A Return to Civility

by Napa Institute
Published In May 15, 2017

In present day America, one need only turn on the TV or pick up a paper to see the divisions in our nation. Party against party, people against people, ideology against ideology. On all sides, deep mistrust and even anger has taken root. We are deeply divided because our country is deeply divided. There has been a cultural revolution in this country that has divided America. The foundational divide is over moral truths: what they are or whether or not they exist at all. The divide is great. I recently spoke at Cornell University where I was shouted at for so long and so aggressively that I was forced to speak over their protests for an hour and a half. As I looked out at the overflowing room, this sea of young students was so convinced that I was a man I am not. This deeply saddened me for the future of our country. Not only did they come there with minds made up (so much for the liberal spirit of openness), they refused to let me speak and had decided I had nothing they could possibly listen to. Is that what tolerance looks like? Because, in my experience, this is what it has looked like on these campuses on too many occasions. Our children are told to be tolerant of opinions, but that really only applies to opinions they agree with. It is an irony and a disgrace to the decent principles of free dialogue that our country was founded upon. This intolerance has divided us.

The other side of this is that when there are such divisions, there is hope for great healing. I believe our nation is still hungry for truth. I believe we still want to agree and be united once more. For this to occur, several things need to happen. There must be a return to civility among the people, a general cultivation of respect for the other person, even though theirs may be a vastly different opinion. If two different sides can sit at a table, listen with open ears out of respect for the dignity of the other person and respond with civility, that would do a great deal to heal wounds and unite our nation.

The other essential component to national healing is to simultaneously stand firm in truth and advocate for it. We face a dictatorship of sentimental relativism. ‘I feel’ is more important than ‘I think,’ so rational, compelling arguments are increasingly difficult to have. Yet, as discouraging as this reality is, I believe the clarity and compelling nature of truth will stand out even more starkly against this grey horizon of impending nihilism. So we must hold fast to truth all the more. In fact, we are called to it as a Church. Let it transform our hearts and change the way we live. I would love to hear more heroic calls to virtue, to holiness, to greatness coming from our pulpits. Sadly, I do not. I understand that asking this is, sadly, often asking a sort of heroism from our clergy in this day in age. In spite of all the pressures our secular culture imposes, I encourage the clergy to be bold, brave, and authentic! We attract people to the Church by vibrantly offering them the richness and fullness of truth, not by showing them but a shadow of who we are. By living out our creed and witnessing to it, with love, civility, and a listening heart in the world, we can make progress and heal our nation.

About a week after my trip to Cornell University, I received an email from a student. She said that she had come there, mind made up, to protest what I was going to say. But, upon listening to the angry voices swell and silence me, she felt ashamed. If this was what true tolerance, civility, and scholarship looked like, this was not something she wanted to be a part of. So, she stayed as I began to speak over the crowd. And she listened. She told me that by the end of the evening, she realized that we agreed on more than she thought previously, that she was wrong about me. There are still many issues she and I disagree on, to be sure, but she wanted to thank me for coming, apologize for how I was treated, and tell me that one student was deeply changed, for the better, because I didn’t back down. I share this story as a reminder. In our world, we will be shouted at and called all sorts of horrible things when we stand up for what we believe in. We will feel divided from much of the world. But remember, we are called to holiness and not popularity. And, at the end, we never know the hearts we will change and the small, but important, bridges we will build.

Rick Santorum is a CNN senior political commentator who served as a United States Senator representing Pennsylvania and was a candidate for the 2012 and 2016 Republican Party presidential nominations.

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