Actually, it’s been thrown from the car and left on the side of the road. Many candidates for public office, rather than telling us their qualifications or their ideas for better public life, spend time tearing down their opponents. Negative campaigning has become a norm in our current political atmosphere and it doesn’t seem that it will disappear any time soon. Which leads one to ask, “Is there any hope for restoring civility to our public life?”
James Calvin Davis thinks there is, and he sees people of faith and the role of religion as the means by which civility can be restored. He makes his case for that belief in this book.
The seven moral issues Davis addresses are abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, stem cell research, war, poverty and the environment. While his treatments of these seven are interesting, the value of his book is found in its first section, “Public Religion and the American Moral Tradition.” There, Davis argues for a broader understanding of “moral values” — which, according to many pollsters and journalists, divide Americans. Moral values, according to Davis, do not belong exclusively to religious conservatives, or to any religious group for that matter. “Conservatives, moderates, and liberals, religious believers, skeptics, and atheists all contribute to our public debates over abortion, gay marriage, war and health care from particular moral visions for America, so that the ‘moral values debate’ is really a debate between moral agendas, not for or against them.”
I was reminded of Stephen L. Carter’s book The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (Anchor, 1994). Carter takes mainline believers to task for allowing perfectly good religious phrases and terminology to be redefined and coopted. In a sense, this is what Davis is doing: urging people to think broadly and not relegate views and values to one particular group in society.
The three remaining chapters in part one of the book address three questions: 1. Aren’t We a Christian Nation? 2. But What about the Separation of Church and State? 3. Isn’t Religion a Conversation Stopper? In attempting to find answers, Davis journeys back to the founding fathers, revisits Supreme Court cases and offers other evidence from recent and not so recent history. His account is peppered with humor and scholarship.
What I most appreciated about this book was being introduced to Ronald Thiemann and his “norms of plausibility” for public conversation. Thiemann, a theology professor at Harvard Divinity School, dares to imagine that those norms should include public accessibility, mutual respect and a commitment to integrity. My sense is if we experienced those within the political process, not to mention our everyday lives, civility would once again be in the driver’s seat
SHARON CORE, is pastor of Arlington Presbyterian Church, Arlington, Va.