A funny thing happened when I moderated an event on civility last fall: Some of my most civil friends rebelled against it!
And it’s a good thing, too. Let me explain.The Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies and the National Review Institute co-hosted the event, and I moderated the panel on “
Citizenship and Civility.” The day before, Stephen Schneck, my former politics professor, declared during his panel that “too much tolerance can stand in the way of healthy conflict.” Another panelist admitted that he finds the word civility “somewhat annoying.”
At the same time, yet another identified the “inexhaustible anger” that we see everywhere and that, at times, passes for entertainment.
Today, “the venting of anger doesn’t lead to catharsis but to more and deeper expressions of the same anger,” veteran political reporter Melinda Henneberger, now with the Kansas City Star, said.
Fast forward to the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) during a practice for the Congressional Baseball Game in Arlington, Virginia, on June 14. The morning after the shooting, I turned on MSNBC to hear a bystander comment on the shooter. He said: “He wasn’t evil. I guess he was tired of everything that was going on in politics.”
The late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan might call the bystander’s explanation “defining deviancy down” — the normalization of deviant acts until they are no longer deviant.
And yet, the man had a point, didn’t he? He was capturing that vicious cycle Henneberger called out.
The New York Times had a picture of members of Congress praying at Nationals Park. I confess I immediately thought of something my European friends often insist, that the United States is a more religious country. I often wonder about that. Sometimes I do happen upon long lines outside confessionals or a packed church for weekday Mass, and I am ashamed of my skepticism. And, yet, it is true that we have been known to manipulate religious faith for political means, and we Catholics, among others, haven’t always been the best witnesses when it comes to standing up for Catholic social teaching in the public square.
I remember Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s remarks a few years ago that he would have never thought the Democratic Party would have become the party of legal abortion because so many Catholics were in it. Yet it is. Our politics would look very different if more Catholics with well-informed consciences were bold and courageous in the public square.
As Scalise lay in critical condition, there seemed a sudden bipartisan move to be human in the wake of the shooting. In the lead, the former Speaker of the House and current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi went to the House floor hours after the shooting to say that she prays for President Donald Trump, that his presidency will be successful and that his family will be safe.
Now there’s a place to start. Look at your opponent, the opposing party — or in this current atmosphere, the politicians you find most frustrating — and pray for them. From there you can have robust debate on actual policy — with respect and even love. That’s civility that could help rather than hurt.
Civility should never mean substance-free politics. It’s hard, but it’s what we’re here for — applying the Gospel, even to our civic/political lives.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review, and co-author of “How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice” (OSV, $17.95).