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Civil Discourse

Civil Discourse

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Category: Leading in Hope
In every election cycle I can recall, the talking heads of TV news have discussed "negative campaign ads" and "harsh rhetoric." Even before the Biden-Ryan sparring match and the more antagonistic tone of the second Obama-Romney exchange, Dan Rather had dubbed this election season "the worst."

It probably isn't. In the John Adams versus Thomas Jefferson election of 1800, then-President Adams' camp called Jefferson an atheist, a libertine, and a coward; they stumped with the claim that the election offered a choice between "God and a religious president, or Jefferson and no God!" The rumor was that Jefferson would gather and burn all the Bibles upon his second inauguration.

In response, then-Vice President Jefferson — it is the only time in U.S. history a sitting president and vice president ran against each other — countered in kind. His surrogates blasted Adams for his "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Once friends, the two became such again in post-election days.

More examples can be given, but this illustrates that mud-slinging and vitriol are anything but novel in political campaigns. And the politicians may have learned it from the clergy in the American colonies. Some of the anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic language that rang from pulpits went far beyond "insensitive." It was crude, inflammatory, and wicked. "Whore of Babylon," "Christ-killers," and "Anti-Christ" — these are some of the many epithets used from pulpits to poison minds and prejudice hearts. The Ku Klux Klan had roots in those pulpits.

So what's the point here? It certainly isn't to minimize or excuse the blood sport that American political campaigns has turned into. It is simply to put what is happening now into historical perspective. It is also to say that politics isn't the only sphere of life where the verbal bombast has become reckless and injurious.

It is time for all of us to step back. Take a deep breath. Look at politicians and preachers, family members and friends, co-workers and strangers through more respectful eyes. Stop trying to one-up everybody with a snappy — if also insulting and demeaning — one-liner. Strive for civility over disrespect.

Here is a worthy goal for all of us to embrace:

Don't use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them (Ephesians 4:29 NLT).

About the Author

Rubel Shelly
Rubel Shelly preached for the Woodmont Hills Church in Nashville for thirty years. He is the author of more than 20 books. He has accepted the position of President of Rochester College. For more details, click here or email Rubel.

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