl playing in a field of daisies followed by a mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb. It was extremely effective propaganda. Even as a wet-behind-the-ears sophomore in high school, I thought it was uncivil politics because it was a lie and hyperbolic to boot. 

Full disclosure, I was a Berry Goldwater supporter, the only kid in my sophomore civics class who willingly volunteered to take the Republican side in a debate. I researched the issues and presented logical, cogent arguments as best as a sophomore could. That surprised my teammates who were intellectual drifters and had been assigned by losing the lottery. They did little to prepare and didn’t contribute beyond feelings and maybe an occasional, «What he said.» 

The opposing side was also set back on their heels. Not prepared to respond to facts, they had guessed correctly that most of the class was either decided or could be intimidated into silence. Because they had nothing beyond what had seen on TV, they never responded to the arguments and facts I presented. Their side of the debate amounted to ad homonym attacks on Senator Goldwater. I felt good, certain I had won by the strength of logic and facts. Nevertheless, the class voted the win to the LBJ side. 

I concluded from that experience that, at least when it comes to politics, most people are irrational and uncivil. The vote was political, informed by propaganda and decided before the debate began. My sweet, energized, intelligent and pretty civics teacher agreed with me in private. “Such is democracy,” she counseled. Explains my cynicism towards politics ever since. 

Politics is never civil because power lust and avarice destroy the love of truth and justice. As Christian reformers, we seek first the peace of God’s Kingdom and His righteousness in our own lives, families, churches and local communities. We pray for our civil authorities so that, “…we may lead a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Timothy 2:2) We do not pray that they succeed in lording it over us in the name of being our benefactors and saviors. Promises to lord it over your neighbor and give you the plunder always backfire on those who greedily hope they are true.

Political reform is the fruit of seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, never the other way around. Let us not put the cart before the horse. History is rife with the rotten fruit of such error: i.e. anarchy and tyranny. 

Radical attempts to impose political reform always destroy freedom, peace and justice. This is what distinguishes revolution from redemption. Though such is the constant desire of the humanist utopian dream, the church has been guilty of the same. This is probably the greatest mark of shame on the history of the church, misdirected attempts to impose top down humanist reforms in the name of Christ and His Kingdom. Gratefully, Christ’s Kingdom does not depend on us, but on the glorious sovereignty and power of our Savior and King.

May Christ be praised.  

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