For twenty years I’ve been writing and talking about civility, the public virtues necessary for a healthy democracy. My work on civility got its start in a dissertation and two subsequent books on Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and the first American prophet for religious freedom.
Recently I enjoyed a rare opportunity to talk about his importance for a podcast called Multifaith Matters, which “explores various facets of loving God and multifaith neighbors through interviews with pastors, ministry leaders, and scholars” and “models neighborly multifaith conversations with members of various religious traditions.” The podcast is produced by Multi-Faith Matters dot org, an organization whose mission is to “help evangelicals fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandments (love of God and neighbor) while maintaining faithfulness to evangelical convictions.” To achieve this, they facilitate dialogue and relationships among people of all faiths.
Roger Williams is known for his religious toleration, but he was also fiercely dogmatic, and his ability to hold together deeply held convictions and respect for others makes him an interesting case study for our time. In our conversation here, after a brief biographical sketch, I delve into Williams’s ideas about the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts, natural law, religious freedom, civility, and the proper relationship between church and society.
You can listen to the podcast here on its website, or via several other podcast platforms, including Spotify.
You can also watch the interview here!
Grace and truth. Neither is in great supply these days. Grace and truth can be scarce in the church or at family holiday gatherings, but they are virtually unicorns in American politics, rumored to be real but never actually seen. In our post-fact era, there is no such thing as truth, for reality is whatever my favorite cable channel or internet site says it is. And in our hyper-partisan political culture, where political opponents are no longer fellow citizens but enemies of the people, grace gives way to demonization. In the eyes of Democrats, Republicans are racist, cowardly, and enslaved to the wealthy elite. In the standard rhetoric of Republicans, Democrats are anti-religious intellectuals bent on undermining American security with open borders, while redistributing wealth to eliminate the need to work. The absence of grace and truth in our politics increasingly bleeds into how we relate to our neighbors, family members, and church kin.
Check out this really helpful article in the New York Times about organizations trying to heal the polarization in this country by inviting people to actually sit down and talk. It also includes a shout-out to my book on civility!
James Calvin Davis reacts to the Red Hen incident and the trivialization of civility in our current political climate.
Last month Tammy Duckworth made history, becoming the first U.S. senator to cast a vote on the Senate floor with a baby in her arms. It took some doing; the Senate first had to change a longstanding rule that prohibited babies on the floor of the Senate, and changing Senate rules doesn’t happen easily. Duckworth and others worked for months to change the rule, answering questions like whether this would mean diapers could be changed on the Senate floor, or whether the baby would have to adhere to the Senate dress code. Ultimately, though, the rule was changed to allow senators to bring their newborns onto the floor and even to breastfeed them if needed. And so Tammy Duckworth, U.S. Senator and mom, cast a vote with her child right there with her.
Of course, the news media covered the moment with enthusiasm for its rarity. It was a rare moment in large part because of the limited number of women who have exercised privileges on the floor of the United States Senate. In the history of the body, only fifty-two women have been members; twenty-three of them serve today, an all-time high. So the sight of Senator Duckworth bringing her baby into the Senate was a symbol of the way tradition has been forced to evolve under the pressures of gender equity. But beyond the celebration of justice and progress, I was struck by the power in the juxtaposition—one individual holding together in a single moment four distinct identities: woman, veteran, political leader, mother. And the infiltration of mothering, with all of the connotations it brings—nurture, protection, love, sacrifice—into a body that frankly is regarded by many Americans as mired in futility, impotence, and destructiveness, spoke a word of prophetic protest to politics as usual. Insisting on bringing her young child to the halls of government, Duckworth did more than demand workplace accommodations. She offered a display of mothering as an act of resistance to disordered power.
The Presbyterian Outlook recently surveyed their readership, asking for compelling and transformational recent books. In Defense of Civility was mentioned in response to the question, “What is the book you keep going back to and why?” Andy Kort, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Bloomington, Indiana, shared that in the book Davis “highlights issues like war, abortion, marriage, separation of church and state, and more in a way that not only helps me articulate my own thinking, but also is very helpful in allowing me to better understand the opposite view. He does this all while making the case for a civil discourse.”
You can find out more about all of the readers’ choices for captivating books here!
The president is at it again. This week, in a White House meeting on immigration reform, and just days before the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mr. Trump apparently let loose with disparaging comments about Haiti and various African nations suffering from natural disasters, poverty, or underdevelopment. He called them “shithole” countries, and he wondered aloud why we should want to invite immigrants from those places, instead of from places like Norway. The comments, confirmed by both Democrats and Republicans in the room, exhibit clear racial undertones, and they continued Mr. Trump’s tendency toward racially ignorant public rhetoric (think Mexican rapists and the “good people” he assumed to be among the white supremacists in Charlottesville). Rather than serving the cause of unity, the president’s remarks further stoked the racial antagonism and injustice that is our national crisis.
For the past decade, I have been writing and speaking about the need for more civility among American leaders and citizens. I define civility as the exercise of patience, humility, integrity, and mutual respect in public life, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree. Civility is a set of virtues that we need to actively cultivate in each other, in our relationships and our civic institutions, as the public ethos that guarantees the health and effectiveness of democratic politics. (My most recent book argues for a Christian version of these norms that I call forbearance.) Without this commitment to open and constructive dialogue, rooted in a genuine respect for others as fellow participants in public life, the future of democracy looks grim.
On December 15, 2017, James Calvin Davis was interviewed by the National Council of Churches for their regular podcast. They discussed Forbearance, the inspiration for the book, and how a recovery of this ethic might help bring about a return to civility in the world beyond the church. You can hear the interview on Stitcher or iTunes.