Knights and Death Mongers: Civility Part 1

From an ad sponsored by the Knights of Columbus

Civility—the word, if not the social attribute—has crept back into the political repertory. In the remembrances of George McGovern this week, headline writers made sure to highlight the former senator’s “legacy of civility.” Many others have bemoaned the lack of it, all through the 2012 elections. And, the Knights of Columbus recently launched a “Civility in America” campaign.

As (last I checked) a member in good standing of that Catholic fraternal order, I received an email announcing the initiative, under the heading, “Help us mend the tone of America’s political discourse.” The message offered some examples of my fraternal dollars at work. These included full-page newspaper ads inviting people to sign the Civility in America petition, which blandly calls on politicians and pundits to adopt a “civil tone” and focus on policies rather than personalities. A Knights-commissioned poll also found, unsurprisingly, that most Americans regard our politics as uncivil.

I was pleased to know of this effort, especially in light of something I recall from 2004—a cover of Columbia magazine, the organ of the Knights, distributed to its 1.8 million members during the presidential election season that year. I can’t seem to find a copy of that edition, either online or in my periodical closet, but I remember a kicking donkey of the Democratic Party, depicted with the words—“Party of Death.”

We all have our moments of rhetorical excess. But I think a nice way to start off a civility campaign would be to make it clear that you’ll no longer refer to your political opponents as death mongers. The Knights have yet to make that particular pledge.

“Civility” seems to waft in and out of public discourse, probably because people are unsure of it. What is it, anyway? Politeness? If so, it’s not much a virtue, at least not a political one.

In his highly readable 2001 book, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville characterizes politeness as “a show of virtue, its appearance and nothing more.” But the show must go on. Comte-Sponville explains, “We end up resembling what we imitate, and politeness imperceptibly leads—or can lead—to morality.”

And surely, civility is knitted to some real virtues. To name a few: humility, tolerance, and gentleness, all of which can leaven our public conversation.

I like, as far as it goes, a definition circulated by the Institute for Civility in Government.

Civility is about more than merely being polite, although being polite is an excellent start. Civility fosters a deep self-awareness, even as it is characterized by true respect for others. Civility requires the extremely hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and perhaps fierce disagreements. It is about constantly being open to hear, to learn, to teach and to change. It seeks common ground as a beginning point for dialogue when differences occur, while at the same time recognizes that differences are enriching. It is patience, grace, and strength of character.

That’s a relatively strong notion of civility, but how deeply does it bring us into questions at the moral core of politics, having to do with justice, truth, and solidarity? I’m not sure, but I’ll take another swing at it before the season of incivility draws to a conclusion on November 6. …read more

The Other Romney (and Obama) Videos

A broad Christian coalition unveils the poverty videos

As the post-debate spin cycle continues, it’s clear who was left behind in the huffing at Hofstra on Tuesday—the 42.6 million people who dwell below the poverty line. Maybe they should be grateful that along the way of indicting President Obama’s economic policies, Mitt Romney mentioned poverty in passing (which is more than Obama did). Aside from that hit and run, the steady mantra of the evening in Long Island was “the middle class.”

The poor shall always be with you, but not so much in election year discourse. Still, there was a resonant moment back in September when Obama and Romney sounded as though they were reading from the playbook of Matthew 25 (“As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me”).

As I report in this week’s Our Sunday Visitor, Romney and Obama appeared in separate videos in which they grappled with the moral challenges of domestic poverty. These were not secret videos, taped behind closed doors. The campaigns produced them in response to a request from the Circle of Protection, an anti-poverty coalition of Christian leaders spearheaded two years ago by the Sojourners community.

Leaders of the initiative made much of the harmonious convergence between the two contenders. And there was a fair bit of that, on the surface at least.

In his message, Romney said he was grateful for “the opportunity to share my plan to protect the poor and vulnerable among us.” Obama said his own faith teaches him that poverty is a moral issue, and “The Bible calls on us to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper.” Each message ran a little over three minutes and was unveiled at a Circle of Protection press conference on September 12.

Both Romney and Obama spoke of poverty reduction as an urgent priority (“more important now than at any other time in recent memory,” the Republican said). Both vowed to slash the deficit, but Romney promised to “proceed carefully,” adding: “Our government rightfully provides a safety net” for the needy that must remain intact. And, aiming straight at his opponent, Obama said the poor and struggling shouldn’t have to “sacrifice even more … just so we could offer massive new tax cuts to those who have been blessed the most.”

The commonalities faded as the two spoke of how they would tamp down poverty levels. The thrust of Romney’s message was that this would happen as a consequence of a more robust economy, ushered in by his administration (and its plan that he did not specify). Obama spoke more about specific government action, including health insurance coverage and other “vital assistance for the least of these.”

The Faith Factor

There was nothing earth shattering in these messages, and they drew little notice beyond the constituencies of the Circle of Protection, which brings together leaders of some 50 evangelical, liberal Protestant, and Catholic organizations. (In that sense they might well have been, for all practical purposes, secret videos.)

But what the Obama/Romney videos tell me is that that politicians feel they have to say the right things about poverty, when they’re in the right settings. And I can’t think of a context other than faith-based discourse that would lead both party standard bearers to speak with such sympathy and resolve about the poor, even for just three minutes.

Maybe this means there should be more, not less, religion in politics. Signs are that young evangelicals, for example, are finding little use for the politics of the religious right. In the future, evangelicals may not be cheering when Republicans say unflattering things about the poor, or when Democrats say nothing at all.

Listening to Vatican II, 50 Years Later

Pope John XXIII at the start of Vatican II

While an enormous mass of people still lacks the absolute necessities of life, some, even in less advanced countries, live sumptuously or squander wealth. While the few enjoy very great freedom of choice, the many are deprived of almost all possibilities of acting on their own initiative and responsibility, and often subsist in living and working conditions unworthy of human beings.

Hearing those words, you might think they were delivered by the likes of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, perhaps in his address to the United Nations General Assembly last month. Or they may sound like something out of the Frankfurt Declaration, the principles articulated in 1951 (and updated in 1989) by the Socialist International. But you’d have to go looking farther to the right to find the people behind the “many are deprived” statement.

Proper attribution actually belongs to the Second Vatican Council—which was called to order 50 years ago, on October 11, 1962, in Rome. The world’s Roman Catholic bishops made the observation in the signature document of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes (“joy and hope” in Latin), also known as The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The declaration itself was released two years later, on the day the Council ended.

In calling attention to extreme economic inequality, the fathers of the Council were not tapping into the currents of romantic leftwing internationalism that began flowing around that time. They were channeling traditional wisdom, which is what religious social teaching does, at its best.

Part of that wisdom is to affirm the idea of a hierarchy of values. In other words, some things we may pursue, like wealth, are lower on this scale than other values, such as happiness and care for one’s neighbor. Some things we may prize as a society, like economic growth, are really just means toward other goals, including broadly shared prosperity. They aren’t ends in themselves, although they’re often passed off that way.

Why are so many of us moderns confused about this? I think the Council fathers nailed it when they explained, in Gaudium et Spes, that many people “seem to be hypnotized, as it were, by economics, so that almost their entire personal and social life is permeated with a certain economic outlook.” It’s the kind of trance that leads some to think that the inequalities named by the Council are necessary and just.

The Great Hypnotizers

Economists, of course, are the impresarios of this collective hypnosis. But the wisest of them—including some Nobel Prize winners—would have no quarrel with the men in Rome on this count.

From the moderate left, there’s Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. In his 2000 collection Development as Freedom, Sen drew on Aristotle’s understanding of wealth as “merely useful and for the sake of something else,” and he submitted that the “something else” is human self-realization (including full participation in society). That’s a non-economic value.

From the moderate right, there’s Nobel laureate Robert William Fogel, whose starting point is the question asked by Socrates: What is the good life? He too speaks of self-realization, defined as the achievement of a moral and satisfying life (in his 2002 book The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism).

Sen and Fogel are rare, though. As a whole their profession lacks a teleological view, a sense of ultimate purposes beyond the flow of goods and services. In the absence of that, what we often see are “means parading as ends,” in the words of the iconoclastic economist E.F. Schumacher. This isn’t purely theoretical. In the past decade, the parade passed through debates over global labor and environmental standards, for example. Foes of these measures often complained that such protections would interfere with free trade (a means often mistaken for an end).

It’s all part of the hypnosis, which leads some people to contend that the “losers” in our economy are just that, losers. After all, what else is there to say about people who don’t succeed according to the criteria of the marketplace? Or they’re branded as “takers,” because they might get unemployment insurance or other government benefits.

At Vatican II, the bishops exposed this presumption, under the heading of inequality.

“The development of economic life could diminish social inequalities if that development were guided and coordinated in a reasonable way. Yet all too often it serves only to intensify the inequalities,” they said, adding—“In some places it results in a decline in the social status of the weak and in contempt for the poor.”

More recently the contempt has been known to turn itself on roughly 47 percent of the people. …read more