At age 16, Washington had hand copied 110 rules on civility and decent behavior, originally attributed to a 12-year-old boy. While some might be relegated to the arcane and silly, the spirit of the majority of the rules was the code of politeness and respect for other people. It is the essence of the Golden Rule; to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In the words of Scripture, the second great commandment, is to love thy neighbor as thy self.
Where is this virtue in our culture and political discourse today? While it is alive and well in our churches and synagogues on Saturday and Sunday, it is possibly being administered the last rights in the civil discourse of our national politics, the media coverage, and the streets of America.
Most of us deserve blame for not practicing what we preach, and both political parties deserve chastisement for the tribal, hyperpartisan nature of the debate, and the vitriolic and often sarcastic tone on talk shows and social media. While hate, envy and greed go back to the garden of Eden, the highest ideals of these great United States are to appeal to our higher angels and unite for the common good. We are people of different nationalities, races, religions, and political parties, yet either by choice or by birth we have the immense blessing of being Americans. With that carries both rights and obligations to discharge if we are to preserve this great experiment in human freedom and democracy crafted 243 years ago.
Our Founders wrote powerfully in the 1790’s warning of the future dangers of political parties and factions. Washington wrote “The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it”. The fact that the United States Congress has maintained its lofty 14% approval rating for many years speaks to the dissatisfaction that most Americans have with this great institution. Apathy is bred from the toxic tone of debate, which has led to paltry results.
So where do we go from here? It ought not be difficult for reasonable people to agree that life is much easier living when people approach it with a spirit of kindness, generosity, civility and patience. Most of us are capable of such abundant living if we admit to our innate selfish tendencies, and through faith and perseverance become the good neighbor to others we desire others to be to us. The tongue is the rudder of the body, and by discipline and will, we can keep it in check. Bite it hard if we have to. Making points with firmness and conviction, and yet manners and civility, is fully in the grasp of Republicans, Democrats and Independents. The emerging leadership style that will appeal to millennials, and those just sick of the screaming talking heads on TV, will be the happy warrior. It is a person who is passionate about ideas, ambitious for solutions, humble in spirit, and capable of speaking in polite complete sentences. It is a servant leader who solves problems, shares credit, and creates unity, not soundbites.
It would be disingenuous to say that we did not have equally caustic debates, and even duels, at the dawn of the American republic. Yet it was motivated by a deep desire to make America work, not to tear it down.
America has been successful for 200 years because, as it was once said, we are a melting pot. If we insist upon being the tribal stewpot, where we no longer coalesce around the core set of values in the founding documents, we cannot survive as the United States.
No party holds a monopoly on morality or good ideas. While I do believe that fiscal conservatism and moral values have been the bedrock of American prosperity and I believe socialism has failed everywhere in the world it has been tried, the argument is not won by screaming the loudest. It is won by proving that one’s ideas work.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, let’s break open the Scriptures and the rules of civility and learn from the past. We all have an obligation to reduce the volume and stress in society by communicating with dialogue, not two simultaneous monologues.