How Americans view civility

September 11, 2020

Bullying. Harassment. Violent behavior. Hate crimes Intimidation and threats. Intolerance. Feeling less safe in public places. Discrimination and unfair treatment. Less community engagement. Feelings of isolation and loneliness.

These are the top 10 consequences of incivility, according to a survey taken last year on civility in America. The survey also found that 68% of Americans consider incivility to be a major problem, and another one in four (25%) believe it is a minor problem. Fewer than one in 10 (7%) found it not to be a problem at all. More than 3/4 (80%) of all Americans report having personally experienced uncivil behavior at one time or another.

In 2019, the frequency of uncivil encounters was an average of 10.2 per week. Almost half of reported uncivil encounters occurred online, which is why 63% of Americans say that, in their experience, the impact of social media on civility has been more negative than positive. Only 9% say it has been more positive than negative.

Internal research by Facebook found the social media platform contributes to incivility by promoting divisiveness. “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” read a slide from a 2018 presentation at the company. “If left unchecked,” it warned, Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.” Twitter has also funded research to find how to increase online civility. “We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers,” said Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. “We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, more than half of Americans (54%) expect the general tone and level of civility in the country to decline even further during the next few years. Among those who expect civility to get worse, the factors contributing to the erosion of civility in America include social media/internet (57%), the White House (50%), politicians in general (47%), and the news media (40%). (Religious leaders were among the lowest ranked factors at 13%.)

Civility is often defined as polite behavior. To have civility is to behave in a way that is respectful and considerate of other people. Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath of The Institute for Civility in Government expand this definition by adding, “Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”

Many Americans appear to choose incivility, though, because they believe civility is ineffective. In a report on “Faith and Healthy Democracy,” produced last year by the ERLC, more than 1/5 of respondents said civility in political conversations is not productive, rising to almost half of those aged 18 to 34. 

Those who believe civility doesn’t work were also more likely to justify uncivil behavior. About 1 in 4 said that if a political leader they supported insulted an opponent, they would be inclined to believe such insults were justified, while about 1 in 3 admitted to engaging in “whataboutism,” or responding to a critique by citing examples of wrongdoing on the other side. Around 40% said they had spoken up publicly to disapprove of someone on their side for unacceptable words or actions.

When it comes to evangelicals, lower levels of civility is also correlated with believing that if our political opponents were able to implement their agenda, democracy would be in danger. For instance, evangelicals were more likely to self-report lower levels of civility if they said they are single-issue voters, especially if religious liberty is their primary issue.

Where evangelicals get their news and who they listen to is also a factor. Evangelicals self-report lower levels of civility when they said prominent Christian leaders have influenced their political views; that they prefer to get their news from someone with whom they already agree; or when they prefer to follow others on social media with whom they agree on social and political issues.

Perhaps not surprisingly, civility increased among those who focused more on Jesus than on their political views. Agreement with the statement, “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin,” was one of the few factors associated with greater civility. 

Why then aren’t evangelicals—especially Southern Baptists—known as exemplars of civility? 

At the 2011 SBC Annual Conference, Southern Baptist messengers adopted a resolution “On Civil Public Discourse.” In that resolution they note the “Bible clearly instructs Christians to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel (Ephesians 4:1-2; 2 Timothy 2:23-26)” and that “this mandate orders all our interactions regardless of our level of agreement with one another (Colossians 4:5-6).” This led them to denounce “the speech or activities of any individual or group that brings shame upon the name of Christ and His gospel” and to “urge Southern Baptists to continue to speak biblically and authoritatively with conviction, kindness, and gentleness.”

Conviction, kindness, and gentleness should be hallmarks of Christian engagement in the public square. As Christians, we are called to go beyond civility to implement what ERLC President Russell Moore calls “convictional kindness.”

“As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am repelled by the word ‘civility’ because it aspires to too little,” says Moore. “We are called not to mere civility, but beyond civility to kindness.” Moore adds that,

“The Bible defines kindness in terms of weakness, but a weakness wherein there is the power of Christ—the word of the cross (1 Cor. 1:24). In his letter to his protégé Timothy, the Apostle Paul declared: ‘Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness’ (2 Tim. 2:23-24). 

“Notice, this kindness does not mean surrendering conviction, or silencing proclamation. Paul told Timothy to ‘correct his opponents,’ to ‘teach.’ The question is not whether the Lord’s servant will ‘fight the good fight,’ but whether he will fight with carnal weapons or spiritual ones. Kindness is not a cessation of fighting; kindness is the way we fight.”

How should Christians think through issues of our day? The new Courage and Civility Church Toolkit gives pastors and church leaders a helpful path to walk with their congregations about the things that truly matter and shows them how to process this chaotic and polarized moment. 

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