Last night’s presidential debate could represent the swan song for American civil discourse. I am concerned about our country’s ability engage in thoughtful, respectful dialogue about issues of substance and contention. Discussion of substantive issues once dominated political debate, now they are reduced to quips and sound bites aimed at the other candidate.
The 2016 election cycle highlights this problem. While this election is contentious on so many levels, it is the inevitable result of a country that has lost its ability to engage in thoughtful conversation. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the outcomes of the fracturing that has been taking place for some time. Thoughtful dialogue was largely absent. Each candidate stated their position on several topics but there was sadly little discussion about what lay behind them. Criticisms and empty promises were plentiful, but meaningful discussion was nowhere to be seen.
If democracy is to have any meaningful future in America, we must once again learn to engage in intelligent, respectful dialogue with one another. Election 2016 isn’t the problem. Election 2016 simply highlights how far we have fallen as a society.
Once, we could discuss heated issues and enjoy still the friendship of those with whom we disagreed. Now, we find ourselves unable to have the slightest disagreements without being disagreeable. Simply turn on any major news network and images of yelling, condescension, and name calling flow from the screen. Read an article online and muster the courage to venture into the “Comments” section and you will be dropped abruptly into the vitriol of the opposition.
Christians should take the lead in reestablishing civil discourse. The Christian ideals of life and liberty provided the foundation for the American experiment. Christians must again engage the issues with grace and truth. We cannot retreat into our insular circles while the world around us falls to pieces. We must be willing to do the hard work of making arguments and engaging those with whom we disagree greatly.
Of all people, Christians should be the best at engaging ideas graciously. If we believe that the Scripture is the truth, then we can be bold where we stand on scripture. On issues like the sanctity and dignity of human life, the primacy of the family, the role of government in restraining evil, etc. we should be immovable but gracious. On debatable issues like the economy, matters of diplomacy, military intervention, etc. we should be people of conviction who are gracious and able to admit where we are wrong.
Perhaps America needs to take a page out of the playbooks of two Justices. Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg could not have been further apart on the political spectrum. In fact, their disagreement on legal issues went to the core of their understanding of the judicial system. Yet, despite their differences, they were friends. They could have thoughtful conversations on difficult issues without being rude or disagreeable.
If the American experiment is to continue in any meaningful way, Americans must relearn the art of civil discourse. We must debate difficult topics over which we are divided. We must, once again, be a people who can disagree without being disagreeable. Christians should lead the way since, we are told, our war is not against “flesh and blood.” Rather, we are called to the task of critical engagement to “destroy arguments.”