Reviving Civility in 2016 and Beyond

On November 8, Americans will head to the polls. Many are eagerly anticipating November 9, not only because we will know who our next president is, but because it will finally mark the end of a particularly brutal and bizarre election season. 

In years past, we could expect presidential candidates to debate weighty issues and to put their policy positions and proposals on display. But 2016 has been different– it’s morphed into something akin to a fight on the playground, rife with name calling, “he said, she said”, and juvenile, disrespectful discourse.

We’ve seen it on our TV screens, in news coverage, on social media, and in conversations overheard in our local neighborhoods. And while it is easy to point the finger at someone else, it’s also important to look in the mirror. What words have been said between you and your friends as you watch the debates or send articles to one another? Or worse, what have you been saying about that man or woman in your church who you “just cannot believe” is voting that way?

The reality is that the impact of this presidential election will not cease to exist when the campaigning does. So what can we learn?

We must first acknowledge that we’ve lost an admiration for civility in the public square. What’s civility? Civility is defined as “formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech." Professor James Calvin Davis explains that civility is “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree.”

Nothing has been on display more publicly this election season than the loss of civility. It has largely been lost in the way we communicate with another. Whether on the debate stage, charity function, campaign trail, news interviews, rallies, or the comment section of any social media platform, it is increasingly difficult to expect civil discourse.  

Nothing has been on display more publicly this election season than the loss of civility.

The National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) based on the grounds of my alma mater, The University of Arizona, is dedicated to promoting healthy and civil political debate. In the wake of two very bumpy campaigns, NICD launched the Revive Civility Campaign. Revive Civility believes that our democracy is dependent on civility and is committed to raising awareness and empowering people to revive civility through “solution-oriented actions that will help restore civility in our public elections.”

As Christians, can we be the first in line for a movement to rehabilitate civility? Can we be the ones who, no matter the candidate you have chosen to vote for, stand for civil discourse? Yes, those in public office serving our country should practice civility in all they do, but as followers of Jesus, we have an extra responsibility. Those in public office are representatives of America to American citizens and to the rest of the world and that is a responsibility they should not take lightly. But whether in the political arena or elsewhere, we have the added responsibility of being representatives of Christ. So let’s take the challenge to revive and rehabilitate civility in our country. 

What does this look like? Whether you work in the political arena or not, you can help to revive civility. It is helpful to start asking some questions. How are you talking about the candidates on social media or when you’re out with friends? The presence of social media in this campaign has been felt, and utilized, both by candidates and citizens. Unlike any generation before us, we have the ability to share our thoughts and opinions to the whole world with one click. The on-ramp to involvement in this presidential election is as easy as clicking “post” or “share.” With this ease, civil discourse is often left behind.

So what if reviving civility in this presidential election and beyond started with us? For followers of Jesus we cannot forget that both candidates on the stage are made in the image of God and so is every person we are conversing with on social media. How easily we can forget the humanity of someone when we are separated by a computer screen. We have the responsibility to model how to use the power of social media well. What if we stewarded social media and used it as a platform to revive civility?  

Let's choose to stay engaged in this political season, and to use our voice on and offline. And let's also remember that Jesus is not on the ballot, He is on the throne, and so we need not succumb to fear. Our hope is not built upon who moves into the White House, so our engagement and view of this presidential election does not need to be one that is white knuckled and hanging on for dear life. This means that we can be involved in this presidential election without losing civility because our ultimate hope does not depend on who we vote into office.    

So vote on November 8 and stay engaged on November 9 and beyond because your voice matters. May we commit to reviving civil discourse, praying for those in office and those campaigning to be in office, that civility will begin to season their speech, and may we use the gift of democracy to be a part of shaping the future of our country. 

-Kelsie Doan recently completed an internship at International Justice Mission in Washington, D.C., and is currently pursuing a MA in Intercultural Studies and Children at Risk at Fuller Theological Seminary in Arizona