The Need for Civility in an Uncivil World
By The Hon. James A. Baker, III
Remarks of The Hon. James A. Baker, III given on Oct. 10, 2017. Printed as prepared for presentation with permission from Secretary Baker.
I have been asked to speak tonight about the need for civility in an uncivil world.
It is a complicated question, one that robustly challenges Christians because it puts us directly in the crosshairs of a critical theological question: How do we reconcile our Christian desire to confront what we consider wrongdoing in the world with Our Lord’s endorsement of tolerance toward others?
Further, it is a complicated question at a time when many of our values are being challenged by today’s culture. Basic Judeo Christian values that were generally accepted during the first two hundred years in America are now being questioned. How do we deal with this situation?
As I consider my response, I want to make it clear that I’m no theologian and this question is probably above my paygrade!
But I am a former public servant, an attorney, a father, a grandfather and a great grandfather who is now in my 88th year. And I suspect that the some of the same things that have become apparent to me are also apparent to many of you here tonight.
The world, it seems is going through a tectonic transformation — one that brings tremendous opportunities. And with them, great risks.
In many ways, the future looks brighter than ever.
Technology and science are marching at the fastest paces in world history. The innovation that accompanies these advances simply boggle the mind and test the imagination. Smart phones instantly connect us with one another around the world. Mankind will be heading to Mars by 2030. And long before then, most of us will have self-driving cars.
Our health is better than ever before. Globally, we are living twice as long today as we did less than century ago. And the average life expectancy continues to rise.
Wealth, meanwhile, is spreading around the globe as more and more countries adopt America’s successful paradigms of democratic governance and free-market economics. Last year, the World Bank announced that a smaller percentage of the world’s population lived below the extreme poverty line than at any other time in recorded history.
And if you can pull your attention away from the constant deluge of negative news, you might be surprised to learn that we are living in one of the most peaceful times during the past century. The annual global death rate due to war is down from an average of 22 deaths per 100,000 people during the Cold War years to 1.4 deaths per 100,000 in 2014, the latest year with complete numbers.
Yes, there are risks in the world today. Global climate change, nuclear proliferation and radical Islamic terrorism are three, to name just a few. And violence and economic disparity remain difficult challenges around the world.
On balance, however, more people may be living in relative peace, better health and greater prosperity than during any other time in world history.
At the same time, sadly, our own country is going through a period of great civil unrest, perhaps the most toxic I have experienced in my life. The tenor of our national discourse is tinged with an aggressive anger and a virulent rhetoric that threatens our society. We seem to prefer arguing over statues and other symbols of the past rather than building projects for our future.
When you open the newspapers or watch television, it’s sometimes hard not to cringe at the bankruptcy of our public debate. We hear shrill cries for the removal of the Jefferson Monument because that Founding Father owned slaves. We are scolded that “safe places” are needed on college campuses to protect our student’s from discussions they don’t agree with.
America’s national ideal of e pluribus unum—“out of many, one”—threatens to become a hollow slogan as jaded Americans constantly are confronted by tidal waves of animus from their televisions and smartphones.
The practice of identity politics increasingly divided us along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual identity. Countless demagogues stand ready to exploit those differences. When a sports reporter of Asian heritage is removed from his assignment because his name — Robert Lee — resembles the name of Robert E. Lee, it shows the insanity of the principal of “political correctness.”
The one thing that has united us in the past has been love of country, patriotism and respect for our flag and our national anthem. Now, it seems, some believe it is ok to disrespect those symbols in order to call attention to grievances they hold. Obviously, they have a constitutional right to do that. But doing so risks unraveling what in the past has unified us.
Symbolic of our national anger is the partisan animosity between Republicans and Democrats that has brought Washington to a standstill. We can’t seem to get anything done because our government isn’t working for us.
These divisions are real. In our national politics, and particularly in Washington maintaining lines of civil and constructive communication seems increasingly more difficult.
There are, of course, several reasons for our hyper-partisan political environment:
• First, there is a redistricting process that pushes congressional districts to the fringes of the political spectrum. As result, the reasonable center is being squeezed out of our politics. The art of compromise is now missing from our polity.
• Second, there is the simple fact that we live in a fairly evenly divided red-state, blue-state country, with the two sides seeing the world through vastly different prisms. The problems confronting a Democrat on Chicago’s South Side are different than the ones facing a Texas Panhandle Republican.
• Third, our rapidly developing social media lowers our national debate into an angry brawl. Through social media, people throw the wildest allegations against the wall to see which ones stick. Further, the spreading of fake news via social media undermines real news, and creates a jaundiced society that doesn’t know who or what to believe.
• And fourth and finally, the press no longer objectively reports facts but rather acts as an advocate and player in our political debate. If you watch FOX, you think you’re watching the house organ of the Republican Party. And if you watch MSNBC, you know you’re watching the house organ of the Democratic Party!
So what can we do to revive the type of bipartisanship that is necessary for our government to accomplish anything for the American people?
In Washington, it will take leadership in both parties! Republicans and Democrats will have to, once again, work together and compromise if they want to get things done.
But all Americans must also shoulder some of the responsibility. Each of us needs to look inside our own heart.
The harshness of our political debate has been matched elsewhere in our national discourse. It is becoming uglier and more crass. The norms dictating decent behavior are eroding; and it seems that we’ve lost sight of the basic regard we owe our fellow men and women.
Rather than blame others for our myriad of problems, we should recognize that in a democracy, no one side gets to make all of the rules.
Our country has survived and thrived for so long, in large part, because we have learned how to work together on important issues. Compromise in a democracy is essential. Our Founding Fathers differed on many issues, but they worked out compromises to define our core principles that still hold today.
As followers of Jesus Christ, when thinking about our role in society today, it’s important to ask ourselves, “What Would Jesus Do?” How did Jesus respond to the chaos of the day and the lifestyles that were antithetical to his morals?
He looked at people with hope, whoever they were. And all were invited to follow him — the good Jew AND the hated Samaritan. He says in the book of John, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Jesus didn’t focus on the political upheaval of the day, but on each individual’s heart. He calls us to love God with all of our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that our neighbor is not just someone we agree with. Our neighbor is everyone with whom we have contact. He teaches us NOT to judge others, but to examine our own hearts and repent of our wrongdoing.
Jesus challenges us to love our enemies, to do good for them, and to forgive those who have wronged us. He cautions that if we aren’t willing to forgive others, God can’t forgive us.
In politics, compromise is essential. But being a practicing Christian requires us to be respectful of our neighbor even when compromise is not possible.
Working hard for our political beliefs and values is very important, but it is more important to never lose sight of walking in the light of Jesus.
Thankfully, we have been given the Good News that Jesus will never leave us or forsake us, and we have also been given prayer as the way to live. We are continually told to pray in both the Old and the New Testaments.
And in Second Chronicles it says, “If MY people who are called by name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
We have work to do in the civic arena, but we also have much work to do in our hearts if our land is to be healed.
When we look at our world in the context of our faith, we could despair if we didn’t know about God’s grace and mercy. The bottom line for us Christians, however, is that we are called to show grace and mercy–even to our philosophical opponents–just as we ourselves are shown mercy.
And so, when someone makes a point, listen to it, regardless of how incorrect it may seem to you. Don’t discount people just because you don’t agree with what they say. Or the way they look. Or where they live.
Listening is an important part of learning about one another. And in this country, we need to do more of that, and do less of the screeching that too many people today think passes as discourse.
Ladies and gentlemen . . .
During the six weeks since Hurricane Harvey hammered the area, Houston has demonstrated many of the attributes I’ve been talking about. In the midst of the biggest crisis our community has ever experienced, we stopped being Democrat or Republican . . . rich or poor . . . black, white, or brown . . . Christian, Muslim, or Jew.
Instead, we’ve all been Houstonians — first, and foremost. With the single focus of restoring and healing our community, we’ve prayed for one another, we’ve helped one another and we’ve looked out for one another.
And as Russ has pointed out, our church has led the way.
This dynamic and broad-gauged response by Houstonians has been simply remarkable. And it is precisely what we need nationally.
Yes, we have many differences among us here in Houston — just as we do in Texas and across the nation.
But in the end, we are all Americans living in the very finest country in the world — the country everyone wants to come to, and no one wants to leave.
Realizing and respecting that phenomenon is what unifies us when times get tough.
It SHOULD unify us ALL the time.
James A. Baker, III has served in senior government positions under three United States presidents. He served as the nation’s 61st secretary of state from January 1989 through August 1992 under President George H.W. Bush. Baker served as the 67th secretary of the treasury from 1985 to 1988 under President Ronald Reagan. As treasury secretary, he was also chairman of the President’s Economic Policy Council. From 1981 to 1985, he served as White House chief of staff to President Reagan. Baker’s record of public service began in 1975 as under secretary of commerce to President Gerald Ford. It concluded with his service as White House chief of staff and senior counselor to President Bush from August 1992 to January 1993.
Baker was born in Houston, Texas, in 1930. He and his wife, the former Susan Garrett, currently reside in Houston.