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WASHINGTON LETTER Feb-4-2011 (900 words) Backgrounder and analysis. With photo. xxxn

The new civility: Congress may be fickle, but others take up challenge

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- If the elected leaders won't lead, perhaps it takes preachers and educational institutions to do the job.

The emotional pledge by members of Congress to return to a more civil way of dealing with their opponents -- made amid the stunned national reaction to the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords Jan. 8 -- may not survive the winter, if some early backsliding is an indication of the gesture's viability.

But others around the country are taking the idea seriously and are pursuing ways to help the new civility take hold permanently.

A spirit of bipartisan camaraderie was evident in Congress during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Jan. 25, as Republicans and Democrats eschewed their traditional seating arrangement. Democrats and Republicans sat together, eliminating the usual spectacle of half the room standing for partisan applause lines while the other party's senators and representatives sit solemn-faced.

The atmosphere in the House chamber this year was different, no doubt due in part to the seating arrangements, which included political opponents lining up cross-party "dates" to sit with for the speech. But it also was indicative of a speech by Obama that avoided the red-meat partisan phraseology that has marked past addresses by both Republican and Democratic presidents.

It wasn't long, however, before the rhetorical knives were back out of their sheaths, with comments flying back and forth after the speech, such as a Republican congressman calling Obama a socialist in his Twitter feed and a spokesman for a leading Democrat saying the Republicans' intention is to end Social Security and Medicare.

Meanwhile, in the small Colorado town of Central City -- which covers less than two square miles and, according to the 2000 census, has a population of just over 500 -- the Rev. Sarah Freeman, vicar of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, was putting the finishing touches on an interfaith community prayer service for political peace.

On Jan. 26, scores of people came out on a frigid night to pray at St. Paul's in a service that featured prayers and readings by leaders of four of the town's six or seven churches: St. Paul's, St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic, St. James Methodist and Black Hawk Evangelical Free Church. Four elected officials even stood before the congregation for a formal blessing.

"It was interesting to see that without prompting they all joined hands," said Rev. Freeman of the mixed group of city and county officials.

Long before the Giffords' shooting at a community political event prompted national reflection on the tone of American politics, Rev. Freeman had felt God was calling her to tackle the subject in her town.

When campaign rhetoric was turning particularly nasty before the November elections, Rev. Freeman said "the Lord put it in my heart" to try to do something about it.

"In our parish we're all about trying to create a sense of community in Central City again," she said, explaining that the recent development of casino gambling has caused some of the town's sense of community to be lost.

A Denver Post newspaper story about the service and other publicity has led to inquiries from other churches interested in hosting similar services in their town, Rev. Freeman told Catholic News Service.

Father Michael Kerrigan, pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption, said the service seemed an appropriate opportunity for people to reflect on the role of those in authority. He said the evening reminded him of the Catholic observance of a week of prayer for Christian unity in its ecumenical approach.

A similar spirit is behind a program being developed at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

There, a public discourse lecture series will focus this year on "The Lost Art of Democratic Argument: Can We Reason Together About Values Without Rancor and Incivility," the title of an address by Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel scheduled for Feb. 15.

The lecture is part of a wide-ranging approach to incorporating civil discourse in the curriculum, explained Marisa Kelly, dean of St. Thomas' College of Arts and Sciences.

She told CNS the university is raising funds to establish an endowed chair in civil discourse and has begun a pilot program on the topic for first-year students, which might become a requirement for graduation. Coursework on a wide range of topics would be required to include a unit on civil discourse related to each field, she said.

For instance, a philosophy course might have a unit on "how to advance your argument instead of making an ad hominem attack," said Kelly. A geology course might tackle the issue of stewardship of the earth using scientific data and include a unit on how to present such data in the course of a civil debate, she said.

The emphasis on civil discourse has broad support across campus, she said, and is beginning to attract attention from beyond the university. Faculty members from the justice and peace studies program have been invited to local parishes recently to discuss civility in public life, for example.

Kelly said the civil discourse emphasis grew out of the sense that "we needed to make the need for civil discourse explicit," though it had always been implicit at St. Thomas.

"In today's world we felt we needed to be more consistently tied to that notion, so our students can go out into their various roles in life promoting civil discourse," she said.


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