Gay marriage issue, national elections lead to civility fight

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

"It took a lot of courage for this woman from Soulforce to accept this invitation," DeMoss said. "And for an hour and a half, they had the most thoughtful, kind, respectful conversation you would ever see on a contentious subject. And I think that both people left with some new respect for the other side. ... It can be done."

Love explained how it was possible for two people who disagreed so completely to have a civil discussion. "You have to be willing to not judge your opponent's intent. That's the simplest way to say it. Civility breaks down when we decide that the intent of the person who is disagreeing with us is evil."

Love thinks that intractable disagreement is actually at the heart of civility. "Civility operates best when there is deep polarization. Because that is where the opportunity is to say, 'I am going to respect you as a human being.'"

But doing that takes effort.

"Civility is not weakness. Civility is strength," Love said. "Real strength rests in that intersection between who I believe I am and what I believe and between who you are and what you believe. And even though we disagree deeply, our first persistent attempt should be to enter into respectful dialog.

DeMoss wished that more people had this type of view of civility. He particularly hoped that politicians would take the pledge.

Death of the project

In May, Davis and DeMoss co-signed a letter and mailed a package with the Civility Pledge and other material about the project to every member of Congress and to every governor. "So we mailed 585 packages," DeMoss said. "These were personalized messages, these were not junk mail."

The response?

"Three people signed this pledge. Ever," DeMoss said.

They were U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut; Rep. Frank Wolfe, a Republican from Virginia; and Rep. Sue Myrick, a Republican from North Carolina. "I'm sure some of them didn't see it, in fairness to the members of Congress, but I don't think it is plausible that only three saw it," DeMoss said.

With that type of response, DeMoss and Davis shut down the Civility Project in January — about two years from the time they launched it.

"I shut it down, purely for practical reasons," DeMoss said. "I didn't feel I was able to devote enough time and energy to the project, not the subject, but the project — like maintaining an active website and putting content on it. If I was doing this the way I would have like to have done it, when we mailed those packages to every member of Congress and governors, ideally two weeks later I would have followed up with phone calls to all of them. That takes some time and some staff and I really couldn't devote the time and staff and resources to make it a viable project going forward."

DeMoss, being a savvy PR professional, used the death of the project as a way of promoting the project's goals: An increase of civility at both a personal and a nationally political level.

Only days later, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head at a meeting with constituents. The shooting, which killed six others including 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, sparked a national discussion on civility. Over time, however, the discussions included some of the objections that were raised against the Civility Project.

People and politicians say they want civility, but commitment appears to be the difficult part. The Allegheny College survey found that it appears to be getting worse. In April 2010, 48 percent of Americans said civility was in decline. During the November 2010 elections, 63 percent said civility was in decline. And as a hot presidential election year approaches, the prospects for civil discourse seem as far away as they did to DeMoss in 2008.

Davis said, "The only way I can recommend is that you listen to what someone has to say, and perhaps your mind will be opened a little bit for listening. And that you respect the other person's right to a different opinion."

DeMoss, for his part, paraphrased Roger Staubach, Hall of Fame passer for the Dallas Cowboys, "There are no traffic jams on the high road."

"I love that," DeMoss said. "I try to live that way. I don't think you can lose taking the high road. And if you do lose on the high road, I'd rather lose on the high road than to win in the gutter."

Civility resources:

DeMoss on the Politico website

DeMoss at a National Press Club discussion on civility (full audio available at the bottom of that webpage

DAVIS: Civility makes strange bedfellows, an article in The Washington Times

The Mormon Ethic of Civility

The Allegheny College Survey of Civility and Compromise in American Politics

Lanny Davis takes on Bill O'Reilly

Email: mdegroote@desnews.com, Twitter: degroote

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