Civil discourse: Can religion help?

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 20, 2012 - 10:58 AM
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The Rev. Peg Chemberlin, Executive Director of the Minnesota Council of Churches.

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Addressing a crowd at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs recently, the Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told a story about the now-defunct “Civility Project.”

That bipartisan project folded last year after only three of 585  political leaders (535 congressional leaders, 50 governors) signed the following pledge:

“I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them. I will stand against incivility when I see it.”

Anderson was one of two Minnesota clergy, each with national prominence, invited to  address the question: “How can our religious institutions and leaders reduce partisan animosity and arrogance?”

“We cannot unilaterally depolarize politics or eliminate incivility,” said Anderson, the recently retired pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie. “But we can help. We can do our part.”

Also speaking was the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, past president of the National Council of Churchesand executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches.

“In order for Christians and Christian institutions to lead toward civility and away from antagonism in the public square, we have to be in the public square and value democracy,” she said.

The event marked the fourth annual lecture honoring John Brandl, the former dean of the Humphrey School, who died in 2008. Sponsors were the  Caux Round Table, Center of  the American Experiment, Growth & Justice, Citizens League, Minnesota Free Market Institute, Minnesota Council of Churches and Transform Minnesota.

Chemberlin asked evocative questions of the audience. Can Democracy be valued as an act of faith? Is there a theology of democracy that encourages citizenship and allows for civility?

“Let me be clear, my God is my highest value — higher than my country, higher than my political philosophy, higher than any party, or any political issue,” she said.

Each speaker said their faith compelled them to work for the common good. Anderson cited his organization’s support for Catholic bishops in the recent birth control flap with the Obama administration.

In speaking out for others, he spoke of the need to go beyond one’s constituency.

“I was one of the first to speak to the national press about the church in Florida that threatened to burn the Qur’an,” he said. “Not only did I receive appreciation from Muslims, but it also helped send a signal to American Christians that this was not acceptable behavior.”

Amen.

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Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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