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As someone who has been involved in conversations about civility and politics for a long time, I’m often asked by folks why this work can be so frustrating. We’ve been talking about breaking down walls, bridging differences, and crossing the aisle for a long time and yet Americans seem as polarized as ever. Are our efforts not working? 

 

I’m not as disillusioned as some, because away from the sort of hyper politicized spaces such as Twitter and cable news, in many communities around the country, people are getting along across ethnic, political, and socioeconomic lines. I do believe, however, our efforts at civility are often plagued by misunderstandings of what it is we are trying to do. So here are some common mistakes that might lead to disappointment. 

1. We overstate what we aim for with civility. Civility is sometimes presented as a kind of mushy third-way between deeply held beliefs. But genuine civility is something quite different. It’s a recognition of the humanity of people with whom we have deep differences. Most of the time at gatherings designed to promote peace between religions, there is an emphasis on blurring the lines of distinction between faiths. However, there is no reason why one cannot hold to historic Christian doctrines of the church, including the exclusivity of Christ as a way of salvation, and live at peace with people of other faiths.

Civility isn’t about blurring belief systems into a unified mush. For Christians, civility simply means that even though we hold certain unshakeable truths, we can see the dignity of those we disagree with, because each is made in the image of God. Bridgebuilding efforts that attempt to deconstruct deeply held beliefs will fail, while those that recognize deeply held beliefs but look for areas of common ground, especially in working together on issues that affect the entire community, can succeed. 

2. Too often “truth over tribe” devolves into class condescension. In an age of increasing tribalism, where our realities are shaped by increasingly smaller peer groups and our news and information are filtered through ideological lenses, we need people willing to hear bad news about their preferred political party or movement and find things commendable about folks they might disagree with. We need prophets willing to speak truth to their own communities.

But there is a difference between speaking hard words designed to change hearts and a kind of elite mockery of one’s own community for the approval of another. Those of us in positions of leadership should be especially wary of this, as we are often in peer groups made up of people in similar positions and classes. It’s easy to score points on panels, in podcasts, and on social media by disparaging our tribe as a way of showing we are not like them. 
 

This is especially tempting for evangelical leaders like myself. In the last few years, a cottage industry of would-be prophets has created an entire genre of “bold truth tellers” who seem embarrassed by the people they purportedly represent. What’s needed, in every community, is leadership willing to speak hard truths in love while also identifying with that community. There is also, sometimes, a failure of elite leadership classes to listen and learn from the working class.

3. We too often mistake robust debate for incivility. In recent years, there has been much conversation about the fragility of democracy in the West. I share the concern many have, with illiberal movements on the left and right. There is a general questioning among some about whether liberal democracy, with its freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and free market is the best way to organize ourselves. What’s more, there are bad actors who would like to sow confusion in the free world. Yet it’s tiresome for us to confuse genuine threats to democracy with opinions or policies we don’t like. Recently, I saw otherwise smart people compare a new law limiting abortion to fifteen weeks and Elon Musk’s attempted purchase of Twitter as threats to democracy. Now you may or may not agree with those policies, but they are not threats to democracy and labeling them as such only further erodes civility by creating villains out of people you merely have a disagreement with. It also unnecessarily catastrophizes ordinary debates

The overzealous attempt to label political opponents as enemies of democracy or seek to censor their ideas reflects an insecurity about one’s own position and sows distrust in institutions.

"CIVILITY IS SOMETIMES PRESENTED AS A KIND OF MUSHY THIRD-WAY BETWEEN DEEPLY HELD BELIEFS." 

4. We too often mistake incivility for courage. Another obstacle to civility is the increasingly polarized way in which our tribes are organized. Too often we join groups, not out of shared interests, but shared hatreds, so our loyalty and courage is measured not by effectiveness or progress, but by the shrillness of our arguments. In this, genuine advocacy, which builds coalitions to effect change, is replaced with a kind of virtue-signaling activism, a race to see who can be the loudest and who can level the harshest criticisms at ideological foes. 

 

This elevation of faux courage hurts civility and bridgebuilding because any outreach toward ideological foes is seen as compromise. If you commend someone you don’t share political affiliations with, you are seen by your tribe as a sellout, perhaps even an enemy. Ironically, this kind of digital hubris works against the shared goals of a coalition, contributes to increasing incivility, and leaves large-scale social problems unsolved. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in national politics. I find it amusing how much grief I often get online when I find good things to say about ideological opponents. When George W. Bush was president, I urged folks to pray for him and received quite a bit of pushback from progressives. When Barack Obama was president, Iurged folks to pray for him and received similar objections from conservatives. When Donald Trump was elected, I was told, by praying for him, that I was complicit in his rhetoric. When Joseph Biden was elected, I was told, by offering to pray for him, that I was supporting a liberal with ideas opposed to ours. And yet I’m guided by 1 Timothy 2, which urges believers to pray for their civic leaders. And so I do.

5. We underestimate society-wide deficits of trust. Lastly, those of us in positions of leadership, who frequently convene civility and bridgebuilding exercises, often fail to take into consideration our social epidemic of distrust. Institutions at every level have failed, from government to media, to the church to business, and to sports leagues. The default position for many is one of skepticism of anyone in power. We cannot combat misinformation and incivility if we don’t examine ourselves, if we are not truthful about our mistakes, and if we don’t lead in a way that is transparent and empathetic.

Institutional trust is a fragile thing and can be easily eroded with either scandal or a kind of smug, condescending leadership. And deficits of trust can be replenished with good, straightforward leadership that embodies both visionary, prophetic leadership and a shepherding, understanding approach. Our bridgebuilding efforts should begin with this in mind, working first inside-out, building trust internally and then finding ways to build common ground with other institutions and leaders in a way that is mutually beneficial.

"INSTITUTIONAL TRUST IS A FRAGILE THING AND CAN BE EASILY ERODED WITH EITHER SCANDAL OR A KIND OF SMUG, CONDESCENDING LEADERSHIP." 

In summary, I’m grateful for bridgebuilding efforts. I believe Christians should be known as peacemakers (Matthew 5:9, Romans 12:18), working to build relationships across divides, without yielding our deeply held beliefs. This work is hard and difficult, perhaps harder today than in other eras, but it’s worthwhile.


Daniel Darling is an author, pastor, and leader. He is the director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dan is a bestselling author of several books, including The Original Jesus, The Dignity Revolution, The Characters of Christmas, The Characters of Easterand A Way With Words. He is a columnist for World magazine and a regular contributor to USA Today.