We are in the middle of an intense political season in this country, and I’ve been privileged to be an advisor to a presidential campaign—something I’ve done voluntarily in both this cycle and the last one. As an evangelical Christian, I was well aware of doctrinal differences between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and my faith. But once I decided to help on Mitt Romney’s campaign, I began to see an all-too-ugly side of a theological divide. Sadly, far too much of the ugliness—though certainly not all of it—came from within my own camp.
This treatment of Mormons by many who claim to be followers of Christ, along with the sometimes violent treatment from those who oppose your church for your strong defense of traditional marriage, prompted me, as an evangelical Christian, to try to inspire a national dialogue about civility.
Also, though I disagreed with then Senator Obama on many things, I found myself, even as a political conservative, being troubled by the way many people were treating him—ways I also didn’t think were Christlike.
So I decided to launch a civility project. I bought the appropriate domain addresses and began to develop a plan and a website. I wrote a simple three-point pledge, which I thought anyone in this country could agree to, regardless of political or religious affiliation. It read as follows:
1. I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
2. I will be respectful of others, whether or not I agree with them.
3. I will stand against incivility where and when I see it.
As I prepared to launch this project following the contentious 2008 election, I decided I needed a liberal counterpart. I didn’t want this effort to look like a conservative was lecturing the left on incivility, especially since there was so much incivility within my own ranks. So I reached out to a most unlikely partner.
Lanny Davis was the White House counsel at the end of President Clinton’s second term. He is a self-described liberal and a democratic power broker. Lanny is also Jewish. I didn’t know Lanny at this point, but I had written him a letter some six months earlier. As an avid supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Lanny was on television quite a bit during the primary season. Whenever I saw him on TV, I found myself saying, “Now there’s a liberal I really like.”
You see, Lanny was always respectful of his adversaries. He didn’t interrupt or raise his voice. He didn’t attack on a personal level or on motive—only on policy. So as Hillary Clinton was ending her campaign, I sat down and wrote a letter to Lanny at his law firm in Washington, D.C. It began this way: “Dear Lanny, I am an evangelical and a conservative Republican who has spent the past year trying to get Mitt Romney elected president, and I suspect that, politically, you and I may have nothing in common.”
I went on to commend him for his civility in the public square and to encourage him after a hard-fought campaign. We had no further contact for six months, until I sent him an e-mail late one night reminding him of my letter and telling him I was starting a civility project.
“Could I come to D.C. and get your thoughts on it?” I asked.
At 4:36 the next morning I received an e-mail I will never forget. “Mark, I’d be honored to meet you,” it said. “Your letter sits in a frame on a bookshelf in my office. Call my assistant and set it up.”
When I went to see Lanny the next month, he was on a call in his office but motioned for me to come in. While he finished his call I surveyed his walls, covered with framed notes and photos of Lanny with members of Congress, a secretary of state, and several presidents, including one of him and his 10-year-old son with President Bush on Air Force One. And there, displayed on his bookshelf, was my letter.
Lanny hung up the phone, pointed to the bookshelf, and said, “That’s the nicest letter I’ve ever received.”
Lanny Davis and I were, by any assessment, a political odd couple. But, thanks to a simple letter with a civil and respectful tone, we became fast friends. He offered his full help, and on the eve of the inauguration of Barack Obama, we launched the Civility Project with an op-ed we wrote together for the Washington Times.
For two years we promoted civility through our website and through national media and various speaking opportunities—opportunities that took me to places like the National Press Club in Washington, a synagogue in Houston, and the West Wing of the White House.
In the summer of 2010, anticipating an ugly midterm election cycle, we sent a letter to every member of Congress and every sitting governor asking them to sign this simple pledge. Six months later, just three—three out of 585—had done so: Senator Joseph Lieberman and Representatives Frank Wolf and Sue Myrick.
I dissolved the project a year ago, after concluding I wasn’t able to devote the time and attention it deserved. Days later, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot at a political event, and the national debate about civility erupted once again.
Most people viewed this civility project in a political context, but, as a follower of Christ, I had another motive. The Apostle Paul writes in the book of Philippians, “But in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (New King James Version [NKJV], Philip. 2:3).
The First Amendment may give me the right to demonize you with public speech, but it doesn’t make it right.
Paul then challenges the Colossians to “let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (NKJV, Col. 4:6). And his final charge in his first letter to the Corinthians is crystal clear: “Let all that you do be done with love” (NKJV, 1 Cor. 16:14).
Addressing a general conference, Elder Quentin L. Cook correctly pointed out:
There are some who feel that venting their personal anger or deeply held opinions is more important than conducting themselves as Jesus Christ lived and taught. . . . How we disagree is a real measure of who we are and whether we truly follow the Savior. It is appropriate to disagree, but it is not appropriate to be disagreeable. . . . If we show love and respect even in adverse circumstances, we become more like Christ. [“We Follow Jesus Christ,” Ensign, May 2010, pp. 84–85]
I will not attempt to speak for your church, but I will speak for and to mine: It is never an option to claim Jesus Christ as Savior and behave in an uncivil manner with anyone, under any circumstance. Never.
I pray I will be known for speech seasoned with grace, for regarding others as more important than myself, and for doing everything with love. In these days of political divisiveness, I urge all of us to defer to what Abraham Lincoln described in his first inaugural address as “the better angels of our nature.”
This article is adapted from a forum address by Mark DeMoss, founder of the public relations agency The DeMoss Group, on Jan. 24, 2012. The full text is available at speeches.byu.edu.
The Case for Partisanship, by Karen Weggeland Hale (’80)
Religious Democracy, by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman
The Work of Civility, by Judge Thomas B. Griffith (BA ’78)