Gospel Civility and Joe Wilson’s Outburst

Gospel Civility and Joe Wilson’s Outburst September 10, 2009

I couldn’t help but see today’s reading from Morning Prayer (1 Peter 4:8-11a; Thursday of the 23rd week in Ordinary Time, Psalter Week III) in light of Rep. Joe Wilson’s memorable outburst (“You lie!”) during President’s Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress last night.

Let your love for one another be constant, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be mutually hospitable without complaining. As generous distributors of God’s manifold grace, put your gifts at the service of one another, each in the measure he [sic] has received. The one who speaks is to deliver God’s message. The one who serves is to do it with the strength provided by God. Thus, in all of you God is to be glorified through Jesus Christ.

Is that what Rep. Wilson was doing when he shouted at the President last night? (Nevermind that his outrage was apparently based on rumors that President Obama’s plan might mean undocumented workers would receive health coverage; heaven forbid that we heal the sick without concern for national boundaries.)

It seems to me that this Gospel message has been lost in the rancor over health care reform, fueled mostly by rightwing pundits and politicians. Civility and mutual respect are not just markers of our civic religion and a mature society; they are also central to Christian life.

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  • Mark DeFrancisis

    Thank you for this post.

    I too lament the signs of the erosion of civility and respect in our public life and political discourse and was meaning to do a post on this very incident/topic.

  • I have problem with a good robust back-and-forth debate, the kind you see every day in the House of Commons. I’ve always thought that Americans take these things too seriously, which means that journalists are too deferential to ask demanding questions of leading politicians. Remember Irish journalist Carol Coleman’s interview with Bush a few years ago? She refused to let avoid answering the question, and he got pissed. And yet this was nothing out of the ordinary for Iriah political debate.

    None of this should be read as any defense of Wilson. His problem was not his lack of decorum, but his whoelsale embrace of modern GOP nihilism — throw bombs, tell lies, play to your fan base, generally act like a fratboy in a room of adults.

  • standmickey

    I’m grateful for Wilson’s outburst, if only because Pelosi and Biden’s expressions were priceless!

  • Mark DeFrancisis

    “His problem was not his lack of decorum, but his whoelsale embrace of modern GOP nihilism — throw bombs, tell lies, play to your fan base, generally act like a fratboy in a room of adults.”

    Precisely. Wilson is the male counterpart to S. Palin, the darling girl of the present-day GOP.

  • dp

    Is it any less civil for the President to call his opponents liars in prepared remarks?

  • Pinky

    I didn’t see the incident. But even as I read this post, the thought echoed in my head: “the way the Left showed Bush respect for eight years?!?”.

    That’s the wrong way to think, and I know it. We’ve been in a slide in our national discourse since the 1960’s, and without idealizing American politics before then, this has been a pretty long and deep slide. The only way out of it is for everyone to step up. We need to call our own political allies to task, because across-the-aisle complaints will go unnoticed.

  • awakaman

    Here is another example of an individual failing to show “Gospel Civility”

    “Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”

    Matthew 21:12-13

    This person should have engaged in civil discourse with these individuals and shown them the error of their ways. Most certainly he should not have tossed these individuals out of the Church (hell he might even have said they were not entitled to receive communion or a Christain Burial). I hope Christ and the apostles set him straight.

  • I didn’t see the incident. But even as I read this post, the thought echoed in my head: “the way the Left showed Bush respect for eight years?!?”.

    This comment and the one by awakaman show that the problem is, of course, not the lack of civility that this bozo rep. demonstrated. Apart from context, Pinky and awakaman would be quite right in saying that there is some hypocrisy going on. What they neglect to include in the conversation is the kind of politics being advocated in all of these situations.

    It is right for Christians to step out of the bounds established by “civil” discourse when death dealing politics are being advocated. (So it is just as correct to talk about the need for Gospel UNcivility as it is for Gospel civility!) This is, of course, the context surrounding Jesus’ action in the temple, as well as the many instances of Bush protests. But Joe Wilson’s outburst bears no similarity whatsoever to the outbursts of Bush opponents or those of Jesus of Nazareth. Only mindless inattention to context would enable one to make such a ridiculous insinuation.

    The context of Joe Wilson’s outburst was not only uncivil, but rooted in a defensive and paranoid reaction to someone challenging his death dealing political preferences. Wilson’s “uncivility” merely underscores the uncivility and inhumanity of his political views and those of his party.

    So no, no hypocrisy here to speak of on the part of those condemning Wilson. They are right to condemn his uncivility. And with attention to the context, it’s clear they should be condemning him for even more than that.

  • Did any Democratic member of Congress scream at Bush and call him a liar in one of these public addresses, when Bush actually was lying about the reasons for the Iraq war? I don’t think so.

  • No of course not. They have him standing O’s, just like they gave to Obama.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Morning’s Minion writes September 10, 2009 at 2:11 pm
    “Did any Democratic member of Congress scream at Bush and call him a liar in one of these public addresses, when Bush actually was lying about the reasons for the Iraq war? I don’t think so”.

    So the measure of behavior should be whether “the other guys” did it or not.

    Beneath the complaints about incivility should be the question: did he lie?

  • standmickey

    “Beneath the complaints about incivility should be the question: did he lie?”

    Who? Bush? If you are talking about Bush, the answer to your question is a bit fat “Yes.”

    As for Obama, his statement about illegal immigrants not being covered by the bill was true. In fact, they are specifically prohibited from buying into a public option and from receiving any subsidies to buy private insurance under the plan.

    Now, the previous statement, in which he claimed that the bill would not cover abortions, was not true.

  • Mark DeFrancisis

    Why did Congressman Wilson break all decorum, rudely shout out and falsely accuse Obama of lying about the coverage of illegal immigrants? Clearly, Obama’s plan or, any of the Democratic plans that are now in or past committee) makes provisions to prevent the coverage of illegal immigrants.

    Could it be that some Republican congresspeople (himself included) have been milking during this town-hall season((this past August)the xenophobia and general paranoia that sadly exist in many pockets of our country, for pure political gain?

  • phosphorious

    Conservatives can’t seem to make up their mind:

    was the unprecedented breach of decorum justified because Obama is an unprecedented liar?

    Or

    Wsa the breach of decorum no owrse than what the democrats gave Bush.

    Either way, expect them to brush aside criticism.

  • Kari J. Lundgren

    I think it’s important to note that civility isn’t about ‘playing nice’. It’s about mutual respect. The real problem with Joe Wilson’s outburst is the broader trend it signifies in our public discourse: shouting matches taking the place of reasoned debate. Thoughtful debate can be vigorous, but it ultimately respects the opposing side. But the kind of heckling that has characterized the health care debate in this country is not thoughtful, and it’s based on disrespect and demonization. Insofar as the Left has engaged in similar tactics, it’s just as much a problem and a sign of a societal malaise. But I think it’s fair to say that the Right has been dominant on that front recently.

  • Kurt

    Joe Wilson has apologied for his uncivil and rude behavior, so I don’t understand those who are being more Joe Wilson than Joe Wilson.

    And the President, acting in a Christ-like manner, accepted the apology.

  • Kurt – True. The deeper problem is this, which Kari gets exactly right:

    Nevermind that his outrage was apparently based on rumors that President Obama’s plan might mean undocumented workers would receive health coverage; heaven forbid that we heal the sick without concern for national boundaries.

  • Wilson may be thinking of a bigger issue than whether the proposed programs cover illegals….he may be thinking the observation is a moot point.
    Illegals are covered now or in the future….not by the proposed plans but by government reimbursements to hospitals for treating the indigent or by hospitals raising their other fees to other patients to cover illegals coming to the emergency room as indigent;but some of those indigent are sending money home to Mexico while receiving the medical care which comes from all of us. It is partly made up for by illegals paying sales taxes and social security taxes that will go to others. But I suspect no one is doing a bottom line accounting of the net effect in detail so that some web sites will allege a bottom line cost to all of us and others will allege a bottom line surplus. Only detailed facts of an exhaustive nature would settle it and probably no one is doing that but a Federal office should be doing that with the aim of billing Mexico, an oil producing country and a country which is upper middle income but with great discrepancies in income. Billing them would help close the Mexican income gap. Were they fleeing to us from a broke country, that would be different. They are not. They are fleeing a country that has money that is unevenly distributed. Bill them.

  • Pinky

    Michael – Civility is unnecessary if you’re right? What kind of a world would such thinking lead to?

    Minion – Bush was uncivilly booed during his 2005 State of the Union speech.

  • Andrew Sullivan points out that – for all the give and take in the House of Commons – members are not permitted to accuse each other of lying. Other banned words: “blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, rat, swine, stoolpigeon and traitor”.

  • Pinky – Read what I actually wrote and when you think you can accurately represent it, feel free to initiate conversation with me about it.

  • Pinky

    Michael, I think I did. You said that context dictates whether Gospel civility or Gospel incivility is the right course. You did provide a criterion for making that decision, which I didn’t note. But ultimately, you reserve for yourself the right to determine whether civility is warranted. Disagreement over particular health insurance policies is, by your standards, not only outside of civility; it’s inhuman.

  • But the criterion is precisely point of what I said above. How convenient of you to leave it out.

  • And you are wrong: you did not accurately represent what I wrote at all. Nor did you do so in your follow-up comment.

  • Pinky

    Your criterion is “death dealing political preferences”, correct? It’s awfully broad to consider disagreement about whether the current proposals in Congress would require proof of citizenship to increase the availability of medical care for illegal immigrants, in those aspects of care which they don’t currently receive, and outside of those aspects which the current legislation doesn’t address, as “death dealing”. By such broad standards, what debate wouldn’t you place outside the realm of civil discussion? Is tort reform death-dealing? Or purchase of interstate insurance policies? Preventative medicine? Exact levels of funding for cancer research?

    Does this seem like too much power for you to have?

  • awakaman

    MM:

    Democrats may not have shouted out “liar liar pants on fire” during his public addresses which constantly urged the expansion of the “War on Terror”. But the country would have been in a lot better shape if they had.

    The underlying issue is not the attack on the President’s health care agenda, rather it considered an attack on an increasingly imperial presidency, which I think is a good thing. Modern Presidents (Republican & Democrats) are more and more being viewed as revered heads of states, symbols of their nation, much as are the Kings and Queens of Europe or presidents of other nations but who are not also the head of government, but unlike these figureheads the U.S. President has and has been accumulating more and more power (at the expense of the other two branches of government) since the time of Lincoln.

    Politicians love to urge civility between each other and from their constituents. But, they have no problem with treating their constituency in a demeaning and condecending manner or totally ignroing or exempting themselves from laws the rest of us little people are expected to follow. Increasingly civility means nothing more than treat us with the respect our position as a federal oficial (or former federal official) deserves and don’t dare get angry with us when all we want to do is lecture to you about the wonderful things we are doing on your behalf. When you point out that we have failed to follow through on campaign promises or acted or said things that are contray to what we are saying now then don’t dare get angry with us or call us “liars” – that is just down right uncivil.

    Michael:

    You state that uncivility is justified when involved in deathdealing situations . . . such as tossing the money changers out of the Temple . . . how so, death dealing to the birds? What about revolutions, e.g., the American Revolution, that was uncivil discourse taken to the extreme, was that justified given that it was primarily about issues such as taxation and limitations on the colonists ability to travel westward due to treaties the British had made with the Indians.

  • Kurt

    Disagreement over particular health insurance policies is, by your standards, not only outside of civility; it’s inhuman.

    That is not even in the same ballpark as the situation at hand.

    1. The accusation (“liar”) was a moral one. It is dependent on the accusor to know the person was willfully telling a mistruth. The outburst was not “you are mistaken”, “that is not true” or “I disagree”.

    2. The President was speaking. It was not a discussion. The Gentleman was free not to attend the event. He had no moral right to heckle it.

    Had he been in the gallery, he would have been expelled by the Capitol Police.

  • Pinky

    Kurt, I’m not sure if you’re disagreeing with me or with Michael.

  • Here is how it works.

    Rob Miller (D) is challenging Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) in next year’s election. Since last night when Wilson called the President a liar, Miller has raised over $400,000 for his congressional campaign.

    The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is likewise using Wilson’s “outburst” to raise money for purposes of targeting Members of Congress who are opposing health care reform. The DCCC plans on raising $100,000 in just 48 hours.

    Meanwhile, Rep. Wilson’s personal finances are beginning to draw attention.

    http://blogs.cqpolitics.com/notepad/2009/09/debtburdened-joe-wilson-amends.html

    This morning Rep jim Clyburn (D-SC), House Majority Whip, says Rep. Joe Wilson should stand in the well of the House Chamber and apologize for calling the President a liar during last night’s Joint Session.

    Clyburn says Wilson has taken the coward’s way out by merely calling the White House. He said Wilson should apologize at the place where the indiscretion was committed.

    Wilson has created a “bucket of hurt” for himself!

  • What a crock.

    Civility is a relative good.

  • Kurt, I’m not sure if you’re disagreeing with me or with Michael.

    He quoted you misrepresenting me. I guess he is disagreeing with you, not me. If he is disagreeing with me based on your representation of me, then he probably isn’t disagreeing with me at all.

    Civility is a relative good.

    Yes, it is. Though I think it is right to criticize the guy for what he did.

  • Mark DeFrancisis

    Rep. Joe Wilson is also known for his defense of the Confederate battle flag that was flying over the South Carolina statehouse.

  • You state that uncivility is justified when involved in deathdealing situations . . . such as tossing the money changers out of the Temple . . . how so, death dealing to the birds?

    The temple religious system was a system of wealth extraction, linked to the imperial system of wealth extraction. I’d be happy to provide you with some resources on this, but it looks to me like you’re more interested in being cute.

    What about revolutions, e.g., the American Revolution, that was uncivil discourse taken to the extreme, was that justified given that it was primarily about issues such as taxation and limitations on the colonists ability to travel westward due to treaties the British had made with the Indians.

    The american revolution was not a just war.

  • Pinky

    Michael, I’m new around here. Every website has a different rythym, and while I do think that I was fair to your position, I was maybe too aggressive. Sorry.

    I think it’s right to criticize Wilson for what he did, too.

  • Gabriel Austin

    standmickey September 10, 2009 at 2:21 pm
    “Beneath the complaints about incivility should be the question: did he lie?”

    “Who? Bush? If you are talking about Bush, the answer to your question is a bit fat “Yes.”
    “Now, the previous statement, in which [Mr. Obama] claimed that the bill would not cover abortions, was not true”.

    That is to say, he lied.

  • Interestingly, Congressman Wilson’s “arrow of love” did not constitute uncivil behavior. I’ve written about this specific point at http://www.collapseofcivility.com.

    What I appreciate in this post is that Kari Lundgren actually addresses the true incivility. If we reject the political debate and rhetoric on the subject of health care as a distraction, and step away from our own ideological bias, what are we called to do? Aren’t we called to provide for and help the sick, the lost, the dying, the orphans? Is that calling directed to be the helping only of certain class, type or nationality?

    Name calling on the Senate floor is common. Higher crimes and misdemeanors have taken place in these chambers. While rude, Wilson was not uncivil. The event serves as a convenient distraction to keep us from facing the ugly truths and difficult choices that we must make.

    Isn’t letting people suffer or die, when we have been mandated to provide the relief they seek – isn’t that uncivilized?

  • Gabriel Austin

    Michael J. Iafrate writesSeptember 10, 2009 at 11:39
    “You state that uncivility is justified when involved in deathdealing situations . . . such as tossing the money changers out of the Temple . . . how so, death dealing to the birds?
    “The temple religious system was a system of wealth extraction, linked to the imperial system of wealth extraction. I’d be happy to provide you with some resources on this…

    “but it looks to me like you’re more interested in being cute”.

    Pots and kettles comes to mind.

  • “but it looks to me like you’re more interested in being cute”.

    Pots and kettles comes to mind.

    Thanks for the compliment but I’m married.

  • Francis

    Wilson demonstrated the hate and division which now dominates discourse, especially on talk radio. The smooth talkers there have convinced their listeners that they are not ignorant, scared, limited people about to be left behind by a global economy; rather, they are freedon fighters protecting liberty. Wilson was supremely uncouth but it was good politics, in the same way that every time Palin utters a new inanity her poll numbers go up.

  • Pat

    Artificial speeches at artificial ceremonies may well deserve higher scrutiny than the ordinary off the cuff remark by Presidents, and in an address to both houses of Congress, why would citizens be complicit in allowing Congress to be on their best behavior and remain silent when that is most likely the only public forum in which a President can be challenged by Congress?

    Is it what he says or doesn’t say that provokes such an outburst?

    Isn’t it possible that a Congressional elector has an obligation not to be silent if lies are told at the podium just as they would be if they are told on a one to one basis?

    Should the Congress sit still while being told lies?
    Public decorum demands that knowledge be brought to the chamber as well as good behavior. Can knowledge be ignored in favor of appearances, for the sake of misrepresentation?

  • Kurt

    No decent, Christian mother would raise a child to behave like Mr. Wilson did.