September 07, 2017

No God, no truth, no civil discourse

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
Credit: Unsplash
Credit: Unsplash

In 1835, French sociologist and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America, one of the most influential books of the 19th century. Previously, he had spent nine months traveling through the United States studying our religious, political, and economic character. His findings provide much wisdom concerning life in America. He astutely remarked that “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

Today, there is a great fault that divides our country. It is the way that we speak to each other in terms of our opinions and judgments. Unfiltered vitriol has come to dominate media reports, public speech and the discourse between political opponents. Anger against less than honest campaigns for public office and rigged debates is destroying basic civility. In fact, many Americans no longer pay attention to politics because of the lack of civil discourse.

According to the seventh annual Civility in America poll conducted by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research, 69 percent of Americans say that we are heading in the direction of crisis in civility. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed blamed politicians for incivility. Fifty-nine percent blamed the media.

Cable broadcasts and social media are the two major sources of news about our national politics. Political rage simmers in news commentators, dissecting and interpreting events and people. Too often news is filtered through the biases of those who report it. It is not just the facts. It is propaganda. And, Americans clearly recognize this partisan and sometimes grossly prejudiced reporting of events.

The loss of civil speech reveals the even greater loss of respect for truth. Where there is no objective standard, then subjective opinions become a battleground where the powerful force their views on others. Those who disagree are labelled intolerant; their views dismissed without a proper dialogue; and, the most vociferous hyper-partisans rule. The examples are many. 

When it came to putting into effect a new health plan, mandating coverage for birth control, the Obama administration enforced its ideology on the nation without allowing for any religious exceptions in our pluralistic society. Catholics and evangelicals were ignored. They were labelled unenlightened, anti-women. As the Trump administration promises to reverse the decision of mandating compulsory coverage for birth control, the inevitable outcries claiming that woman’s health is being put at risk only mask the underlying problem. 

On issues such as health care, immigration, marriage, racial equality and education, there needs to be honest, civil discourse among our politicians and news media. Facts, not just opinions! No demonizing those with differing opinions. Our country needs to put partisan politics and personal ideologies in second place and truth in first place. And, herein lies the issue that we are facing.

In his famous Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis captured the mood of our postmodern thinking. In his book, the senior devil advises Wormwood, his nephew devil, not to tempt man with the ideas of truth or falsehood. He says, “Your man has been accustomed…to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily 'true' or 'false', but as 'academic' or 'practical', 'outworn' or 'contemporary,' 'conventional' or 'ruthless'.. Don't waste time trying to make him think [in terms of what] is true! Make him think [in terms of what] is strong or stark or courageous…” (Screwtape Letters, p. 7-8). Simply put, objective truth does not matter. 

If there is no such reality as objective truth, then there is no standard for good and evil. Everything devolves into one’s personal opinion and the stage is set for confusion, bitter debate and, sadly, uncivil speech. “We are now getting to the point at which different beliefs about the universe lead to different behavior. Religion involves a series of statements about facts, which must be either true or false. If they are true, one set of conclusions will follow about the right sailing of the human fleet; if they are false, quite a different set” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity p. 58). Being civil requires the acknowledgement that we are all in search of a truth beyond ourselves and, ultimately in search of God whose goodness determines right and wrong, good and evil. Once God has been driven from the public forum, uncivil behavior becomes the social norm.

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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