Apart from all the typical rhetoric and bluster of a typical political campaign, during this election cycle I have been particularly frustrated with the tone of the arguments. Many — too many — of the candidates have degenerated into ad hominem attacks, verbal bullying, condescending comments, and generally rude behavior. A number of years ago, someone wrote, Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Watching this election, I ponder how many of our candidates skipped kindergarten and the lessons of basic civility and politeness.
Is rudeness a reason not to vote for one candidate and vote for another? Certainly we want to examine each candidate’s position on the essential issues of the day, but yes, politeness matters. Lack of civility is a reason not to vote for someone.
This crystalized for me last night as I read the opening chapter of Douglas Wilson’s latest book, Writers to Read: Nine Names That Belong on Your Bookshelf (the Kindle version is currently on sale for $2.99).
In his chapter about G. K. Chesterton, he notes that peripheral issues really are not peripheral, for they reveal the heart of the person. And then he applies that principle to civility and manners:
But remember, the fruit— which Christ required for identifying the nature of a tree— is way out on the edges of the tree and is at the farthest point away from the root. We must recover the understanding that peripherals are central because the center is important. The root is the most important, and is central, and we test what is central by tasting what is at the edges. This is one of the reasons why Chesterton is so good at discussing the ordinary issues of life. He can pluck any fruit from any branch and, without changing the subject, trace the life of that fruit back to the root. Take manners, for example. Manners can be described as love in trifles, love at the periphery. The collapse of manners in our society— a peripheral thing, surely!— represents a true downgrade. But here is Chesterton: “Love of humanity is the commonest and most natural of the feelings of a fresh nature, and almost everyone has felt it alight capriciously upon him when looking at a crowded park or on a room full of dancers.” Those activities are out at the edges, but by looking at the edges we can see the center.
So the lack of manners in a political campaign reveals the heart of the individual (Lk. 6:45) and in this instance particularly reveals his lack of love for others — his opponent, the political process, and the people he desires to govern. And it further reveals a heart filled with self-love. So the question is, “can an impolite, self-loving, people-despising person make a godly, loving ruler?” The answer is self-evident.
To this we might also add Jesus’ principle about faithfulness: “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much” (Lk. 16:10). In this instance, the little thing is politeness, kindness, openness to discussion, refrain from bullying, and gentleness. It doesn’t take much to do those things. We train our children (at least we used to) to talk politely to adults — even a three-year-old can say “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir.” It’s a small thing. And if a political candidate and public figure repeatedly shows a propensity for rudeness and crudeness, it is revealing that he cannot be entrusted with the bigger responsibilities of rulership. He has failed the test of faithfulness in small things; he cannot be trusted to be faithful in the great things.
Yes, manners matter. Even (especially) in a political race.