Rabbi David Saperstein Joins Religious Leaders in Deploring Lack of Civility in Public Discourse Policy
Policy debates between members of Congress, political pundits, and advocacy groups are sounding less and less like Solomon and Lincoln and more and more like Jerry Springer and Limbaugh.
WASHINGTON - January 5, 1999 - Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders gathered today at the National Press Club to rededicate our nation to civility and to call on the Senate to act with mutual respect in their deliberations over impeachment. Sponsored by Interfaith Alliance, the press conference announced plans for a National Faith Leaders Summit on Civility in Public discourse to be held in Washington on January 26, 1999, followed by similar faith-based forums around the country.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, spoke at the press conference, along with Christian and Muslim religious leaders including Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of The Interfaith Alliance, and president of the Alliance of Baptists and Dr. Azizah Al-Hibri, professor of law, T.C. Williams School of Law at the University of Richmond.
The full text of the letter follows:
"I am Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the official social action office of the Reform Jewish Movement in the United States. I stand here today to lend my support to the National Faith Leaders Summit on Civility in Public Discourse later this month.
"We call this summit because our public discourse has reached an alarming low. It has moved beyond spirited, to become salacious. It has moved beyond policy, to become personal. It has moved from advocacy to attack.
"This summit is intended to be a response to this state of affairs. It seeks to help change the moral climate and public expectations in which political discourse in America will take place. We do not stand as judges of particular political policies or statements, of specific campaign tactics or of political advertisements, but rather, hopefully, as a moral goad to the conscience of the nation.
"I have worked in this city for twenty-five years. As a religious lobbyist, I have engaged in many a strong debate, taken on many a dedicated ideological foe, fought long and hard for the policies near and dear to the Jewish community. But working on many different issues teaches that today's enemy is tomorrow's friend, that one's opponent on church-state separation may be one's ally on economic justice. In my own community, we oppose conservative religious groups over school vouchers, yet join with them to condemn religious persecution abroad. We have joined with the Catholic Church in condemning violence, nuclear proliferation, and threats to the environment, even as we differ with the Catholic Church on reproductive rights. We condemn a senator's opposition to gun control one moment, even as we applaud hER commitment to religious liberty the next. How do we build and maintain such a complex web of shifting alliances? Through civility. By attacking policies, not people. By seeking compromise, not conflict. By never forgetting the essential humanity and decency of our opponents. By using language that is passionate, persuasive, powerful, but never poisonous.
"Once, our political leaders understood the need for such civility. They could debate each other vociferously and thoughtfully in the morning, then socialize in the evening. They could attack each other's policies on one issue, then stand together on another. They could reach across party lines to govern, to do the will of the people, willing to sacrifice ideological purity for common sense compromise and the common good. But, sadly, no more.
"Today the nasty rhetoric and mean spirited personal attacks that are coming to characterize more and more political campaigns have begun to seep into, and poison, political debate in the Congress, in the media, and in public life generally. Policy debates between members of Congress, political pundits, and advocacy groups are sounding less and less like Solomon and Lincoln and more and more like Jerry Springer and Limbaugh.
"When political and public leaders engage in dehumanizing and demeaning attacks on each other, people throughout our nation will follow their lead. If, as a result, we legitimize public discourse and political rhetoric that verbally dehumanize our fellow human beings, such diminishing of the divine image will give sanction to those who would seek justification for their denial of rights to, or even the use of violence against, our brothers and sisters. Too often, vile words lead to vile deads.
"As a rabbi, I stand here today to affirm that age-old ideas and ideals about the responsibility of language must be at into the center of the moral debates of American public life; and to urge our fellow citizens that when they engage in debate and discourse they should be mindful of the admonition of the Talmud 2,000 years ago: 'A person who publicly shames another is like someone who has shed blood.' Our whole nation is diminished when we fail to remember this. Again in the word of the Talmud: 'Why is gossip like a three pronged tongue of a poisonous snake? Because it kills three people. The person who says it, the person who listens to it, and the person about whom it is said.' Politicians who seek rhetorically to diminish the human dignity of their opponents, forget that they are diminished by their own words; and we are diminished as a nation whenever we accept such dehumanization as an appropriate norm. If the American people say 'No' to such rhetoric, politicians will change. Conversely, if our leaders change, our nation can change.
"But let us be clear: civility does not mean complacency. To be civil does not mean forfeiting our ability to criticize, in the strongest possible constructive terms, policies and ideas we don't like. It does mean finding ways of doing this while respecting, preserving, even defending, the basic humanity of those with whom we disagree.
"We call this summit then to call our leaders to that higher level of discourse, to raise the rhetoric out of the sewer, to debate and not degrade - and in so doing, to lift the soul and the spirit of our nation."
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, representing 1.5 million Reform Jews and 1,800 Reform rabbis in 875 congregations throughout North America.