The (In)Civility of Some Arizona Churches

This is a curious story about civility – or the lack thereof – among the faithful. Apparently, in Fountain Hills, Arizona, eight area churches are collaborating this May on a campaign that they call “Progressive” Christianity: Fact or Fiction, which targets The Fountains United Methodist Church and its pastor, David Felton, who is the author of the bestselling book, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.

According to the Fox affiliate in Phoenix, The Fountains is the only progressive church in the area. And it is geared, as Pastor Felton says, toward letting people know that there’s a choice out there, they don’t have to deny science, they don’t have to hate their gay neighbor, they don’t have to read and take the bible in a way that causes them to abandon their rational mind.

The pastors of the eight collaborating churches – Rick Ponzo, Don Lawrence, Rod Warembourg, Tony Pierce, Todd Forrest, Bill Good, Steve Bergeson, and Tom Daly – wrote in an op-ed piece in the Fountain Hills Times on May 13 that they will present a series of sermons, the objective of which is to answer three primary questions:

  1. What is the difference between “Progressive” Christianity and Biblical Christianity?
  2. Does that difference really matter in a relativistic age?
  3. How can a Christian decipher what he or she should believe?

In the op-ed, they couch the sermon series as an exercise in promoting ecumenical cooperation and civility:

Unity among churches is a wonderful thing when the truths at stake are greater than the differences between us. By teaming up to stand for the essential truths that we embrace, eight pastors and their churches are making a key statement: Truth matters to us.

But as Daniel Schultz of the USC Annenberg School’s Religion Dispatches blog writes, the whole thing is fundamentally divisive. It airs the enmity between liberal and conservative Christians. It is a further sign of the same increasing polarization along ideological lines that infects American political culture. And the net effect, writes Schultz, is roughly analogous to when campaign ads go negative: the base is kept strong and in line, but the majority of people say “to hell with the both of you, I’m staying home.”

For our purposes, though, what’s even more interesting here is that it’s not just the “Progressive” Christianity: Fact or Fiction campaign itself that betrays this breakdown in civility. Though a group of eight conservative churches teaming up to discredit a lone progressive church has an odor of bullying about it, progressive pastor David Felton’s own words are hardly innocuous. In his response to Fox’s Phoenix affiliate, his characterization of other Christians as irrational science deniers and homophobes is essentializing, and demeaning, and certainly does no justice to the nuance of opinion of the folks who sit across the aisle from him.

What’s going on here seems to be a kind of breakdown of empathy that’s caused by a failure of imagination on both sides.

In his Beyond Vietnam speech, Martin Luther King Jr. said that the meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence is that it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. It helps us to see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and to know that those whom we call the opposition are in fact brothers and sisters in another guise.

And that is what’s missing here. In their public statements, the churches promoting “Progressive” Christianity: Fact or Fiction – and also the church being targeted being targeted by the campaign – seem unable to see themselves from their adversaries’ point of view. Adherence to ideology, and adherence to an essentializing understanding of who the other side is, have left them blind to the weaknesses in their own positions. And so they are able to claim and care for their own needs, but they are unable to do so while respecting the needs of others.

From the outside, this seems like a classic case of extreme measures cutting off lines of communications between parties just when a set of civil conversations is needed the most.

Civility Linkblogging: The (Mostly) Canada Edition

Linkblogging
By Anita Pratanti, via flickr

This post is part of an ongoing series that highlights discourse about civility online. We glean the articles for civility linkblogging from a broad cross-section of blogs, newspapers, and magazines, from the United States and abroad.

This week, our linkblogging segment focuses primarily on Canada: on Rob Ford’s ongoing stewardship of Toronto; on increased polarization in the national legislature; on the poor influence — the polarizing influence — of political culture imported from the United States; and on one grade six class that has had just about enough of name-calling, and will no longer visit Alberta’s provincial legislature meetings.

If you have an article that you think would be right for future civility linkblogging posts, please do not hesitate to email it to us at editor@instituteforcivility.org. Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Now — the list:

Polly: A Time When Political Civility Was Rule, Not Exception
Posted at The Eastern Arizona Courier, March 12, 2014

Polly believed that what she did as a legislator was important, but she never considered herself important. Her important work is not forgotten. In fact, an annual Polly Rosenbaum Dinner is being held every year in Clifton to honor her dedication on behalf of Greenlee County. The 6th annual event honoring her is Thursday, March 20, at Tyler’s Taste of Texas in Clifton.

It is being sponsored by the Greenlee Democrats – and while Polly was a lifelong Democrat – anybody is welcome to the dinner, regardless of political affiliation. Polly would have liked it that way.

A Lesson in Online Civility
Posted at The Calgary Herald, March 12, 2014

Coun. Sean Chu may be a newcomer to city hall, but he’s getting a quick education on the etiquette of social media.

Tuesday, Chu questioned the accuracy of city staff’s cycling counts along the new 7th Street S.W. bike lane. Fair enough, but the Ward 4 politician went further, appearing to attack city staff who are unable to respond to such criticism publicly. …

He has issued an apology, but still faces the prospect of being censured under council’s ethical conduct policy.

Tory MP On Cusp of Retirement Laments Decline of Commons Civility
Posted by Jennifer Ditchburn at The Ottowa Star, March 14, 2014

Hawn doesn’t lay the blame for the lack of civility on any particular party, or expect any particular leader to produce a solution.

“I think it does come down to individuals thinking about what they’re doing and saying every day and just the simple things. People fire a shot, a nasty shot, instead of just saying, ‘Well you know what, maybe they’ve got some good ideas’,” said Hawn.

“I’ve always said, the opposition aren’t stupid people, we’re all here for the same reason, they all came to Ottawa to make a positive difference and we all want to get essentially to the same destination … we argue about the road we’re on to get there.”

Political Trash-Talking is Nothing New, but It’s Getting Worse
Posted by Wendy Gillis at TheStar.com, March 15, 2014

Are our democratic institutions imploding, or is heated debate just an inevitable part of the system, serving as evidence of a healthy diversity of representation?

Researchers interviewed by the Star agree there has a recent downward spiral in the conduct of our politicians and civility in office, both on a local scale and in other levels of government.

Gary Levy, a political scientist at Carleton University, says it’s hard to pinpoint what prompted it — a spike in tumultuous minority governments, maybe the polarizing influence of the U.S. — but agrees politicians’ behaviour has seen a change for the worse.

“I just get the feeling that there’s no longer the concept of fair is fair, and do unto others — golden rule type of thing. It’s rather ‘the end justifies the means,’ and ‘we’ll do anything to stay in power.’”

Legislature Could Use Some Civility
Posted at The Lethbridge Herald, March 19, 2014

Premier Alison Redford and Opposition leader Danielle Smith have sparred on numerous occasions and the battle between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance is primed to heat up even further.

Those disagreements have been widely publicized, and often fuelled by combatants through social media, as the race to form this province’s next government has caused a never-ending cycle of mudslinging.

For members of the media, and citizens deeply involved in politics, much of this comes as no surprise. However, the issue received much more attention last week when a Grade 6 class in Innisfail informed the Legislature students would no longer attend question period.

Repeated displays of rudeness, name calling and offensive language were cited as just some of the reasons the class felt the need to speak out, as the childish behaviour witnessed was simply too much for the youngsters to tolerate.