I have applauded the increased use of the Constitution in our public discourse. But there can be a danger in invoking ultimate authority like the Constitution in support of an argument. If we are not careful, we may lose sight of one of the most important civic virtues: humility.
The incomparable Judge Learned Hand captured this sense of humility by quoting Puritan revolutionary Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think ye may be mistaken.” Judge Hand added: “I should like to have that written over the portals of every church, every school, and every court house, and, may I say, of every legislative body in the United States.”1
Judge Hand also wisely noted, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.”2
I have noticed that some of the political debate in our community has lost sight of Judge Hand’s observation. I distance myself from the foolish nonsense that to be a Latter-day Saint in the United States today requires or even tends toward a particular partisan affiliation. Quoting his former professor, Harold Macmillan—prime minister of Great Britain and chancellor of Oxford University from 1960 to 1986—described the primary purpose of a university education to the graduating class at Oxford: “Nothing you learn here at Oxford will be of the slightest possible use to you later, save only this: that if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot. And that is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.”3 If your education at BYU hasn’t helped you see that such partisan talk is “rot,” then you have failed in your studies. And I’m not kidding.
Disagreement is critical to the well-being of our nation. But we must carry on our arguments with the realization that those with whom we disagree are not our enemies; rather, they are our colleagues in a great enterprise. When we respect each other enough to respond carefully to argument, we are filling roles necessary in a republic.
“Civility,” writes Peter Wehner, “has to do with . . . the respect we owe others as . . . fellow human beings. It is both an animating spirit and a mode of discourse. It establishes limits so we don’t treat opponents as enemies. And it helps inoculate us against one of the unrelenting temptations in politics (and in life more broadly), which is to demonize and dehumanize those who hold views different from our own. . . . Civility, properly understood, advances rigorous arguments for a simple reason: it forecloses ad hominem attacks, which is the refuge of sloppy, undisciplined minds.”4
As he frequently does, C. S. Lewis put it best and in language this audience will understand: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”5
And so, as we engage in the challenging and vexing work of citizenship, and especially as we debate fundamental principles of how best to carry out the unique calling that is America’s, keep in mind the counsel, nay the plea, of our greatest president, delivered at the most perilous time in our nation’s history:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.6
Thank you very much. May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.
1. Quoted in Fred R. Shapiro, ed., The Yale Book of Quotations (New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 2006), p. 336.
2. Quoted in ibid.
3. Quoted in Larry H. Peer, “Beethoven’s Kiss: On the Odd Reasons for Brigham Young’s Excellent University,” BYU devotional address (Dec. 2, 2003), available at http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=4530.
4. Peter Wehner, “Civility As a Political Virtue,” Commentary, Dec. 1, 2010, http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2010/12/01/civility-as-a-political-virtue/.
5. C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper (New York City: Touchstone, 1996), p. 40.
6. Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861), available at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp.
Thomas Griffith is a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He gave the forum address from which this article is excerpted on Sept. 18, 2012.
Campaigning for Civility, by Mark DeMoss
The Case for Partisanship, by Karen Weggeland Hale (’80)
Religious Democracy, by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman