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Religious Right Meets Religious Left: Two Evangelical Christians Urge Civility

3 years ago
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Two icons of the Christian right and Christian left, Chuck Colson and Jim Wallis, have penned a joint statement that calls on the nation to "re-examine the tone and character of our public debate" in the wake of the Tucson shootings and says that believers "should lead by example."

Colson, a political conservative who became active in prison ministry after doing jail time for crimes related to his work in the Nixon White House, and Wallis, who has emerged as a leader of the so-called Religious left, write that "no act of incivility can be blamed for the profoundly evil shooting" of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, six of whom died.

But they say that "we should not lose this moment for moral reflection and renewal. We must re-examine the tone and character of our public debate, because solving the enormous problems we face as a nation will require that we work for a more civil public square."

"This tragedy reminds us that we always have a choice to appeal to our 'better angels' or our worst," they write at the website of Christianity Today, a leading evangelical magazine. "We believe that the faith community should lead by example and model the behavior that is informed by our biblical teachings -- behavior that also essential to the survival of democracy."

"God," they say, "is neither a Democrat nor a Republican."

The manifesto is the latest reaction to the shootings in Arizona and the poisonous climate of rhetoric that preceded the massacre and the equally bitter recriminations that followed. Religiously inflected language has been especially loaded, critics say.

Civility is expected to be a watchword of President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday evening, and House Republican leaders have sought to tamp down some of their more pugnacious language in the aftermath of the shootings by a gunman police believe to be Jared Lee Loughner, a 22-year-old from Tucson.

Colson and Wallis pitch their essay as a kind of catechism for civil discourse that they say could apply -- and appeal -- to both secular and religious Americans.

The pair stress that they are not papering over their own differences or compromising their beliefs, and they say that no one need undermine their principles to foster an environment of greater comity.

Rather, they argue that protagonists in the public square should maintain their deepest convictions but should be open to dialogue and should always respect their opponent and be careful in their use of language in heated debates.

"Conviction is not inconsistent with civility, which is far deeper than political niceness, indifference, or weakness," they write, and they cite the example Martin Luther King Jr., who "persisted in the non-violent treatment of his adversaries, hoping to win them over rather than to win over them."

"Arrogance and boasting are indeed sins, and violent language can create a poisonous and dangerous public atmosphere. We must take care to not paint our political adversaries as our mortal enemies."

A final characteristic of constructive public discourse, they say, is humility. "In other words, when it comes to policies and politics, we could be wrong," they say.

Their appeal for "both truth and civility" echoes Obama's plea in his remarks at the Tucson memorial service for "a more civil and honest public discourse."

But arguments over what is true and what is false are at the heart of many of the ugliest differences in the public square today.

Moreover, Colson and Wallis announce at the top of their essay that while they are at "opposite poles politically and often differ with each other," they are "both evangelical Christians who believe that our treatment of the poor, weak, and most vulnerable is how a society is best biblically measured."

That sounds nice, but not everyone shares those goals, which could mean that some big disputes would be irreconcilable, except at the ballot box.

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