I am from Vermont, a state so small that politics have to be civil. It’s much harder to run an attack ad against your opponent when most of the voters in the state will have met that opponent, and seen first-hand that he or she is not actually a monster; it’s much harder to believe an attack ad when the person being attacked is your neighbor, coworker, or friend. I believe that a large percentage of the incivility in today’s political environment comes from a sense of disengagement. The average voter will never get to meet the candidates for president, so why shouldn’t we believe what we hear about them in the media? The media is, after all, the only contact we have with presidential candidates.
But in Vermont – and other small communities – we get to meet the candidates for political office, have conversations with them, and decide for ourselves whether we agree with their positions. In 2006 both candidates for the House of Representatives seat, Democrat Peter Welch and Republican Martha Rainville, vowed to never launch a personal attack against one another. They kept that vow, and their campaign was more engaging and substantive than any other campaign that I’ve followed. I ended up respecting both candidates more than I ever would have if they had been uncivil to one another.
I think the debate about religious freedom in the United States can benefit from this small-community style of politics. It is much harder to be uncivil to someone who you actually know. Unfortunately, even in America, the most religiously diverse country on earth, people can grow up without ever encountering members of other religious groups, which makes those groups seem strange or scary. Just as civility in politics is made easier through personal relationships, civility in discussions of religion is much easier to achieve when you know someone from another religion.
When I was young all I knew about the Church of Latter-Day Saints were a few less-than-flattering stereotypes that, as with most stereotypes, turned out to be largely untrue. But then, when I was thirteen, my father was diagnosed with cancer. In the aftermath of that diagnosis my family saw an outpouring of love and support from people from all walks of life. One of my dad’s good friends from work was an LDS church member, and he wanted to come to our house to perform a blessing on my father. My dad wasn’t an LDS member, and he wasn’t going to become one. His friend knew that. He wasn’t trying to convert my dad, or proselytize to him. He simply cared about my dad, and wanted to offer him whatever protection he could. The blessing ceremony was incredibly moving, and something that I still think about seven years later. Performing that blessing was that friend’s way of showing how much he cared about my father, and we deeply appreciated that sentiment.
Every religion has practices that, when taken out of context, can seem scary and unfamiliar, just as people who we don’t know can be more easily portrayed in a negative light. Many people are concerned about mosques being built in their communities, but these people would likely be less concerned if they knew someone who was Muslim, and saw that Muslims, like people from all other faith traditions, use their faith as a source of internal strength, and as a way to comfort others.
Describing the need for interfaith conversations and friendships is hardly original, but that’s because it really is immeasurably important. Before we speak uncivilly about a group of people, in the spheres of either religion or politics, we should first get to know someone from that group. As I learned from my years in Vermont, and from the interfaith dialogues that I’ve had throughout my life, once you know that person you may find that you don’t have anything uncivil to say after all.
Eliza B. summer of 2010 Policy Intern, Interfaith Alliance.