Civility counts for a great deal in a society in which representative self-government means substantial and sometimes grave differences of opinion. No country divided by opposing opinions can survive if its citizens take up arms against one another due to political disagreements. A certain war waged on our soil from 1861-1865 proves it.
My friends and colleagues in the conservative movement are right to call for civility in public discourse. Talking beats violence, no question. I once heard the late Israeli diplomat Abba Eban say that he would even negotiate with then-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi should the latter ever “experience an isolated spasm of lucidity.” Good counsel, that.
Yet some of our philosophical and political opponents don’t want civil conversation in which views are presented and arguments made with respect and clarity. They want either our acquiescence or our suppression.
“Civility” can be a cloak used to mask an agenda of dominance. Agree with me, or give-in to my viewpoint, and you’re a nice, civil person. Disagree, and you’re either stupid or evil – and, either way, uncivil.
“Those who talk most about civility,” wrote Richard John Neuhaus in his landmark work, The Naked Public Square, “usually define it in terms of their accustomed way of doing things. ‘Their way of doing things means they continue to be in control. We mean to take over – nicely, if possible, but if that’s not possible, well, civility is not the highest of the virtues.’”
In the past few days, we have witnessed two dramatic events demonstrating that many on the Left don’t really want civility in discourse or tolerance of difference. They want conquest. They want to shut-up their opponents through whatever means necessary short of actual, physical attacks, and are more than glad to take advantage of an incoherent judiciary to obtain what they desire.
· The U.S. Supreme Court on April 7 refused to consider the case involving Elane Photography, a New Mexico company whose owner refused to photograph a same-sex “wedding” due to her Christian convictions. Instead, they let stand a New Mexico Supreme Court decision that permits a state commission to fine her for her principled stance.
· A few days earlier, Mozilla forced its cofounder and new president, Brendan Eich, to resign because in 2008 he contributed a modest amount of money to California’s initiative to sustain marriage as the union of one man and one woman (the same position then held by President Barack Obama).
Rauch, embarrassed by the excess of his compeers, argues rather desperately that “the campaign against Eich was not launched by gay rights groups … whatever else this may have been, it was hardly the work of the ‘gay community.’”
Andrew Sullivan, another openly gay man and proponent of same-sex “unions,” was equally troubled. He cited Section 1102 of the California Code: “No employer shall coerce or influence or attempt to coerce or influence his employees through or by means of threat of discharge or loss of employment to adopt or follow or refrain from adopting or following any particular course or line of political action or political activity.”
Sullivan writes, “Now Eich was not in that precise position. He resigned as CEO under duress because of his political beliefs. The letter of the law was not broken. But what about the spirit of the law? … A civil rights movement without toleration is not a civil rights movement; it is a cultural campaign to expunge and destroy its opponents. A moral movement without mercy is not moral; it is, when push comes to shove, cruel.”
A point of clarification: The “gay rights movement” is not the moral equivalent of the civil rights movement. Race is benign and immutable, homosexual self-identification and conduct are moral choices. Indisputably, some people experience an attraction to members of the same sex, yet the Judeo-Christian moral tradition calls for them to remain celibate even as it calls heterosexuals to abstain from sexual intimacy before or outside of one-man, one-woman marriage.
These things are beside the central point: A man with a deeply held moral conviction was bludgeoned into professional Sheol and a woman who believed that marriage meant the covenantal union of two opposite-sex partners was forced to litigate her case for years ending eventually in the loss of her freedoms at the hands of the New Mexico and U.S. Supreme Courts.
Civility is nowhere to be found in these cases. In an historic essay published in the mid-1990s, “gay rights” visionaries Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen explained how to fulfill their plan for legal and social legitimation of homosexuality: “At a later stage of the media campaign for gay rights – long after other gay ads have become commonplace – it will be time to get tough with remaining opponents. To be blunt, they must be vilified … we intend to make the anti-gays look so nasty that average Americans will want to dissociate themselves from such types.”
Well, they are succeeding, and the nation is succumbing.
Conservatives should continue to call for civil dialog, and there are those with whom we differ who will participate in it (witness Rauch and Sullivan). However, the extreme activists who want homosexuality accepted much as we accept differing tastes in soft drinks are, frequently, the ones who animate the public debate. Civility? For them, it’s only a rhetorical weapon.
This does not justify coarseness or hatred or hostility on the part of social conservatives. But we go into political battle naïve and unprepared, and thus doomed to failure, if we think sweet reason is all that’s required for our side to prevail in the fight to sway public judgment and civil law.
A non-manipulative, reasoned, and respectful presentation of our case will sway many undecided and even some with whom we disagree strongly. But demanding that conservatives maintain civility in their public arguments (and some need to work on it, most surely) becomes unwelcome, repetitive, and rather condescending scolding when it will not acknowledge the grim fact that there are those who don’t want our civil discourse. They want our silence.
Christians are obliged to show such persons love and respect, a component of these being the moral courage to keep telling them the truth. As we will not give in, because of our love for God, His Word, and those He has made in His image, we will be hated by some, even as our Lord was (John 15:18). We must count this as a privilege, one to which we need to become more fully accustomed.
As my friend Peter Wehner writes, “What won’t work is for the gay rights movement to try to intimidate into silence those with whom they disagree. To break their will. And to force religious organizations – including para-church institutions and eventually churches – to embrace views they believe are at odds with the teachings in Scripture. A faith whose central symbol is the cross is not going to collapse or surrender in the face of pressure by progressives and secularists.” He’s right and, if he’s not, he should be.
Again: Standing for truth justifies no hatefulness on our part; rather, it should inspire compassion and prayer and thoughtful consideration as we make our case. However, to internalize the false narrative of the extremists (“Won’t change your opinion on same-sex ‘marriage?’ Then you’re a hateful, homophobic bigot.”) is a form of surrender – surrender of the truth. That is not an option for the people of God.
Rob Schwarzwalder is senior vice president at the Family Research Council.