Don't Poison the Well of Public Discourse

Dwight Moody


It was the religious people who first injected the language of battlefield into the civic debate. They did so, first, in religious struggles, as Baptists in the South can attest. The struggle to dominate was not simply among brothers who disagreed on this or that; it was the forces of good against the forces of evil, truth against error, right versus wrong, orthodoxy over heresy.

The radical rhetoric arises from one simple reality: one person seeing the other as an enemy.

Civil society (and hence, civilization) is fed by streams of respect: I respect you and your opinions, and you respect me and my opinions. You and I share common aspirations: providing for the common good—peace, prosperity, justice, freedom and a sense of community.

But when I begin to think you and your opinions are a danger to the commonwealth, then you cease being a citizen whom I respect; you become a threat to my vision of community. In short: you are my enemy. Once you become an enemy your defeat—no, your destruction—is the ultimate goal.

The rhetoric of public discourse has increasingly been poisoned with this language of war. Too many have become cultural warriors, seeking the destruction of some other tribe of citizens.

When did we cease being one nation and become two countries—red and blue—occupying the same stretch of beautiful land?

Perhaps the great watershed was the decade of the sixties: the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, court decisions on prayer, scripture, and abortion, and the emergence of recreational drugs and sex into the public sphere. It was certainly transformational in the life of our nation.

Out of that common but traumatic experience emerged two visions of America: one religious, obedient, traditional and institutional; the other secular, risqué, radical and individual. The church and the corporations came down on one side, and the media and the universities on the other. The cool water of a common cause was replaced by the bitter cup of cultural war.

It was the religious people who first injected the language of battlefield into the civic debate. They did so, first, in religious struggles, as Baptists in the South can attest. The struggle to dominate was not simply among brothers who disagreed on this or that; it was the forces of good against the forces of evil, truth against error, right versus wrong, orthodoxy over heresy. All of the ultimate categories available to religion were employed, arousing passions, mobilizing people, and managing the kind of power that not only carries the day but crushes the opponent.

People of faith pushed this "us-them" dichotomy into the political arena. "We the people of the United States" was flooded out of its honored abode by this torrent of ugly language.

Floods bring flotsam, and among the worst abusers of rhetorical restraint were the high priests of talk radio, such as Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh. They said things normal people would think rude, crude and socially unacceptable, and they said it on air. Rhetoric that is racist, profane and downright wrong made these men wealthy; it also gave permission for a million and more neighbors to toss the language of respect and embrace the rhetoric of war. Now it is bubbling to the surface around the country. Deep down, things are poisoned.

Who knows when some fresh flow of decency and discipline will wash our way and baptize us with the courtesy and kindness so necessary to the common good?

Dwight Moody is a writer, preacher and professor living in Lexington, Ky. This column appeared previously on his blog.

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