The genius of the American founders lay in their ability to design institutions that would call forth the best in a fallen humanity while containing the worst. The separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution, novel for its time, is a good example of this theo-political balancing act: No single person can be trusted to wield power; therefore, power must be shared among many and policed by a legal system of checks and balances. Yet our founders also recognized that the U.S. Constitution is but one part of a larger whole called the American political economy. As I have previously noted in this space, while the United States does have a single document called “The Constitution,” with an uppercase T and C, the American system also presumes nonconstitutional values and customs that are just as vital, if not more vital to the health of our democracy.
Among these indispensable customs are decorum and civility in public argument, which largely distinguish a polity from a mere mob. A presupposition of our political economy is that reasonable people can and do disagree about important public matters and that they will do so through spirited yet civil public argument. Americans have not always been civil or decorous with one another, of course; but until recently this was the minimal expectation, and when one failed to meet it, some social penalty was often applied.
Americans have not always been civil or decorous with one another, of course; but until recently this was the minimal expectation.
Yet the words of the previous paragraph now seem as quaint as a telegram. The public discourse has devolved to such an extent that the value of civility itself is now openly questioned as often as its conventions are routinely violated. “You talk about somebody that’s a loser,” President Trump recently said about a journalist. “She doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing…. But she’s very nasty. And she shouldn’t be. She shouldn’t be. You’ve got to treat the White House and the office of the presidency with respect.”
That last bit is true. But the president should be treated with respect because all people should be treated with respect. That is the value that justifies civility. Embedded in the very notion of democracy, of a free and fair society, is the principle that we are all worthy of respect or none of us is. When challenged about his lack of decorum, Mr. Trump responds by telling us that he is the victim of slander and is therefore justified in employing a bombastic style. People hit him, so he hits them back, his handlers tell us. Yet that is the moral reasoning of a 12-year-old. Few parents would accept the excuse “Everybody else is doing it” from their children. So why do we accept this justification from the president? Why do some offer it in defense of his actions?
The president should be treated with respect because all people should be treated with respect.
I am well aware that Mr. Trump is not the only demagogue in the country. A quick glance at my Twitter feed is enough to establish that sad fact. But Mr. Trump is the only one who happens to be president of the United States and, as such, has a greater duty than most to deploy his rhetoric with prudence, decorum and moral clarity, an extra-constitutional but nonetheless essential duty of his office, one he consistently fails to execute. While Mr. Trump is far from the only culprit in the demise of the civic discourse, he is the most visible; and, whether we like it or not, he establishes the standard for others. As we used to say growing up on Cape Cod, “a fish rots from the head.”
It is unlikely that Mr. Trump will change his ways. But we can—if we want to. I fear that too many of us, while loudly complaining about the polarization and coarseness in our public discourse, quietly rather enjoy it, even if only subconsciously. Deep down in places we don’t like to talk about, we seem to get a thrill from the politics of destruction. It makes us feel powerful, if only for a moment. Cain didn’t kill Abel, after all, over a mere difference of opinion. He killed him out of jealousy, arrogance and pride. So too do we.
Overcoming sin requires grace. Our founders knew that. They did not understand civility to be something like a social contract: We agree to treat each other a certain way; and if the other party breaks the deal, then we are released from the obligation. No, our founders understood that the duty to be civil is not rooted in social custom but in the divine command to love one another. And God didn’t say: “Since some of you are not loving one another, all bets are off.”
God doesn’t ask us, he orders us to love one another. Civility is one way we carry out that command. The task of every citizen, but especially the Christian citizen, is to testify to this divine command in all our public actions; to labor to build a public square that calls forth the best in a fallen humanity while containing the worst, a place where destructive confrontation yields to creative encounter, a place of true civil dialogue not for the sake of one but for the many.