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Accountability needed on all sides in restoring civility, Land says

WASHINGTON (BP)–A debate on civility in the public square would be successful if the conflicting sides in American society could hold both their allies and adversaries accountable for their behavior, Southern Baptist ethics agency head Richard Land said Jan. 26 at a panel discussion on Capitol Hill.
Speaking at a national religious leaders summit on “civility in public discourse” sponsored by The Interfaith Alliance, Land said he hoped the discussions would result in “some guidelines to direct us.”
He hopes “we could not only challenge each other when we feel like those guidelines have not been met, but that we challenge those who are our friends on the various sides when they engage in activities or make statements that we feel fall short of dealing with issues rather than dissing people,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
The summit was the first of a series planned by The Interfaith Alliance. Local summits are tentatively scheduled in nine other cities in the country, including one Jan. 28 in Nashville, Tenn. The scandal surrounding President Clinton’s behavior in the White House and the tone of the impeachment debate demonstrate the depth of the problem, said TIA Executive Director C. Welton Gaddy.
“We have to learn to practice civility even when emotions are enflamed, when partisan loyalties are challenged and when constitutional principles are at stake,” Gaddy said at the summit.
The Washington-based alliance, which was established in 1994 as a response to the Christian Coalition and other conservative religious organizations, has frequently staked out liberal positions on policy issues. The panel for the summit was dominated by religious leaders who normally hold liberal political or theological views. Land was an exception.
Martin Marty, author and director of the public religion project at the University of Chicago, said he hoped there would be “a lot of Richard Lands at these things.”
His picture of the culture is of “two mesas with a big valley” in between and artillery on both sides, Marty said. There needs to be a “crisscrossing” between both sides, he said.
Land said the country is “in the midst of having a very necessary and a very important debate about where America should go in the future.” The debate is often conducted in a “very unnecessary and very destructive manner, and I think there’s enough blame to go around,” he said.
To the extent TIA can involve evangelical Christians, he hopes “there would come to be … a broad understanding that the [religious right is] a far broader group, far more diverse group than some think, at least as broad as” the religious left, Land said.
Panelists seemed in agreement people could strongly disagree with others while remaining civil in their disagreements. Respectful treatment of a person holding a different position and a refusal to question his motives were mentioned as marks of civility.
Rep. Tom Sawyer, D.-Ohio, a respondent to the panel, said it is possible to “acknowledge the authenticity” of an opposing view without “acknowledging its validity.”
Civility “does not mean forfeiting” passion for a position, said David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Saperstein mentioned three rules to follow on civility:
— Speak in positive terms and offer solutions.
— When it is necessary to be negative, target ideas.
— Only under the most extreme situation be negative about a person.
Saperstein and others cited the example of Martin Luther King Jr., the slain civil rights leader. King “disparaged segregation while loving the segregationist,” Saperstein said.
Robert Drinan, a Catholic priest and a former congressman from Massachusetts, and Land both quoted King’s observation that those whom a person would change he “must first love.”
They disagreed on some things, however, during the three-hour discussion.
When Rep. Amo Houghton, R.-N.Y., equated civility with healing, Drinan said there were some things he was angry about he did not want to be healed of. Drinan said there were some issues he was upset about, such as the United States’ failure to join in an effort to ban land mines and to increase its foreign aid.
Drinan called the Christian Coalition “insolent” and charged the organization with implying those who disagree are not Christians. The Christian Coalition is a “permanent … unjust element in the electorate,” he said.
He has a “blind spot,” Land told Drinan.
“People criticized the Moral Majority for using the term Moral Majority and [said], ‘Does that mean the rest of us are immoral?’ They founded a counter-organization called People for the American Way, which would by the same logic imply people who disagree with them are un-American,” Land said.
“Already this morning we’ve heard about the radical religious right,” Land said, referring to a comment by Drinan. “There is a radical religious left. It’s been around just as long” as the religious right. The religious left has been “involved in politics a lot longer than the religious right,” Land said.
Other panelists were John Anderson, former Republican congressman and a presidential candidate in 1980; James Forbes, pastor of The Riverside Church in New York City; Azizah Al-Hibri, a Muslim and a law professor at the University of Richmond, and Jane Holmes Dixon, a bishop in the Episcopal diocese of Washington.
The alliance has tentatively scheduled summits in Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; Manchester, N.H.; New York City; Orlando, Fla.; San Francisco; and Seattle.
Gaddy, who became TIA’s executive director last year, is a former Southern Baptist pastor and moderate leader in the convention. He is president of the Alliance of Baptists, which was started in response to the SBC’s conservative direction.