When Walter Mondale and President Reagan were about to begin their first debate, Mondale began with a statement: "Tonight, I will say some strong things about the President's views and policies. I would like it to be understood that I mean no disrespect, either to the man or to his office. I enjoy President Reagan's company, and I know him to be a decent and kind man."
At this, President Reagan replied, "I like you too Fritz, let's go to it!"
The audience laughed and the debate began in earnest. Mondale did not hold back. He hit the president's policies hard. But he had already announced his boundaries: he was not going to cross the line into dishonor for his opponent.
Walter Mondale didn't win my vote that night but he did win my respect. He had modeled how a person can be passionate for his cause and still remain a gentleman. His words reflected what our national leaders thought, once upon a time: that it was as essential for a statesman to promote national unity as it was to advance his political persuasion.
I miss the values and the culture that Mondale demonstrated in that debate.
The attribute that Mondale demonstrated that night is called "civility." It is a word that is closely related to "civilization," the state of living and working together in a way that promotes the common good of all who comprise it. Civilization depends on people learning the sort of social protocol and mutual respect that will allow them to process their differences without destroying the underlying unity that makes their quality of life possible. Unless we want to adopt the ways of those nations where political differences get settled by civil war, we must remake and maintain our commitment to civility.
Here's another story that helped me learn the meaning of civility.
When I was a little boy, we became terrified about the threat of a Kennedy victory in 1960. There were all sorts of sermons and conversations in the air that year about how Catholics would run the government and persecute Protestants.
Kennedy won anyway, of course.
Some weeks after Election Day, my Dad heard me singing some anti-Kennedy chant I had learned in school. I forget the lines but it was about how unfit John Kennedy was to be President. When he heard me singing, my Dad, who had opposed Kennedy, told me to stop. I was never to sing that song again. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Son, John Kennedy is the president of our country. The Lord wants us to pray for him. The election is over. Mr. Kennedy won. Now all Americans must respect his office and pray for him."
The day the President was killed, my father wept. He did not say something like, "Well, Kennedy finally got his," or "That good-for-nothing Democrat is dead." He said, "Oh God, they've murdered our President." My father had somehow made the man whom he had voted against, "our president."
When we live in a democracy, we are not obligated to like the person who holds an office. We are even less obligated to like our political opponent. As believers however, we are always obligated to treat all people with respect, especially when they are the leaders of our nation. This is especially true for Christians, who are commanded to “pray for the king,” even if that king is Nero and is slaughtering other Christians.
As an American who has spent considerable periods of time living outside the country (as both of our current candidates for President have done) I have always marveled at the way we transfer the presidency and the other high offices of our land. Since the beginning, each party has been willing to pass the baton of leadership to their opponent because both have had a common commitment to values and institutions that they believed to be more basic than their underlying differences. This should not be taken for granted. It is a gift – a gift that requires civility and a high view of civilization.
Discussion about important issues ought to (and usually does) provoke people's passion. Apathy, especially over things that impacts people's happiness and well-being, is not a virtue. We all get heated about out politics, our religion and our standards of quality. We should; these things reflect who we are.
However, a warning is in order: ideas and issues are not made in the image and likeness of God; people are. It is, therefore, no crime to expose the weakness of a bad idea. It is a sin to ignore human dignity. Civilized life – learning to become a gentleman or a lady – is about making a difference between how we treat ideas and as opposed to how we treat the people who hold those ideas. Expressing sarcasm and cynicism about another human being – even our political opponent -- diminishes his or her humanity. Unbelievers can do it; a believer must not.
Mr. McCain is, as his campaign continually reminds us, a war hero. He has demonstrated extraordinary courage and patriotism in times and places where there were no cameras and no press.
Mr. Obama is an extraordinarily brilliant United States senator who now represents the hopes of millions of Americans that our long nightmare of racial division and social stratification is ending.
Surely, we can choose the candidate who most represents our views for the nation's future without demonizing, ridiculing and diminishing the other party's leader.
If all else fails, perhaps it will help to recall that when we ridicule a standard bearer of a national party during an election, we are ridiculing all those who support him. We push away our friends and family who believe differently that we do and leave no room for serious discussion.
Serious discussion requires civility, like that demonstrated by Walter Mondale in his fight for the presidency. He lost his quest for our highest office; he succeeded in keeping his country safe and united. If that's not strong leadership, I don't know what is.