Poison in the Well of Public Discourse

As the political season winds down, the fear of defeat is forcing candidates (and their advocates) to go deeper into the wellspring of human emotion. What they are pulling up are buckets of bold, belligerent and dangerously violent language.

The radical rhetoric arises from one simple reality: one person seeing the other as an enemy.

Civil society (and hence, civilization) is fed by streams of respect: I respect you and your opinions, and you respect me and my opinions. You and I share common aspirations: providing for the common good—peace, prosperity, justice, freedom, and a sense of community.

But when I begin to think you and your opinions are a danger to the commonwealth, then you cease being a citizen whom I respect; you become a threat to my vision of community. In short: you are my enemy. Once you become an enemy your defeat—no, your destruction—is the ultimate goal.

The rhetoric of public discourse has increasingly been poisoned with this language of war. Too many have become cultural warriors, seeking the destruction of some other tribe of citizens. .

When did we cease being one nation and become two countries—red and blue—occupying the same stretch of beautiful land?

Perhaps the great watershed was the decade of the sixties: the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, court decisions on prayer, scripture, and abortion, and the emergence of recreational drugs and sex into the public sphere. It was certainly transformational in the life of our nation.

Out of that common but traumatic experience emerged two visions of America: one religious, obedient, traditional, and institutional; the other secular, risqué, radical and individual. The church and the corporations came down on the side and the media and the universities on the other. The cool water of a common cause was replaced by the bitter cup of cultural war.

It was the religious people who first injected the language of battlefield into the civic debate. They did so, first, in religious struggles, as Baptists in the South can attest. The struggle to dominate was not simply among brothers who disagreed on this or that; it was the forces of good against the forces of evil, truth against error, right versus wrong, orthodoxy and heresy. All of the ultimate categories available to religion were employed, arousing passions, mobilizing people, and managing the kind of power that not only carries the day but crushes the opponent.

People of faith pushed this “us-them” dichotomy into the political arena. “We the people of the United States” was flooded out of its honored abode by this torrent of ugly language.

Floods bring flotsam: and among the worst abusers of rhetorical restraint were the high priests of talk radio, such as Howard Stern to Rush Limbaugh. They said things normal people would think rude, crude and socially unacceptable, and they said it on air. Rhetoric that is racist, profane, and downright wrong made these men wealthy; it also gave permission for a million and more neighbors to toss the language of respect and embrace the rhetoric of war. Now it is bubbling to the surface around the country. Deep down, things are poisoned.

Who knows when some fresh flow of decency and discipline will wash our way and baptize us with the courtesy and kindness so necessary to the common good?


3 comments so far

  1. Karen Kagiyama on

    I’m on the pray for Bill Clark Thomas list and received your reply e-mail to them. This led me to your blog, which I very much appreciated. I’ve always thought that the 23rd psalm calls people of faith to be in community with those whom we might call enemy in such a way that we cannot demonize or destroy them. They are our guests at table, and maybe more importantly, they are God’s table guests. Or maybe it’s that we are both at the same table prepared for us by One who loves us much better than we can love one another. I keep coming back to the table as the most visible sign of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. I’m looking forward to the feast, but for now, I keep setting another place where I am and hoping that those I invite will discover grace amidst the fray. Even if our discussion gets a little heated, we share a meal that one has prepared for the other. Thanks for wise words!

  2. Camille Haggard on

    You are right. There is too much discension in our culture. It comes from everywhere. I was at a festival in another county and stopped by the democrat booth and the man there said to me that the democrats in Ky. were racist and would not vote for Obama therefore there was no money being put in Ky by the national dems. I pointed out to him that almost consistently we vote democrat in state elections and repub. in national elections to which he quickly replied we voted for Clinton and I replied “almost always” is what I said. I was sorry that he injected race into the conversation. Until Christ returns, we will have this type of rancor and split in our culture. The Baptists are very much guilty of splitting people into groups and seeking power within the organization. I think we should look carefully inward and make sure that we are putting Christ first in our lives. As Christians we should be bringing people together and acting reasonably.

  3. Wife of Bill Clark Thomas on

    I want to thank you, Karen Kagayama, for your prayers for my husband. He is a retired missionary of the International Mission Board, S.B.C. We served 34 years, teaching in 2 Seminaries (Malaysia and Thailand) and sharing the Gospel of Christ in churches not only in Southeast Asia, but also Europe.

    We never dreamed that he would be stricken with cancer. But he has had a wonderful, submissive attitude toward the Lord, and what HE is doing in Bill’s body and spirit…

    Thanks to your prayers, and the prayers of others, Bill is healing from the surgery to remove the cancer and lymph nodes.

    Once healed, he will have to have 6 months of chemotherapy in a city an hour away from where we live.

    May God bless you and all those who have lifted up my dear husband in prayer.

    In His love,

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