I sat down the other night to zoom through some of my programs on DVR and came across the Sunday morning news show, This Week with Christiane Amanpour. She ran a special program on ‘God & Government’ and the role religion plays in public discourse.
The program had me hooked… religion, politics, civility… who could ask for more interesting topics? And with a lineup of individuals such as Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Franklin Graham, I knew I’d hear some pretty divergent viewpoints. And I did.
But the best part of the show was when a pastor I’d never heard of before, Pastor Timothy Keller of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, spoke about a conversation he’d had with his mother on politics and religion. Pastor Keller said his mother noticed a dramatic social shift in this country 15 years ago. She said it used to be that if you voted against someone and that person became President, you still held him up as President. But now, if you vote against that guy and he becomes President, he’s held up as illegitimate, and the other side isn’t just wrong, they’re evil.
That quote resonated with me. Why is it that we think we can declare someone good or evil? Why do we feel the other side must always be wrong or have little to add to a debate? Has our vision become so clouded with self-righteousness that we deny the possibility that we may not have all the answers? Do we really wish to see the world in black and white?
Today, President Obama made public his long form birth certificate in the hopes of finally putting the ‘birther’ conspiracies to rest. The fact that this issue received so much attention goes to show how far political parties and individuals will go in order to discredit the other side. The fact that states such as Arizona would introduce ‘birther’ legislation or that possible presidential candidates such as Donald Trump would make the issue central to their campaign highlights the extremes to which some will go to perpetrate myths.
But it’s not just the Republicans who prescribe to ‘illegitimate’ conspiracies. Look at the controversy and conspiracy theories of the George W. Bush presidency. The Florida recount and Supreme Court battle had many on the left claiming the presidency was stolen. There were even conspiracies as to President Bush’s role in the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Countless times I’ve heard the Tea Party referred to as a party of racists and Muslims referred to as terrorists. I count both among my circle of friends and family, knowing that that they are neither racist nor terrorist. To paint such a broad stroke among so many is yet another tactic taken to label the other side as wrong, dangerous and evil.
But the narrative continues, playing out in state and local politics as the issues become defined more by personality than merit. Instead of having a serious discussion about the millions upon millions of dollars in lawsuits that Maricopa County taxpayers may soon be liable for, we debate who was the victim in the personality war between Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the County Board of Supervisors. The bigger question should be why we’d reelect anyone involved in this debacle or why taxpayers should be responsible for any of these politician’s criminal wrongdoings.
Still, the personality wars go on. Last week former Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris resigned after the city manager reassigned him over allegations of faulty kidnapping statistics. No doubt, citizens will judge Harris based on the contentious relationship he had with PLEA (Phoenix Law Enforcement Association) President Mark Spencer rather than on the programs he implemented, which helped create drastic reductions in crime. Nor will people recognize his more than 30 years of police work prior to his work as police chief, focusing instead on the one divisive issue that has come to define him: immigration.
For the record, my support of the city’s current immigration policy and my opposition of SB1070 do not imply I dislike PLEA. Quite the opposite, in fact. Some of the most compassionate and caring individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing work for PLEA. But I do question and call attention to the manner in which that organization chooses to do business. Making personal attacks on supervisors and creating an atmosphere of hostility does little to serve the individuals whom they represent. It’s easier to strike a bargain when those at the table choose to air their disagreements respectfully rather than making a public attack.
I know firsthand what it’s like to be attacked for a particular point of view. I know what it’s like to be called naive and a political pawn and hear and read nasty, personal comments made by individuals who do not know my intentions or my heart. I know what it’s like to have people define you based upon false information or general assumptions. And let me just say that it is not a pleasant experience nor should it be expected simply because one’s in the public eye. Those types of comments do not add value to a debate but rather serve as a distraction from the issue at hand.
I’ve also had the opportunity to get to know other public figures who’ve been attacked in the media as well, and guess what? They’re not evil. Even the ones who disagree with me!
All kidding aside, I realize that it’s easy to let emotion get in the way of rational thought, particularly when that emotion comes from a place of great pain or personal experience. But I also realize that every time we stray from the facts and let our passion overtake our civility, we destroy a tiny bit of the individual we’ve attacked and a tiny bit of the fabric of our country. And while our political leaders should hold themselves to the highest of standards, we all need to be cognizant of the words we use.
When it comes to politics and public policy, both sides of a debate have important ideas to bring forward. We would do well to listen before criticizing. We would be wise to open our minds to the idea that just because we didn’t vote for someone doesn’t make that person evil. Just because we see an issue from a different perspective doesn’t mean the other perspective is wrong.