Early in his inaugural address President George W. Bush talked about "a new commitment to live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character. America, at its best, matches a commitment to principle with a concern for civility."
Character and civility have fallen on hard times, and we are reaping the results of a society that has turned its back on these two admirable attributes. In their book The Day America Told the Truth, James Patterson and Peter Kim demonstrate that we no longer follow any moral authority. They found that only 13 percent of us follow the Ten Commandments. They also found that merely 40 percent believe in five of the Ten Commandments.
They also found that Americans are no longer an honest people. They say that lying has become an integral part of American culture. They estimate that 91 percent of Americans lie on a regular basis.
It appears they we are equally troubled about marriage and family. Even though we still marry, we have lost faith in the institution of marriage. They estimated that a third of married men and women had at least one affair.
The loss of character also translates in the workplace. Their surveys show that American workers spend more than 20 percent of their day goofing off. That translates into about 7 hours a week of no productivity. They also found that half of the workforce calls in sick regularly when not sick.
Civility has also been in decline. Newspapers are running stories asking, "Why are we so rude?" U.S. News and World Report talks about "The American Uncivil Wars." They conclude that "Crude, Rude and Obnoxious Behavior Has Replaced Good Manners."
Articles in the newspaper document the number of incidents of road rage. An American Automobile Association report documents a sharp rise in the use of cars as weapons. A Colorado funeral director complains about impatient drivers darting in and out of funeral processions. Instead of waiting for the procession to pass, they threaten life and limb while ignoring both law and tradition in their rush to get somewhere.
So its no wonder that there has been a parallel loss of character and civility in politics. In fact it is fair to say that Americans have been electing politicians to office that aren't all that different from them. So bringing character and civility back to Washington, D.C. may require more than just changing the tone of political debate in our nation's capital.
Stephen Carter in his book Civility says that our actions and sacrifice are a "signal of respect for our fellow citizens, marking them as full equals, both before the law and before God. Rules of civility are thus also rules of morality; it is morally proper to treat our fellow citizens with respect, and morally improper not to. Our crisis of civility, is part of a larger crisis of morality."
Therefore, I believe that we should join with President Bush to re-establish the attributes of character and civility in our communities and within the political debate. Here are a few principles we should all apply to our lives:
If Christians want to reform society and return to character and civility, one excellent model is William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Most people know Wilberforce as the man who brought an end to the British slave trade. He served for half a century in the House of Commons. And led by his Christian faith, he tirelessly worked for the abolition of slavery. But that was but one of the "two great objects" of his life. The other, even more daunting, was his attempt to transform the civil and moral climate of his times. Although he is known as an abolitionist, the other great accomplishment of his life was in the reformation of manners.
I believe he provides a positive example of how we should engage the world. We should do so with courage, compassion, character, and civility.