Gay marriage issue, national elections lead to civility fight

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

DeMoss wasn't the only one who had been impressed with Davis' ability to carry on civil discussions. Even Glenn Beck expressed admiration for the liberal Democrat. "While I still disagree with him, he is willing to say 'my side is right' and 'on this one my side is wrong.'" Beck said while guest-hosting the Larry King show in 2008. "When will we find more politicians like Lanny Davis — I can't believe I'm saying this — that will say, 'Hey, that's just the way it is'?"

DeMoss the conservative didn't just admire Davis, he wrote Davis a letter and complimented him on his strong, but civil manner.

Five months later, DeMoss had decided to start the Civility Project and knew that Davis was just the high-profile liberal who would be perfect as a co-sponsor. "I go in his office, and he is on the phone. There are pictures of him with Hillary Clinton and a signed note from her. There is a picture of him with Bill Clinton and a signed letter, and a picture of him on Air Force One with George W. Bush and a personal note from him. And then my letter. Lanny hung up the phone and said, 'Mark, that's the nicest letter I've ever received.' And through that we became instant friends. He's still liberal. I'm still conservative. But we've had discussions about a lot of interesting topics, and subjects and issues. And I just think it demonstrates how it can be done. Lanny and I both think debates should be won on the strength of ideas and words, not on our decibel level."

Davis and DeMoss launched the Civility Project the day before Obama took office in January 2009.

Fighting for civility

DeMoss and Davis were surprised at the reaction of many people towards a simple pledge for civility.

Bill O'Reilly on Fox News, for example, told Davis the Civility Pledge was "dopey" and "naive." "The reason I would not sign it," O'Reilly said, "is because my opponent may be cutting my heart out and throwing dirt at me all day long. And then I have little Lanny's pledge saying I can't fight back."

Davis countered, "You can fight back, you can strongly disagree … but you fight back on the issues."

It was a complaint that DeMoss and Davis would encounter again and again: Civility is impossible or it is surrender or it is weakness — a naive embracing of kumbayah thinking.

DeMoss couldn't disagree more.

"Civility starts with some degree of mutual respect for another person and their opinions even if their opinions are different than yours," DeMoss says. "Look, if I can't persuade Lanny to my way of thinking through thoughtful debate or dialogue, I'm sure as heck not going to persuade him by yelling at him or posting some blog that calls him names. I don't know anyone who was ever persuaded to another way of thinking by having been shouted down or bullied."

DeMoss saw this with how some religious people treated Mormons during Romney's campaign — such as popular Internet minister Bill Keller saying "If you vote for Mitt Romney, you are voting for Satan!"

"I've said to many evangelicals who treat Mormons and the Mormon faith in such an ugly manner, 'How would you ever, behaving the way you are behaving, how would you ever expect to have any influence with a Mormon to embrace your faith?' It is impossible if you behave that way. I think even if you don't have a moral rationale for being civil, I think there are practical reasons for it. I just think it is more effective if you are trying to persuade somebody."

DeMoss has seen people be civil in the most difficult situations. And he has a favorite example.

A beautiful debate on gay marriage

The National Religious Broadcasters, an evangelical group of Christian broadcasters, invited the Rev. Dr. Cindi Love, executive director of Soulforce, an organization that says it advocates nonviolent resistance against religious oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, to debate the subject of homosexuality and gay marriage at their annual convention in March. On the other side of the debate was Joe Dallas, who says he is a former homosexual and ex-gay rights activist.

It could have been an ugly confrontation.

"This is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen on something that is very, very divisive," said DeMoss who attended the event.

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