Review: James Calvin Davis, “In Defense of Civility”

Title: In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues that Divide Us
Author: James Calvin Davis
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
Genre: Religion/Politics
Year: 2010
Pages: 198
ISBN13: 9780664235444
Binding: Paperback
Price: 19.95

The subtitle of James Calvin Davis’s new book In Defense of Civility describes an audacious pipe dream. If the book aims to tell readers “How Religion can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us” I would be satisfied with a book that resolves a single divisive issue! Nevertheless, given the recently heated political climate I thought it might be well to think about a less-discussed virtue of civic engagement: civility.

As it turns out, Davis is not offering simple resolutions for divisive issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and environmentalism. To the contrary, he bluntly states that “civility cannot guarantee consensus on any issue” (160). Instead, Davis seeks first to describe and justify an ethic of civil public dialog and second, to embody the ethic by describing seven particularly sticky moral/political issues. Above all Davis underscores not merely the legitimacy, but also the potential benefits of recognizing religious perspectives in the public sphere. My review of his book comes too late to assist in the recent political hullabaloo; things tend to get especially rancorous during election season. However, the book provides crucial food for thought for those reflecting on the tone of political dialog generally, those who aren’t waiting for another election year to care about the political process, and those who think religion deserves either a stronger or weaker presence in political discussions.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one, “Public Religion and the American Moral Tradition,” lays the historical groundwork by discussing the roots of religion’s role in American politics. With all due respect to the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Davis challenges the claim that America is a “Christian nation” by pointing out that “many of the most prominent men responsible for the new government professed beliefs that hardly resembled traditional Christianity” (25). After describing what Jon Meacham has elsewhere called the “American Gospel,”1 Davis warns against misapplying “the designs of eighteenth-century patriots (however we understand them) to our very different twenty-first-century political culture” (31).

Davis also cautions against invoking the “wall of separation” argument in attempts to exclude religion from political discussion. Historically speaking, the wall has been somewhat “porous” (37), Davis explains, citing many examples which “involve regular Americans contributing” to crucial debates on issues like slavery “from explicitly religious perspectives and in intentionally religious language” (47).

In the final chapter of part one Davis admits that arguing to include religion in public debate “is a harder sell in the highly diverse society we live in today.” Some seek to exile religion on the grounds that it is a “conversation stopper” (54). Religious perspectives are too divisive or too stupid to make any positive impact, they argue. Many issues being debated, Davis counters, are morally grounded, and religious discussion can rightfully be brought to bear on them as much as any other world-view. In a particularly relevant section of the book, Davis outlines the type of religious argument which is guaranteed to be a “conversation stopper.”

Party A Claim: Bald assertion: Abortion is wrong because the Bible says so.

Party B Response: “So what? The Bible holds no authority over me.”

End of discussion.

Davis concludes:

The mistake that secular liberals [and, I would argue, some religiously inclined folk] often make, however, is assuming that this is the only form a religious argument can take…If they are not open to reason, they cannot contribute meaningfully to conversation among a religiously and philosophically diverse public (60).

Davis again provides examples of religious thinkers who were capable of making “reasonable” and “accessible” arguments in the public sphere. Faith and reason need not exclude each other. Davis hopes to foster an attitude of mutual respect by distinguishing between being persuaded versus understanding an argument, and between understanding and accepting an argument. “If mutual respect simply requires that we work to make ourselves understood by others—and struggle to understand their points of view—then a religious argument can convey respect just as successfully as a nonreligious one” (61). Davis doesn’t stop at simply arguing for the propriety of religious arguments, but lists seven positive advantages in “a political environment that is open to religious reasoning” (63). Such advantages include an increased ability to critique moral conventions and a more open discussion of morals generally. (Morals are more often snuck in the back door of political conversation anyway through unstated assumptions.)

In sum: part one dissects myths on the right (America is a Christian nation, etc.) and left (Separation of church and state, etc.) and then examines what religious thinkers can offer in style and argument.2

In part two Davis attempts to exemplify the way religion can increase the quality of political discussion. He begins by “Rethinking the Big Four.” These chapters embody the tone of interchange described in part one while discussing abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia, and gay marriage (interestingly, Mormonism doesn’t come up in his same-sex marriage discussion).

In part three Davis takes readers “Beyond the Big Four” with discussions on war, environmentalism, and the economy. Perhaps the most fascinating should-have-been-obvious-why-didn’t-I-already-think-of-that point of the book is the strange classification system Americans seem to embrace regarding “moral” issues. He cites a 2004 National Election Poll in which voters were asked to name the “most important issue facing the country.” Davis explains:

The poll pitted “moral values” against war, terrorism, the environment, and the economy. Doing so implied that those other issues had nothing to do with “moral values”; they were topics of political or social importance, but they were not matters of ethics….But war is a profoundly moral issue, just as how we treat the natural world and how we deal with one another in our economic relationships are matters of great moral significance (117-118).

This section works well together with Davis’s earlier admonition to resist the myth that moral arguments exist only one side of any given debate, whether regarding abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, or capitalism (7).

Davis’s stirring concluding chapter is written “In Defense of Civility” (155). Here he defines “civility” as “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility, and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree” (159). Noting the tendency of radio and TV political coverage to favor “sexier news” over compromise and reasoned discussion, Davis still believes there are many who desire “a public dialogue that is patient, substantive, and subtle” (157). He carefully notes that he isn’t calling for “simple passivity, nicety, or acquiescence,” or that all conflict must be avoided. Pretending differences don’t exist is as fruitless as shouting about differences. More importantly, civility is not a magic ingredient: “civility cannot guarantee consensus on any issue” (160). But Davis, citing Os Guinness, believes it promises progress: “What we are looking for [in civility] is not so much truths that can unite us as terms on which we can negotiate and by which we can live with the differences that divide us” (161). Davis again invokes history for examples of of civility as a “consistent aspiration” of American leaders, albeit with imperfect execution (161). Davis encourages readers to encourage civility in the politicians to whom we write or interact with, the TV and radio programs we pay attention to, and the discussions we have with others in person, online, or anywhere else.

Rather than sounding like a whiny diatribe or a preachy soapbox sermon, Davis’s book is a reasoned description and example of the sort of civil discussion which can serve to enrich public discourse. There are a few blind spots (I would have liked a discussion of an organized religion’s right to promote political platforms, for example, or a description of tax exempt implications). Davis himself seems to lean slightly left of center on some issues and right of center on others. I hope this does not distract readers from the central purpose of the book, which isn’t to resolve policy issues, but to exemplify a civil and religiously inclusive discussion on them.

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PS- Davis’s book was barely off the press when new controversies regarding religion and politics erupted. Jana Reiss of “Flunking Sainthood” recently posted a piece by Davis called “Muslims, Puritans, and the Elusive Art of Civility.” It’s hard to tell if some of the more rancorous commenters following the article were trying to be ironic.

FOOTNOTES:
1. An accessible overview is Jon Meacham’s American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (Random House: 2006).

2.  Davis recognizes that each argument is not necessarily confined to the right or the left; this right/left construction favors more recent trends.

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  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/ JR

    Thanks for this thorough and thoughtful review. One of the things I most appreciate about Davis’s book is the way he strives to consider the best arguments from both the left and the right, and doesn’t resort to setting up strawmen (persyns of straw?) just to make one side appear more persuasive than the other.

    In a civil society, he says, this is what we must do: consider the best and most cogent arguments from all sides, even if — especially if — we disagree with them.


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