September 16, 2009
It will probably go down in history as the first presidential speech remembered not for what the President said, but for how a member of his audience responded.
Even if you didn't watch Barack Obama's health care address last week, I'm sure you've heard what happened. Obama had just finished saying that his health care plan would not cover illegal aliens. In response, Rep. Joe Wilson shouted out, "You lie!" shocking television audiences from coast to coast, not to mention the President.
Talking heads have spent the rest of the week talking about the need for civility in public discourse—and that's a good thing. Two people who are likely paying close attention to this debate are men who are about as far apart politically as it's possible to get. Mark DeMoss is the conservative president of the DeMoss Group. Lanny Davis is a former advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
DeMoss and Davis—both concerned about the sharp decline in civility—have created an online forum called The Civility Project. Its goal: getting Americans to re-learn how to disagree without being so nasty to one another. They are inviting Americans of every political stripe to take a civility pledge, in which they commit to three things: "I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them. I will stand against incivility when I see it."
Three cheers for them! Too many Americans think that it's OK to simply shout down their opponents, malign their motives, or, when all else fails, make vicious personal attacks. I lived through this in Watergate, being spit upon by angry mobs.
And take the case of same-sex "marriage" in California last year. We saw the losing side engage in vandalism and threats against their opponents.
Columnist Pat Buchanan recently observed that "we seem not only to disagree with each other more than ever, but to have come almost to detest one another. Politically, culturally, racially, we seem ever ready to go for each others' throats."
But civility is a precondition for democratic dialogue. And civility is mandatory for Christians; Jesus told us to love our enemies, which would exclude us from making vicious verbal attacks against them.
I can't excuse Rep. Wilson's outburst. But I do understand his frustration. For months, President Obama himself has been repeatedly accusing his opponents of lying about his health care plan—just as he did in his speech before Congress. Even liberal CNN says Obama's regular use of the word "lie" is "unstatesmanlike."
I agree. And I think it's appropriate to note—as I have on a previous BreakPoint broadcast—that there is considerable evidence Obama himself is distorting the facts about his health care plan in relation to abortion, for instance. This kind of behavior—no matter which side of the political divide it comes from—helps to bring about the kind of incivility I'm talking about.
I am sure that Rep. Wilson, if he could re-live that moment, would not shout out at the President again. And, in a show of real civility, Wilson apologized to Obama, and the President accepted his apology. I commend them both.
It's a positive step—albeit a small one—to restore civility to our national discourse.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.