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Poll: Americans of all faiths see a civility problem in U.S. politics

by Nicole Neroulias | Published on November 11, 2010

Religion News Service

(RNS) Whether they rally behind Fox News’ Glenn Beck to “Restore Honor” or Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart to “Restore Sanity,” Americans agree on one thing: our polit­ical system has a civility problem.

Four out of five Americans, regard­less of party or reli­gious affil­i­a­tion, think the lack of respectful discourse in our polit­ical system is a serious problem, according to a PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll released Thursday (Nov. 11).

The find­ings echo senti­ments expressed by a range of reli­gious leaders, including Richard J. Mouw, pres­i­dent of Fuller Theological Seminary and author of “Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World,” and Rabbi Steve Gutow, pres­i­dent of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Alarmed by the 2010 campaign season, which 4 in 10 Americans consider more nega­tive than past elec­tions, Mouw, Gutow and others are calling for a kinder, gentler tone — even on hot-button topics like Islamophobia, homo­sex­u­ality or abortion.

We’ve had heated public debates before, but the level of discourse in this campaign and even following the campaign has been atro­cious,” Mouw said, citing as an example Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge to prevent President Obama’s reelec­tion, as opposed to advo­cating for policy shifts.

There’s a real hostility now, and Christians with very strong and more conser­v­a­tive convic­tions really don’t seem to be contributing much to a civil discourse and a calming of the heated discus­sions in the larger culture,” Mouw said.

In fact, white evan­gel­i­cals and Republicans are less likely than other Americans to say the 2010 election’s tone was more nega­tive than past campaigns, which PRRI research director Daniel Cox said may reflect their satis­fac­tion with the outcome.

Mouw has another theory: evan­gel­i­cals are more accus­tomed to inflam­ma­tory rhetoric from the pulpit, and there­fore don’t see it as a problem in politics.

Other find­ings from the poll, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in part­ner­ship with Religion News Service, include:

- One-third of white evan­gel­i­cals report that the elec­tion was more posi­tive than past elec­tions, a figure that’s signif­i­cantly higher than among white main­line Protestants (17 percent), the unaf­fil­i­ated (17 percent) or Catholics (23 percent).

- Two-thirds of Americans say that people in their local commu­nity work well to over­come differ­ences, and more than eight in 10 Americans who attend reli­gious services say people in their congre­ga­tion work well to over­come differences.

- Nearly 6-in-10 Americans think the country is more divided over poli­tics today than in the past; more than four in 10 Americans said the country is more divided over reli­gion than in the past.

- About half of white evan­gel­i­cals and black Protestants think the country is more divided over reli­gion than it was in the past, compared to less than 40 percent of Catholics and white main­line Protestants.

- Young adults (50 percent) are less likely than seniors (61 percent) to say Americans are more divided over poli­tics, but more likely to say Americans are divided over reli­gion (42 percent of young adults and 33 percent of older adults, respectively).

Americans are justi­fi­ably afraid and upset about the stag­nant economy and terrorism, Gutow said, but he agreed with Mouw that 24/7 cable news chan­nels and the blogos­phere have encour­aged and magni­fied nega­tive, fear-based rhetoric.

In his organization’s new Statement on Civility, prompted by polar­izing debate over Israel as well as domestic concerns, Jews agree to “treat others with decency and honor and to set ourselves as models for civil discourse, even when we disagree with each other.”

The JCPA pledge has collected more than 1,100 signa­tures since it was launched Nov. 1, and will form the basis for dialogue amongst Jews and with people of other faiths.

I don’t think this country, and I don’t think our commu­nity, are going to make good deci­sions if people can’t talk to each other ratio­nally and prag­mat­i­cally,” Gutow said. “We need to lean back, talk to each other, look each other in the eye and respect each other’s humanity.”

Calls for civility have clear reli­gious roots. In Judaism, Talmudic study encour­ages back-and-forth conver­sa­tion, Gutow noted. In the New Testament, Mouw said, the Apostle Peter tells Christians to express their convic­tions “with gentle­ness and reverence.”

In the world where our Savior has not yet returned to make all things right, we’re going to have to find our way of coping in the present and trying to do as much good as we can without oppressing other people, without bearing false witness against other people,” Mouw said.

We have to defend the faith, that’s clear, but it says to do it with gentle­ness and reverence.“‘

The PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll was based on tele­phone inter­views conducted Nov. 5–8, after the midterm elec­tions, with 1,022 U.S. adults.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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