Politics & Policy

Can We Be Civil?

Our first president has much to teach us about how to conduct our lives today.

We are not necessarily the ones we have been waiting for. Somewhere in the rainbow celebrations of late, what may have been missed is a concurrent look to first things, things perhaps once taken for granted — natural things. 

Pope Francis actually did just this when he issued, just a few days before the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, an encyclical – Laudato Si’ —  on creation. He looked to Scripture and to saints such as his namesake, Francis, to provide us with a lens through which we might see ourselves and the world differently — as gifts. When we see all as gift, we have a new relationship with everything.

In reacting to the Court ruling (in a piece in OSV Newsweekly), Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who is the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, pointed out the challenge to freedom that looms: “In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, we will face greater pressure now to mute our voices.” He warned that “the freedom to run our ministries and participate in the public square while holding to the teachings of Jesus will likely be challenged” with “laws and regulations” that “could threaten the life and work of the Church as well as other religious institutions and individuals of faith.”

He urged patience and courage in being “absolutely committed to what Christ has taught us,” adding that, at the same time, we must “also speak and act with love, attracting people to the beauty of God’s design while keeping our hearts close to Christ in prayer. Our witness is needed in public and in private and gospel life is often not easy.”

I visited Archbishop Kurtz last summer at his home in Louisville — on a block that looks as much like a postcard for America as I’ve ever seen, where the concrete never obscures the green. We spoke about the family and challenges that were already realities. He had things to say about speaking truth in love. And he was very American about it — he pointed to George Washington and a little book on civility that the future first president of the United States compiled before he was 16. The young Washington had copied into a notebook a list of rules he had admired — rules he tried to live by his whole life.

My friend and colleague Richard Brookhiser produced a new edition of Rules of Civility a few years ago. He wrote: “We have our problems and distractions, but George Washington had his. If a great man took the trouble to behave well, so can we.”

Additionally, Rick observes: “There is a special reason why Washington’s Rules of Civility are not taken seriously today — and that is the withering of the ambition to be great, and the belief that greatness is possible. Twentieth-century Americans believe they can be rich, or powerful, or famous: we can found software empires in the garage, or become president, or cut demos that go platinum.” And “certainly we pursue happiness, as the therapies and workouts and self-help books attest. But greatness has vanished from the map of our minds.”

So how can we be great? Even in these times of globalized indifference and unawareness, disconnectedness and loneliness, overload and crisis?

Washington wrote: “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.”

“Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace, walk not on when others stop.”

Brookhiser comments: “Before you can tell whether others are speaking, standing, or stopping, you must be aware of them first.” Before any explanation or argument can be made — or any cause can be celebrated, pursued, or questioned — we must see the human person.

Consider this one: “Read no letters, books, or papers in company, but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave. Come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired, or give your opinion of them unasked. Also look not nigh when another is writing a letter.”

Writing a letter! When was the last time you did that? Who wouldn’t appreciate one today? What ever would President Washington make of the smartphones that have become our appendages, mirrors, and windows? Try putting the phone away at your next meal with family, friends, or strangers, in the elevator, or anywhere else.

This one might be the end of reality television if taken too seriously: “Reproach none for the infirmities of nature, nor delight to put them that have in mind thereof.”

“Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.” Modesty is such a lonely word, as Billy Joel might sing.

“Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself, for example is more prevalent than precepts.” We learn more from witness than from lectures.

“Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.” That’s a matter for an examination of conscience for us all, isn’t it?

And, about gossip (a point Pope Francis frequently makes, as it happens): “Speak not evil of the absent for it is unjust.”

Washington writes: “When you speak of God or His attributes, let it be seriously & with reverence.”

And: “Let your recreations be manful not sinful.”

Finally: “Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

This, Brookhiser writes, “has been implicit all along” — “Small matters and large matters are linked; there are no great spirits who do not pay attention to both; these little courtesies reflect, as in a pocket mirror, the social and moral order.”

By George(!), we are very far away from here today, but with a father’s help perhaps we can restore some civility again. By doing so, we might give ourselves a chance to take a look around and see what we have been given. It might just change the way we conduct our lives and even our politics. What currently are conversations and debates that can’t be had — and that even get shut down — can start to look reasonable, doable, and even attractive and inviting. It is our obligation to be good stewards — and it ought to be our desire to do nothing less.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association. 

 

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