Character and Civility

March 6, 2001

Early in his inaugural address President George W. Bush talked about "a new commitment to live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character. America, at its best, matches a commitment to principle with a concern for civility."

Character and civility have fallen on hard times, and we are reaping the results of a society that has turned its back on these two admirable attributes. In their book The Day America Told the Truth, James Patterson and Peter Kim demonstrate that we no longer follow any moral authority. They found that only 13 percent of us follow the Ten Commandments. They also found that merely 40 percent believe in five of the Ten Commandments.

They also found that Americans are no longer an honest people. They say that lying has become an integral part of American culture. They estimate that 91 percent of Americans lie on a regular basis.

It appears they we are equally troubled about marriage and family. Even though we still marry, we have lost faith in the institution of marriage. They estimated that a third of married men and women had at least one affair.

The loss of character also translates in the workplace. Their surveys show that American workers spend more than 20 percent of their day goofing off. That translates into about 7 hours a week of no productivity. They also found that half of the workforce calls in sick regularly when not sick.

Civility has also been in decline. Newspapers are running stories asking, "Why are we so rude?" U.S. News and World Report talks about "The American Uncivil Wars." They conclude that "Crude, Rude and Obnoxious Behavior Has Replaced Good Manners."

Articles in the newspaper document the number of incidents of road rage. An American Automobile Association report documents a sharp rise in the use of cars as weapons. A Colorado funeral director complains about impatient drivers darting in and out of funeral processions. Instead of waiting for the procession to pass, they threaten life and limb while ignoring both law and tradition in their rush to get somewhere.

So its no wonder that there has been a parallel loss of character and civility in politics. In fact it is fair to say that Americans have been electing politicians to office that aren't all that different from them. So bringing character and civility back to Washington, D.C. may require more than just changing the tone of political debate in our nation's capital.

Stephen Carter in his book Civility says that our actions and sacrifice are a "signal of respect for our fellow citizens, marking them as full equals, both before the law and before God. Rules of civility are thus also rules of morality; it is morally proper to treat our fellow citizens with respect, and morally improper not to. Our crisis of civility, is part of a larger crisis of morality."

Therefore, I believe that we should join with President Bush to re-establish the attributes of character and civility in our communities and within the political debate. Here are a few principles we should all apply to our lives:

  1. We should love others. At the heart of civility is the biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself. While it is relatively easy to love people who are your friends or people who are nice to you, the real test of Christian love comes when we are with strangers or with people who do not have good character or who are not civil to you. When we find ourselves in the presence of strangers, we should treat them with dignity and respect. Even if they are not gracious toward us, we should not repay them with incivility. Romans 12:21 says, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

  2. We should respect others. Our duty to be civil to others should not depend on whether we like them or agree with their moral or political perspectives. They may be disagreeable, and we are free to disagree with them but we should do so by giving grace. Often such a gentle response can change a discussion or dialogue. Proverbs 15:1 reminds us that "A gentle answer turns away wrath."

  3. We should be humble. Character and civility requires humility. A civil person with character acknowledges that we do not possess all wisdom and knowledge. Therefore, we should listen to others and consider the possibility that they might be right and we are wrong. Philippians 2:3 says, "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself."

  4. We should be restrained. Character and civility also requires that we watch what we say. The Bible clearly warns us of the danger of the tongue (James 3:5-8). We should work to cleanse our language of harsh, critical, and condemning words. We should rid ourselves of nasty and vulgar language. Ephesians 4:29 says, "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear."

If Christians want to reform society and return to character and civility, one excellent model is William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Most people know Wilberforce as the man who brought an end to the British slave trade. He served for half a century in the House of Commons. And led by his Christian faith, he tirelessly worked for the abolition of slavery. But that was but one of the "two great objects" of his life. The other, even more daunting, was his attempt to transform the civil and moral climate of his times. Although he is known as an abolitionist, the other great accomplishment of his life was in the reformation of manners.

I believe he provides a positive example of how we should engage the world. We should do so with courage, compassion, character, and civility.