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What Is Political Civility When Politics Isn't All Talk?

John Senior
Assistant Professor of the Practice of Religion and Society
Wake Forest University School of Divinity

     In this response to James Calvin Davis’s article “Resisting Politics as Usual: Civility as Christian Witness,” I’d like to consider the moral status of different forms of political engagement. My contention is that Christian theologians haven’t sufficiently sorted out the moral and theological complexities of political engagement. That is, theologians haven’t said enough about what it means to exercise political power in various political roles and through various political practices and offices. I want to suggest that a nuanced understanding of political civility turns on a complex account of political engagement. I offer here only some initial thoughts.

     Yesterday (May 8, 2012), a public debate came, momentarily at least, to an end. My fellow North Carolinians acted, wrongly in my view, to amend our state constitution. It will now recognize “marriage between one man and one woman” as the “only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” The approximately 800,000 of us who voted against Amendment One lost, and the state constitution will now codify legal discrimination against LGBTQ persons in committed domestic partnerships. Some speculate that the amendment may also codify legal discrimination against heterosexual partners who are not married.

     This episode helps me to think about what I call “political agency.” By that term, I mean the powers, practices, and behaviors by means of which persons act in politically relevant ways. Citizens exercise political agency when they debate, organize, vote, distribute flyers, run for office, write legislation, veto bills, and the like. One quality that the exercise of political agency has is that it admits of moral evaluation. That is, we can argue about whether or not one’s exercise of political agency in any particular situation is appropriate, beneficial, relevant, good, etc. Thus, I can claim, for reasons I won’t get into here, that North Carolinians were wrong to pass Amendment One.

     When Christian theologians consider political agency, they usually have discursive practices – that is, talking in some form or other – in mind. More specifically, they mean some form of public argument, debate, or conversation in which persons articulate reasoned arguments about what the political community should do and then offer these arguments to other respected citizens for feedback. For Davis, for example, the problem of political civility is one that has to do with how we talk to one another about political matters. It’s about “public discourse,” “political debate,” “conversation,” “dialogue,” and the like. Davis’s virtues of civility – patience, integrity, humility, and mutual respect – very helpfully frame a Christian approach to public political discourse. I won’t pause to cite examples, but suffice it to say that we North Carolinians would have benefitted greatly had we practiced Davis’s virtues in our public debate about Amendment One.

     But why is political agency in Christian theological circles almost always construed as public talk? And why is political civility, by extension, primarily a quality of discursive political practices? One reason for this is that public debate is the normative form of political agency in modern liberal democracies. Ours is a political tradition informed by the European Enlightenment. In this worldview, reason, for better or worse (and often for worse), supplies the dominant marker of human identity and the dominant norm of moral agency. Human beings are normal, on this view, when they are rational. Reason also warrants democracy as the normative political arrangement: Since reason is the marker of human identity, and as all adult persons (all male, white, propertied, and abled adult persons, historically) possess reason, then these persons should all be empowered to determine their own political destiny. Public debate is the way that persons exercise reason collectively to make judgments that bare on the whole political community. It makes sense, therefore, that some theologians would want to understand discursive political practices from a theological point of view.

     There is another reason that political agency in theological circles is usually about talk, and it has to do with political power. A dominant framing of political power in modern societies suggests that power is inherently coercive. Political power is backed up by the threat of violent coercion. The state, this argument goes, holds a legitimate monopoly on this coercive power. Max Weber, the German sociologist, famously articulated this view.

     Christian theologians have an uneasy relationship to political power understood in this way, for several overlapping reasons. First, theologians often and rightly side with communities that don’t have political power, or at least not a lot of it. The immediate problem for marginalized communities is not how to govern well, but how to gain political standing and agency in systems dominated by oppressors. A second reason is that some Christian theologians altogether distrust secular political arrangements and instead locate political life in its most genuine form in the context of the Church.

     A third reason is that Christian theologians often reject, implicitly or explicitly, the Weberian conception of political power mentioned above. In secular politics, power often means that medium through which one partisan faction secures its goods and ends at the partial or total expense of those goods and ends that other partisans want. Christian theologians would rather that political power be understood as a cooperative, constructive, and community-constituting dynamic that brings factious partisans together. That is a very fine goal, and we should always aspire towards it. I suspect that aspiration is part of what motivates Davis’s argument here and in his book In Defense of Civility.

     As a matter of fact, however, political power often does function in ways that reflect Weber’s framing of it. How should Christians understand this? How should, for example, those of us in North Carolina who lost on Amendment One understand what it means to have been beaten, and to know that political power is being and will be used against us to hamper our aspirations for the good life? Another way of asking this question is: How should Christians understand political power in modalities that aren’t cooperative but rather are instrumental and aggressive, and that threaten a compromised or even a zero-sum outcome? Where does political civility fit into this picture?

     Most of us don’t have to deal with this problem very often. We are ordinary citizens rather than elected or appointed political officers. In the role of ordinary citizen, our main task is to hold our political leaders accountable to good governance rather than to exercise power to govern. We don’t ordinarily have to bargain, compromise, or stake our political power on the stands we take. We don’t normally have to choose between competing political goods on behalf of an entire political community.

     In short, most of us don’t govern. But, as in the case of Amendment One, we do occasionally exercise direct coercive political power to legislate one way of life at the expense of others. Additionally, many of us are active in political movements close to the grassroots level. My city, Winston-Salem, has a thriving chapter of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). The IAF supports grassroots community organizing projects that seek to advance policy programs on behalf of local communities. Though the IAF builds much of its power cooperatively and relationally, there are moments in the IAF process (the action meeting in particular) in which power is used coercively, and often, in my view, for good ends – but coercively nonetheless. So, we need to think about how we engage political power when we exercise political agency in roles that put us closer to governing than to being governed.

     Political civility is indeed a difficult problem when politics means public deliberation. But when the talk is over and the debate ends, and a decision is made for one side and not another, as was the case in North Carolina yesterday, civility becomes a much more challenging endeavor. For now, one side must live not only with bad ideas circulating in public debate, but also with a policy, enforced by the coercive power of the state, which mandates a way of life that, they think, is wrong. At this point, do the losers practice the virtues of patience and humility, or do they explain impatiently, as Dr. King did, why they can’t wait?

     In the movement from political talk to political action, when political competition entails partial or complete loss, the calculus of political civility changes in some ways. The virtues of patience, integrity, humility, and mutual respect are all still critically important, but we need to qualify how they figure into political engagement of this sort.

     What about humility and patience? Davis says that these are important in discussion because we don’t know with certainty what God is doing and would have us do. That’s still true, only now we not only don’t know what exactly what God is doing and would have us do, we also don’t know exactly what the implications of our actions will be. Often legislators find that their laws and policies fall short of the intended goals, or they backfire altogether. Those who govern must practice humility and patience, and they must also be prepared to practice repentance.

     Political action poses challenges to the virtues of mutual respect and integrity as well. The political theorist Michael Walzer notes that in much contemporary political theory, reasoned public discourse is thought to be the only meaningful way that rational political agents can respect one another. Reason, Walzer argues, is indeed a fundamental source of political agency, but so is passion. Thus, politics can be about passion, power, competition, and victory and still honor human dignity. In the context of political competition, he writes, we acknowledge our competitors “not only as individuals who are rational in exactly the same way as we are but also as members of groups with beliefs and interests that mean as much to them as our beliefs and interests mean to us.”1

     There are many instances when impassioned, non-dialogical political competition is an expression of mutual respect. You think the marketplace should distribute the goods of health care; I think the federal government should do it. The arguments have been made, we disagree, and there is nothing more to say. I recognize goods and values in your position that I think are worthy, and you perceive goods and values in mine. In other situations, I might even want to defend some of your values. I can, in other words, respect you as a political competitor. But now we have to move to competition to determine whose vision will win out. Calling on the virtues of patience and humility, I may seek to compromise with you, so long as my most fundamental commitments are recognizable in the compromise. Here a challenge to my integrity emerges: in the midst of compromise, it is often very difficult to know just when our most fundamental commitments are recognizable.

     Compromise as an expression of mutual respect becomes a problem when your political agenda seeks to undermine my very humanity. In that case, we aren’t competing from a place of mutual respect, and I certainly shouldn’t attempt to compromise with you. In his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, the political theorist Avishai Margalit defines a “rotten compromise” as “an agreement to establish or maintain a regime of cruelty and humiliation – in short, an inhuman regime, in the literal sense of inhuman, unfit for humans.”2 In theological language, I might say that a rotten compromise is an agreement that establishes or maintains a regime that obscures or defaces the image of God in persons. If you are trying to establish such a regime (Margalit has Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in mind), then of course I owe you very little respect. I also have no need of patience and humility. Of course, I am not permitted to kill you or even demonize you, but I will seek to defeat you in political competition. I will also try to ensure that your position will never be viable. Incidentally, I think our denial of the civil rights of legal partnership to LGBTQ persons in North Carolina moves in the direction of such a “rotten” regime.

     When political engagement moves from talk to action, from cooperative public dialogue to the instrumental use of political power, the virtues of civility take on a different kind of complexity, which I’ve only begun to examine here. Davis has given us a very fine theological framework in which to explore these matters further. And we need to, because we shouldn’t give ordinary citizens the impression that reasoned deliberation is the only meaningful way to exercise political agency.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What role do you think conversation (discourse) plays in political life? What areas of political activity go beyond discourse and what virtues do you think are important in those areas of political activity?
  2. Politics regularly involves winners and losers. How do you think winners and losers should behave, and why behave in those ways?
  3. Can you think of instances of "rotten compromises" in your own life or in the context of your immediate community? How have you dealt with their consequences? How do you wish you had dealt (or could deal) with them?

1Michael Walzer, Politics and Passion: Towards a More Egalitarian Liberalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 104.
2Avishai Margalit, On Compromises and Rotten Compromises (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 89.


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