The 2012 presidential election is the “most important election of our lifetime.” So claim candidates and their supporters.
Lefties make that claim. Righties make that claim. Preachers make that claim.
“We’re at the tipping point… We’re about to go over – not the fiscal cliff – we’re about to go over the moral and spiritual cliff from which there is no return. And that is why it is imperative for Christians to get out and vote in this election,” said Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, advocating for the election of Mitt Romney.
“Our nation will hold one of the most critical elections in my lifetime,” said the aged Billy Graham in an ad in the Columbus Dispatch, pitching for Romney.
Graham said: “We are at a crossroads… I strongly urge you to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms… Please join me in praying for America, that we will turn our hearts back toward God.”
Otis Moss III, pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, and Charles Jenkins, pastor of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, wrote a letter to black church leaders:
“We are writing to offer our strong and enthusiastic endorsement of President Barack Obama… We must reelect this President.”
Seeking to register voters to support the president, Al Sharpton, an ordained minister and MSNBC host of “Politics Nation,” has become one of Obama’s key apologists.
“Whoever wins this election won’t just impact the next four years,” warned Sharpton. “It will impact the next 100 years.”
Embedded in these urgent clergy endorsements is the clear message that if the other guy wins, then spirituality plummets, justice retreats, culture coarsens. If the other guy wins, then the future of civilization is imperiled.
What is likely to be imperiled – whoever wins – is civility.
If the outcome of the presidential election is more ideological rigidity, more polarization, more incivility, then everyone loses.
And regrettably, incivility is on the rise, according to a mid-October Cincinnati Enquirer poll.
The newspaper reported that more than 52 percent of those surveyed said “incivility has increased over the past four years.” Only 14 percent thought incivility had decreased.
Almost 50 percent of the respondents blamed the media for triggering incivility. Another 46 percent blamed politicians for triggering it.
The poll found that 66.8 percent said that incivility was “hazardous for the country.”
Incivility is as hazardous as elections are important.
How we respond to the outcome of an election will determine whether the nation tilts away from incivility.
While faith leaders ought not endorse presidential candidates, those who do ought to be among the first to call for more civility in the public square after the election.
That’s not all. More civility from pulpits and in church programs would go a long way toward decreasing cultural polarization, ideological rigidity, plain meanness and outright falsehoods.
Clergy need retreat neither from public engagement nor the biblical mandate to speak a prophetic word in order to advance civility.
Surely we can craft some guidelines for how we speak about social and moral issues, how we speak about those with whom we disagree, how we speak for what we believe without rhetoric on steroids.
Let’s check the facts, avoid the temptation to demonize, and ask questions to explore controversial issues. Let’s rely more on the Golden Rule than the political talking points from Republicans and Democrats.
Let’s find some common-ground projects and work across theological and political aisles. It’s awfully hard to argue about an issue if one is hammering a nail, spooning potatoes in a food line, or weeding a community garden.
Sweat service has a transformative, even transcendent, quality to it. Perhaps churches need to provide more sweat equity in their communities rather than point fingers at the other side.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.