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Winter Books

Religion -- doing right and resisting wrong -- key to curing incivility

By Stephen L. Carter
Basic Books, 338 pages, $25, cloth


Perhaps it is a vain hope: that more Americans would pull themselves away from the radio, television and newspaper, with all their sound and fury, and, instead, spend a few hours with Stephen L. Carter’s new book. For Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy is a timely, insightful work that the author, an Episcopalian, likens to a “prayer.”

And silent time spent with this prayer might be restorative, given the current national atmosphere of pride, bellicosity, deceit and outrage.

A professor of law of Yale University, Carter surveys how uncivil Americans have become and advocates 15 rules that we can and ought to follow in order to revitalize our besieged democracy. By drawing on examples from personal experience, popular culture, legal cases and religious traditions, Carter’s is an immediately accessible book free of academic jargon.

Carter points out how often we Americans are rude, ungenerous, selfish and “nasty as we wanna be.” Consider television talk shows, cyberspace, legal suits, hate speeches and the politics of belligerent attack. Much of our incivility, Carter contends, stems from our inability and unwillingness to discipline our desires. He thinks that contemporary America is the reign and riot of freedom gone berserk.

Although it is easy to describe the kinds of harsh language and intemperate behavior of our fellow citizens (and harder, to be honest, to recognize them in ourselves), Carter does not shrink from the formidable task of proposing a positive program. From the historical, religious and philosophical literature on civility, he retrieves some basic concepts that can help us reforge the link between ethics and etiquette, between the small encounters of daily living and the big issues of world-shaking importance.

Carter sees civility as the moral obligation to make sacrifices for the common good, live in a spirit of generosity and risk, and treat our fellow citizens with respect even when we disagree, all of which underscores the fact that we do not go through this life alone (as uncivil, individualistic people seem to think).

How can renewal take place?

But, even if one agrees with Carter’s critique and is open to his prescriptive program, the obvious question is How can this desired civic renewal take place?

Carter’s answer is we must return to religion, to those sacred traditions that uphold transcendence. He also sees strengthening the family and the schools as indispensable to saving our civilization.

For the religious communities are the places where people can be nurtured in the arts and disciplines of civility. Indeed, Carter esteems and calls attention to the men and women of the civil rights movement as exemplary of the civility we need to embody: their love for their bitter, vicious enemies and their willingness to suffer for their cause. It was their courage and self-discipline that awakened many of their fellow American citizens and helped change the way we live our lives.

As I read Carter’s book, I realized that what he calls “civility” is what others identify as “nonviolence” of thought, word and deed. I was reminded of various programs of nonviolence and self-purification, from Mohandas Gandhi’s campaigns in India to Thich Nhat Hanh’s Engaged Buddhism in Vietnam to Pax Christi USA’s promotion of the “Vow of Nonviolence.”

I also thought of some recent Catholics whose lives embodied this kind of peacemaking, from Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton to Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and the tens of thousands they nurtured and inspired.

For example, Carter’s 10th rule is “Civility requires resistance to the dominance of social life by the values of the marketplace. Thus, the basic principles of civility -- generosity and trust -- should apply as fully in the market and in politics as in every other human activity.” The founders of the Catholic Worker movement would surely agree, since their vision was one of building a new society in the shell of the old in which it was easier for people to be good.

Or Carter’s 15th rule: “Religions do their greatest service to civility when they preach not only love of neighbor but resistance to wrong.” The Catholic peace movement since Vietnam has incarnated this principle in opposition to America’s war-making, whether in the form of U.S. intervention in Central America or in the continuing nuclear arms industry.

Part of the problem

Still, while religion can offer many resources to restore the civility Carter espouses, it’s also fair to say that religion has been and will continue to be part of the problems of violence, intolerance and scapegoating. Carter calls for a religious revival. Fine, but which religions? Judeo-Christian? Buddhism? Islam? New Age? Wicca? Are some religions more worthy than others? And then, which wings of which religions? A revival of the conservative wing? Or of the liberal? Isn’t the United States already a vast, open-24-hours-a-day spiritual supermarket? The religious and spiritual status quo in the United States is complicated, but Carter doesn’t try to sort this out.

And while the author is right to remind us of the dangers of undisciplined personal liberty, I would have liked to see comparable attention to the unmonitored, undisciplined liberty of corporations who, in the quest for even greater profits, go abroad to where the labor force is cheap (and repressed), leaving unemployment and despair to stalk U.S. communities. It would be an immense contribution to civility to insist that decent paying jobs be created and kept here.

Perhaps in reviewing Carter’s rules and beginning to implement the ones that are not our second nature, we will be lighting a few candles rather than cursing someone else’s incivility, which would be a modest step forward in our personal lives. But for the transforming of our violent culture with its market logic of greed and selfishness, we in our religious tradition must also take Carter seriously by continuing to find ways to resist the wrongs of such an established “order.”

Mark Chmiel is adjunct professor of theology at the Aquinas Institute of Theology and St. Louis University in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998