Apr 12 2019
Americans don’t agree on many things these days, but according to a recent poll the vast majority of Americans (79 percent) are very concerned about the lack of civility in Washington.
I share this concern, but I also believe we need to set our sites a little higher if we really want to improve how we treat each other in this nation.
Arthur Brooks recently gave us this example: if someone asked you about your relationship with your spouse or child, and you answered, “we’re civil” – you’d see that as a big problem. If someone asked you what your coworkers or neighbors thought of you, and you answered “oh, they tolerate me” – you’d know that there is a serious issue.
Civility and tolerance just aren’t enough. As Americans, we owe it to ourselves and to each other to aspire to much more, and to much higher standards. In fact, what we ought to be aspiring to is love – patriotic and fraternal love of our neighbor, even when they disagree with us.
After all, civility is not the vine; it is the fruit. And severed from its root of fraternal love, it inevitably withers and dies. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, if we aim for love, we get civility thrown in; if we aim merely for civility, we’ll get neither. We have only to spend a few minutes on social media to find evidence of that.
To a political community today beset by division, hostility, and rancor, a call to love our countrymen as ourselves might sound radical. But then again, so did Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
And so did the early Christians. The third century Christian theologian Tertullian described the way that the pagans were struck by the witness of Christian love: “see how they love one another,” they marveled. But the radical message of the gospel changed pagan Rome, then the rest of the world for 2,000 years, up to and including the Founding of our exceptional republic.
Thankfully, one of the ways in which it influenced the founding of our republic – and one of the things that makes it exceptional – is our Constitution’s absolute commitment to religious liberty, which is indispensable to keeping a healthy republic.
If the work of civility and civic health is ultimate a project of fraternal love between citizens, their nation, and their God, the law must protect the space between the isolated individual and the overpowering state. Because it is in that space where citizens can express their faith, hope, and charity in the public square. It is what we call “civil society” – the space where we both make a living and build a life, but also where improve the lives of those around us.
Unfortunately, as the federal government has grown bigger and stronger, it has encroached into this space. It has begun to crowd out and interfere with the vital institutions of families, churches, and communities – the institutions that make living the ideals of civic virtue possible.
And so I believe that a big part of my job is to make sure that these institutions have the space and the freedom to carry out their good work and build up our civil society. I will continue to strive for that goal as long as I serve in the United States Senate.
In this work, I also believe that the “why” is just as important as the “what.” The reason we have a republic, the reason we fight to protect religious liberty, and the reason we are called to love our neighbors is the innate dignity of each individual person.
There is much that remains to be done, but with this principle as our starting point – and by keeping the end in mind – I believe there is much we can accomplish together.
If we truly want to restore our civic health, we must have the courage to aim much higher than mere civility: we must love our neighbor as ourselves. Our republic depends on it.