Darkness, and Light, in the Public Square

Elizabeth Warren speaking at the Women in Finance symposium in 2010. (wikimedia commons) US Senator Scott Brown from Massachusetts. (CNS photo/Brian Snyder)
Radio provocateur and conservative ringleader Rush Limbaugh entered the national conversation around the Health and Human Services contraception mandate, taking the already heated rhetoric to a new low.

A Georgetown University law student, Sandra Fluke, testified before Congress that she supported the HHS mandate and stated her desire for her school, a Jesuit institution, to provide coverage for contraception despite the Catholic Church’s opposition to artificial birth control. Limbaugh reacted to the testimony on his radio show.

Rightly and predictably, Limbaugh’s critics have assailed his comments as out-of-bounds and inappropriate. After several advertisers began pulling their revenue from his show, Limbaugh issued a half-hearted apology. President Obama called the student to offer his support.

In response to the debacle, Georgetown’s president, the lay Catholic John J. DeGioia, issued a letter condemning the heated rhetoric and calling for cooler minds without ceding ground on the debate. From the letter:

In our vibrant and diverse society, there always are important differences that need to be debated, with strong and legitimate beliefs held on all sides of challenging issues. The greatest contribution of the American project is the recognition that together, we can rely on civil discourse to engage the tensions that characterize these difficult issues, and work towards resolutions that balance deeply held and different perspectives. We have learned through painful experience that we must respect one another and we acknowledge that the best way to confront our differences is through constructive public debate. At times, the exercise of one person’s freedom may conflict with another’s. As Americans, we accept that the only answer to our differences is further engagement.

Last week, Maine’s Republican US Senator Olympia Snowe announced in a Washington Post editorial that she would not seek reelection, citing the cantankerous and partisan atmosphere in Washington that prevent her from legislating and debating effectively.

Some opinion makers greeted her announcement with glee, but Snowe is widely viewed by her peers as a moderate who is willing to engage the other side to find pragmatic solutions to the nation’s problems. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recalled fondly his days covering Snowe:

She moved, dressed and treated people — even reporters, and even when we hounded her through the hallways of the Capitol — with an unforced, uncommon graciousness. She spoke with intelligence and almost never with vitriol.

But those weren’t the main reasons we had such soft spots for her. We liked her best for her disobedience. Unlike the majority of her colleagues in the Senate, be they Democrats or, like her, Republicans, she dared to disagree with her party. Often. And she did it publicly, with her votes and her forthright explanations of them.

Being civil to one another in the public square is a value that people of any or no faith can and should rally behind. Though they may not be able to break bones, words have extraordinary power to tear people down and distort truth and reality in ways that cannot be fixed.

The loss of Snowe in the public square is lamentable, but a US Senate race in Massachusetts is offering hope that perhaps there is still some room for civility in the pubic square. Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican who surprisingly won a special election to fill the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat, has by most accounts been reasonable in his approach to legislating in Washington. Like Snowe, he has bucked his party on a few key votes, including bills related to financial reform and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. His likely opponent is Elizabeth Warren, a popular Democrat who was the architect of the new Consumer Protection Financial Bureau.

The race is already attracting national attention, as Democrats believe they can pick up an additional seat to help maintain their slim control of the Senate. Like states with important presidential primaries, outside money and advocacy organizations are expected to flood the state with negative advertising (see my post on the detrimental effects of Super PACs here). Trying to stave off this negativity, the two candidates have signed a pledge that compels them to donate money to a charity of their opponents choosing each time an ad airs supporting their campaign that is paid for by an outside group. A pro-Romney organization recently used web advertising to support Brown, leading to the first violation of the pledge and soon Brown will donate to one of Warren’s chosen charities (read more here). This small gesture aimed at reducing the vitriol from outside money may not eradicate the negativity, but it is a hopeful sign that even after reasonable lawmakers such as Snowe leave Congress, others may step up to take her place.

Being civil to one another in the public square is a value that people of any or no faith can and should rally behind. Though they may not be able to break bones, words have extraordinary power to tear people down and distort truth and reality in ways that cannot be fixed. I think of Fr. Flynn’s sermon on gossip from the movie Doubt (watch it here), where he offers a parable about the impossibility of retrieving the multitude of feathers spread throughout town after a pillow is ripped open and left open to the elements. Gossip, or harsh words and lies in the public square in this case, are like those feathers. No matter how sincere individuals apologize, no matter how many statements they issue correcting distortions, or how strongly they distance themselves from the noxious words of others, the damage has been done and there is not much anyone can do to restore the integrity of the victims.

Sandra Fluke’s image has been tarnished by Limbaugh’s hate fueled rant. A talented lawmaker will no longer contribute to the national dialogue because of a tainted political system. But luckily there are some bright spots. Brown and Warren are trying to deflate the rhetoric, and DeGioia offers an exhortation toward civility and respect by closing his letter with a quote from Saint Augustine:

Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us. For then only may we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly, if there be no bold presumption that it is already discovered and possessed.