Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Is Civil Discourse Possible?

I am tired.

No, I am not giving up on life, nor have I lost my passion that people "think deeply and act decisively."

I am tired of shrillness substituting for soundness and name calling replacing careful argumentation.

The critical ideas of Left, Right and Center are being lost in the current climate of in-your-face polemics.

Polemical writing is easy: find the weaknesses in opponents' arguments, demolish them and declare victory (at least in your own mind).

Attacking people rather than their propositions is another cop-out for lazy, media-soaked persons. Over-generalizing and facile labeling ("Fox News is no news...right-wing talk radio is harmful...all Democrats are Marxists...") keep us from examining issues well and arriving at reasonable solutions.

America's Founders were not immune to heated debate and personal insults. In fact, it was heated debates that led to The Declaration of Independence, and, later, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We need to take a lesson or two from the eighteenth century for the twenty-first if our experiment in freedom is going to move forward.

Here are some thoughts that may help us sort through the current maze of confusion. We have troops dying overseas, domestic budgets out of control, rival nations rejoicing in our demise while our idealistic or pragmatic allies look on with concern, and a media sowing more confusion than clarity, with no apology for bias.

First, we must affirm that underlying principles and our vision for the future really matter. How we see the universe, ourselves and our future is important. I am NOT calling for uniformity here - just honesty. If we can get genuine answers from politicians about their deepest concerns and how they envision the future, we can start understanding why they are passing certain laws. President Obama, what does America 2020 or even 2050 look like to you? Conversely, the same question can be asked of Governor Palin. Thomas Jefferson imagined a nation of farmer-intellectuals, property owners who would love to learn and improve society. He did not envision the current Leviathan we call the federal government.

Second, what we believe about individual responsibility makes a world of difference in the world we want to see. Do we legislate fat grams in food, but not sexual practices? Do we allow unbridled capitalism with no regard for environmental concerns? Are abortion and euthanasia rights, but conservative free speech on college campuses can be controlled by the mob? What should the government regulate and what is up to us to self-regulate? Is charity private, public or both - and to what extent should a government divest me and invest in others? These are real, not theoretical questions. Are we ready for a fresh articulation of Lockean principles of liberty, or will we capitulate to Hobbes's vision of an all-powerful state?

Thirdly, freedom of conscience and religion are the first freedoms secured by our First Amendment. For the first time in history, the state was not controlling, supporting or influencing the religious choices of its citizenry. Our new Republic had Deists, Freethinkers, Catholics and Protestants all fighting for freedom. Jews were allowed to assemble and worship without fear. Yes, we were a de facto Protestant land, but with no religious test for office and no state enforcement of conscience, people of all religions or none could live together. Applied today, we see that with few exceptions, no conservative Christian wants a Theocracy. In fact all religious adherents need to defend the rights of other religions as if they were their own. Militant atheists are mounting an assault on religion, especially the Monotheism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The intemperate attacks of polemicists such as Dawkins and Hitchens would be humorous except that some people actually take them seriously. There is a place for real debates about God, the universe, morality and religion. But these need to be civil, not accusatory and they must be carried out with deep mutual respect for the importance of the matters at hand.

Horrific things have been done in the name of religion. All manner of oppression and violence have been perpetrated by people who thought they were serving their god. Atheism's record is no better; in fact, the 20th century is proof that the loss of religious restraint can unleash even greater slavery and violence. For every atheist bemoaning the Crusades, I offer a believer grieved by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot on the Left and Hitler and his imitators in the Right.

Debating about God, truth and the meaning of life is needs to be done in a manner that moves us toward clarity and a greater ability to live with our deepest differences, not a uniformity of thought! Will we have the courage to do this?

I am less tired now that I have penned these first thoughts on a more civil future.

Our Founders were imperfect people. Many were ambivalent or supportive of slavery. In their world, women did not vote (though that would have changed if Abigail Adams had the floor!) and the federal government stayed as small as possible. For the past 220 years we have been slowly living out the implications of the liberty we were endowed with at our nation's birth. Will be prove ourselves worthy of our Founder's sacrifices?

No comments: