Many Americans consider the United States a “Christian Nation.”
Standing right next to them might be someone who passionately disagrees.
That happened in a Beacon Journal civility focus group when people were asked to consider whether America is based on Christian principles.
Several gave an emphatic “Yes!”
Others, including a Jew and a Quaker, took offense and the room became tense.
A Christian pointed out to a Jew that their two religions build on the same foundation.
“Why are you offended then if I think [the nation] was based on Christian values?” he asked.
The Jewish woman responded: “Because I am not a Christian and that isn’t something I could be or would choose to be or ever have been.”
That conversation remained civil.
But Akron area leaders say religion, for all of its talk about peace and love and concern for fellow human beings, is often used by people in ways that offend and outrage their neighbors. And complicating this is that one religious leader is willing to match outrage with even more outrage when he thinks it appropriate.
John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute, has seen it all in his work studying religion and politics.
“[Religion] frequently contributes to incivility for a couple of different reasons,” he said. “Religion, in most of its forms at least, is about ultimate things, and different religions have different ideas about ultimate things and for many people it is very difficult to compromise on ultimate things — salvation, life after death, abortion.”
Talking about these issues can be painful.
“Many religious people I’ve come into contact with have very little experience talking about these things in a civil and constructive fashion,” the nationally recognized political scientist said. “So my experience is that a lot of them avoid it and then when they can’t avoid it anymore it’s pretty raw and it encourages incivility.”
It can seem like a lot is at stake.
“Because people take these beliefs so seriously, they are so important to them, it is hard for them to talk to a nonreligious person or a person of another faith about these things without getting argumentative.”
Some Christians believe following Christ is the one true way and it is their job to bring that way to as many people as possible.
That kind of talk came into criticism in the focus group, one of more than 20 conducted for the Beacon Journal by Alice Rodgers.
“The biggest problem we have in Christianity is people who have the microphones and the cameras in front of them, don’t speak for all of us,” said one of the men in the group. “There’s a very small — people like Pat Robertson, people who make these crazy — ‘God told me that this is going to happen because there are too many gays in this country.’ People that make statements like that, they’re very destructive and they claim they’re Christian and I don’t know where their minds are, but they don’t speak for me. Pat Robertson doesn’t represent me and neither do a lot of those other people that have microphones in front of them.”
A woman responded: “I don’t think anyone is saying that they represent you, but what we’re saying is they still consider themselves Christian under that title.”
The man quickly countered: “And they do. And unfortunately that’s the impression people get from Christianity, because those are the people in the spotlight. And they say if that’s what Christians are like, I don’t want anything to do with them.”
Green said Jews also take offense when Christians tell them how to think and believe.
“The reason is that they feel that someone is putting the hard sell on converting them to Christianity and that that implies that Judaism is not an acceptable religion or that something is wrong with them,” Green said.
On abortion or gay rights, some people feel responsible for what they perceive as the sins of others. They might try to make a gay person heterosexual or condemn a woman as a baby killer.
“In my experience that comes up when we are talking about the law in our society. Can you remain silent if you think the law is wrong?” Green asked. “And I think the answer in a democracy is ‘no’ you don’t have to remain silent but oftentimes when religious people are motivated to speak up they speak up in various uncivil ways because they feel an obligation not just for individuals but for the whole society.”
Green said he understands the fervor.
“They feel that they are standing up for the truth and they may even feel they are being decent and kind about it, but someone who is gay might see that as bigotry. But having said all that, religion is often a source of bigotry.”
Incivility all around
The Rev. Mark Ford of Love Akron, a partner in the Ohio Civility Project, acknowledges talking about issues can be difficult and those who speak out also can be the victims of slurs.
“There has been so much happen in the world that it has made it even more challenging to even talk about these issues because if you talk about it and you don’t use the exact same word or exact phraseology, you are a racist or you are a bigot,” he said. “You can’t hardly talk about a subject without being pigeon-holed. And that has become quite a challenge.”
He said there are some preachers who insist on talking about political issues in the pulpit because they consider them first and foremost religious issues.
“If you would ask them if they are bringing politics in the pulpit they would not see it that way,” he said. “Because whenever they address social issues they do not view that as bringing political agendas into the pulpit but they are simply declaring what they believe God’s word says about that particular area, and it happens to be a social issue that is a hot political button.”
In addition to addressing particular issues, Ford said he also stresses the ways people talk about things that divide them.
“I’m trying to use what little influence I have to say …‘Isn’t there a better way for expressing our vehemence about whatever the issue may be without getting down and dirty and bare knuckle, bloody,” he said. “There has to be a better way, and I think there is.”
He said he would recommend that followers “really think deeply and pray much about how they express their political views; that they use wisdom. … The Bible does say ‘Blessed are the peacemakers!’ So I think that once again people think that civility means being nice and not being truthful and I think I can be blunt and be truthful but I don’t have to name call and disrespect. So I think my appeal to all the faith community is to think deeply about what they say and not get caught up with the emotion of the tide of the day.”
The limits of civility
Rabbi David Horowitz agrees that religion often contributes to incivility.
“It has become a polarizing force,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be, but it has become that way.”
He said he envisions “a book that’s title is a stamp coming down on a Bible that says, ‘Beware, the readers of this book could be injurious to your health.’ ”
He said the problem comes when people make declarations rather than talk about the issues.
“I have made this statement before and I’m not sure it is very civil, so I am thinking about my words, but I think I would make it again: My enemy is fundamentalism of all religious systems,” he said. “My own, we have fundamentalists too within Judaism. I include them.”
His problem comes in the literal interpretation of Scripture.
“They are refusing to allow their intellect to approach the text and that is not the way historically it was done,” he said. “In my mind they have made it an idol of the text. The text is now the thing. It can’t be changed. It is inerrant and it can’t be changed as we understand it. Well, that was never true historically. It has changed a lot. In Christianity it changed between different texts. Christians say they accept the Hebrew Scriptures but they accept the New Testament and it affects the understanding of the Hebrew texts.”
Horowitz went to great pains to say how much he abhors incivility, but he also allowed that in at least one instance, he could justify shouting down an opponent and uttering a slur.
As the father of a lesbian, he helped found the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. He greatly resents the preaching of Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist in Topeka, Kan., who says America is cursed for giving rights to lesbians and gays.
Phelps’ website, named “God Hates Fags,” states “Decadent, depraved, degenerate and debauched America, having bought the lie that It’s OK to be gay, has thereby changed the truth of God into a lie.”
That makes Horowitz bristle.
“This guy is horrendous,” he said. “He has picketed things I’ve been at. He picketed the convention of reformed rabbis when we were discussing gay marriages. He was out there with his merry band. The sign he carried that day was “Jew Fags Go to Hell.”
His response is to call Phelps a bigot.
“I am not a turn-the-cheek guy,” he said. “That’s Christianity.”
Does religion lead to incivility?
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com.