Gay marriage issue, national elections lead to civility fight

Published: Sunday, May 22 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

You might say the Mormons and Obama made him do it.

Mark DeMoss, a prominent evangelical, was disappointed over the way he thought Mormons were treated during the 2008 presidential campaign. "I had been working with Mitt Romney as an unpaid advisor," said DeMoss, president of the DeMoss Group, a public relations firm that works with some of the biggest names in Christianity like the American Bible Society, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Campus Crusade for Christ, and Liberty University. "In my work with Mitt Romney, I saw a very ugly side of the treatment of the Mormon faith. Sadly, most of it was coming from evangelicals. And that bothered me."

Then, after Romney was out of the race, DeMoss was bothered by the attitudes and rhetoric aimed at Barack Obama that questioned his faith and his love of country.

The final straw for DeMoss was how some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were treated by opponents in the aftermath of California's Proposition 8, including vandalism of some Mormon chapels and people losing their jobs.

The level of incivility of political discourse in the U.S. was unacceptable to DeMoss — and most Americans agree. The Allegheny College Survey of Civility and Compromise in American Politics in April 2010 found that a whopping 95.4 percent of Americans believe civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy. The study also found that 87 percent of Americans believe it is possible to disagree respectfully.

But the reality that DeMoss saw in 2008 didn't reflect the public's aspirations for civility.

So he decided to do something about it.

If he had only been able to see the future, he may not have tried to form a national political movement for civility. He would have seen the rhetoric sharpening up against not just one, but two Mormons entering the 2012 presidential fray. He would see the challenges to President Obama's citizenship. He would also see how the aftermath of Proposition 8 continues to dog Mormons to the point that Peter Vidmar, a former Olympic gold medalist was pressured to step down from being chef de mission for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.

He may also have seen himself again throwing his support behind Romney's presidential aspirations and hoping for a more civil campaign in 2012.

But he couldn't see the future, and so the Civility Project was born. "I had realistic hopes and expectations, I think," DeMoss said. "My hope was that in some way, we could either start or contribute to a dialogue about civility." At the center of the project was the Civility Pledge:

 I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.

 I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.

 I will stand against incivility when I see it.

DeMoss hoped to get people from all walks of life to take the pledge — in particular, he wanted politicians to adopt it as a model of behavior.

He had no idea that after two years of promoting the pledge on national television shows and major newspapers, only three politicians would take the civility pledge.

The odd couple

Before DeMoss launched the project, he suddenly realized he was making a mistake. "It hit me one night before I launched it, that I really needed a liberal counterpart, because I did not want this to be viewed as a conservative who was lecturing the left on civility."

He immediately thought of Lanny Davis.

Lanny Davis was President Bill Clinton's special counsel and worked for the election of Sen. Hillary Clinton in 2008. He also wrote the book "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America." It was during Clinton's campaign that DeMoss became impressed with how Davis debated tough issues. "Every time as I would see him, I would say to myself, 'That's a liberal I really like.'"

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