A plea for civility in politics, for our children’s sake
At the annual Christmas luncheon of the Council of Catholic School Cooperative Clubs last week, you made a point to repeat what you have said already about the mean-spirited nature of the recent national, state and local elections. Why did you think it was important to re-emphasize your concerns to the parents’ clubs? As I reflected on the last year and a half of the national, state and local elections, I was truly saddened by what I saw playing out, night after night, on television and in the rest of the media. It got to the point that sometimes I literally placed my hands over my ears when the political ads came on because I didn’t want to hear the name-calling and the vicious, personal attacks on candidates. These were present in national and state elections, Democrat and Republican ads. My major concern about the incivility expressed by so many candidates is the harmful effect it would have on our children and young adults in at least two ways. First, the children and young adults hearing these words and seeing this type of behavior may think all of this is acceptable, when it very clearly is not. The negative attacks are an affront to the values and the teachings of Jesus. Second, I wonder how many children and young people who have heard these screaming matches will be turned away from a potential future in public office. Serving the public as an elected official is a high calling, but this kind of toxic atmosphere certainly will have the effect of making good, honest candidates with a lot to offer cautious about running for office or completely turn them off from the possibility. That is just wrong.
You made a point about people “examining” what is going on around them. Can you explain that?
It is often said that the unexamined life is not worth living. The busyness of our daily lives gets in the way of our truly reflecting on who we are and the meaning of life. The candidates in these elections have done so much to insult and belittle each other. We’ve seen the revenge, name-calling, anger, hostility and hateful words – words that were meant to hurt, which is why they were used. So often today people do not run on their own gifts but on the weaknesses of others. I’ve thought to myself: Is this the American way? I hope not, but, quite frankly, I’m not sure that it has not become the American way. It’s something we all should be embarrassed about as Americans. Is it the way of Jesus? Obviously, no. What this atmosphere does is feed our anger and despair. It makes us wonder if anyone has integrity. The bigger question is what happens to our children. There’s no way to keep them away from this. It’s not just what is taught but what is “caught.” Unfortunately, I think what it has taught them is that whatever you think doesn’t need to be filtered – you just have to say it. We’ve suggested that the more hateful you are to another person, the more power you have. We’ve suggested that anger and revenge are OK in the public forum. Things that might have been said to one other person or privately to a small group is now said in the public forum. It also suggests that bullying, in its worst state, is acceptable. Hostility wins over respect; division wins over unity. I’m not trying to paint a bleak picture, but I think this is realistic. We really need to address this with both political parties on a national, state and local level.
What can parents, teachers and administrators of Catholic schools do to counteract this atmosphere?
We have to talk about this and take a stand. We need to tell our children and young adults that they certainly have the responsibility to respect those who have been elected and those who are in authority. But we need to add, in some cases, “please do not follow their example!” I’ve said this to many youth and young adults recently: “Please do not follow their example!” We don’t want them to catch what they have seen and heard and think of that as the American way. It’s certainly not the Lord Jesus’ way. We can’t keep silent. We don’t know how much our children have seen, heard and digested. At home and at school, this must be addressed in conversation. What did you hear? What did you pick up? What did you think? Some will be more reflective than others depending on age and other factors. But we must enter into conversation. If our children have “caught” a lot of the anger and hostility, how did that contrast with our Christian values? Jesus said, as a leader, “I have come to serve, and not to be served”; “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God”; “Love one another, as I have loved you.” From the Old Testament, we find: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and, of course, from the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” I wonder if those who prepared these political ads and campaigns ever even thought of that? In the Psalms, we pray, “O Lord, set a guard at the door of my lips.” I find that very difficult, although I pray that prayer every day. Sometimes, because of the atmosphere we live in, it’s very easy just to say what we think, but we must pray, ‘O Lord, set a guard at the door of my lips.” I wonder what Jesus thought about all of this. The best image I can come up with is that he wept bitterly. The challenge for myself and for all of us is to form our children at home, and then complement that through Catholic education. It’s an opportunity for us to talk about the elephant in the room and for our young people to see what has taken place and recognize the contradiction to the values of Jesus. We have a moral obligation to teach them not to imitate what they often see and what they have heard, because it has poisoned our society. Our children deserve better. Jesus said, “Let the children come unto me.” It’s our responsibility and privilege to embrace our children and give them real direction in their lives.