GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush has become another casualty in the 24/7 news cycle that simultaneously feeds and fashions a society that stands ever-ready to denounce and shame public figures.
He was asked at a Southern Baptist Convention event to share his views about federal funding of Planned Parenthood.
Bush, in explaining that he would seek to eliminate the $500 million in federal funds Planned Parenthood receives, stated, “I’m not sure we need a half a billion dollars for women’s health programs.”
He then noted that he would rather see that money given to community health organizations and local clinics that provide women’s health care.
Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton responded with harsh critiques, one of many similar responses from Democratic leaders.
Bush quickly released a statement noting that he “misspoke,” emphasizing that his intention was to express his opposition to federal funding of abortion.
Even so, GOP strategists lamented the comment’s impact on the presidential election.
Because most Republican candidates agree with Bush’s position on preventing federal dollars from funding abortion, they fear this statement might provide fodder for Democratic leaders whether or not Bush is the GOP candidate.
This is reflective of the state of our society: quick to condemn, slow to forgive, willfully ignoring apologies or explanations.
This trend shows no signs of waning. We should anticipate a significant increase in such incivility throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.
Bush is not alone. He joins a long line of folks whose comments or actions – even after subsequent clarification to emphasize intended meanings and corrections to apologize for counterproductive statements – became pawns in the larger political game.
President Obama’s so-called “latte salute” made headlines in October 2014, with the political right denouncing him as unfit for office for not respecting the U.S. military.
Responses from the left revealed how ingrained our society is in finding fault – they dredged up a picture from 2001 of President George W. Bush saluting a marine while holding his dog.
This led to a debate over which was a less respectful means of saluting a military officer, followed by historical reflections on when U.S. presidents first began saluting officers and whether the practice itself was appropriate.
Another instance took place in the wake of the devastation Hurricane Sandy wrought in New Jersey in 2012.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie joined President Obama, who was in the middle of a re-election campaign, on the Jersey shoreline to comfort grieving citizens.
He was maligned by GOP leadership because it was deemed to have hindered Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
Christie eschewed partisan politics in order to encourage folks in need and was lambasted for it, largely by his own party.
This reaction, if not wholly surprising, is a tragic symptom of the cultural sin of prioritizing political expediency over compassion.
These are but a few higher profile recent examples; numerous others could be cited.
A cursory glance through one’s Facebook news feed often reveals the latest iteration of folks expressing offense and outrage at the words or actions of someone, however minor or obscure.
Call it the social media version of sensationalized journalism or coffee shop gossip – “Can you believe what so and so said, did?”
I’m neither defending nor affirming the public figures I’ve referenced.
And I’m not suggesting that all instances are equal – critique and condemnation of harmful words and deeds are necessary.
Some comments or actions move beyond a minor faux pas to an egregious error over which a person is rightly confronted.
There is a difference, to offer a contemporary example, between comments made by GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump and those of Jeb Bush.
Trump said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
To his credit, he added, “And some, I assume, are good people.” Yet Trump declined on multiple occasions and platforms to retract, or to qualify in a substantive way, his statement. In fact, he repeated similar comments a few weeks later.
Bush, by contrast, apologized and refined his intended meaning soon after the event, emphasizing that he supports funding for women’s health but not Planned Parenthood’s abortion initiatives.
This position is understandable and widely held by a diverse group across the U.S.
Yet, as Willy Geist rightly observed in a segment on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” “The follow up correction from the Bush campaign will not live on, but we know that sound bite will, in 30-second ads and on and on.”
To help quench the fires of division that plague our society, people of goodwill must model a better path: offering civil responses rooted in compassion and grace.
We must refuse to extract the most obscure, miniscule, decontextualized statements or actions to use against others, especially when the person is apologetic.
We must also proclaim that critique, when necessary, should have a larger purpose.
The Hebrew prophets were audacious and unrelenting in their critique of words and deeds that they deemed to be destructive, unjust and contrary to the will of God. Yet their goal was repentance, change.
Too often the rhetoric from both the far left and far right, in both politics and religion, appears to have no larger goal than condemnation.
Too often there is no recognizable hope expressed for the person or group to change their ways.
The purpose, it seems, is to make oneself appear more righteous and honorable than the one being critiqued.
The Bible frequently emphasizes the need to be careful with our words (see Proverbs 17:28; Proverbs 18:20-21; Matthew 12:36; Matthew 15:11; Ephesians 4:29; James 3:9-10).
Public figures need to be diligent in applying this wisdom, and the public is right to hold them accountable for the manner in which they use their words.
But we must also apply these texts to ourselves, by speaking out against improper behavior in a manner that seeks repentance and change, not merely shame and condemnation. Otherwise, we deserve the same critique we are offering.