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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Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24