Political speech, 2012 elections, provide test for greater civility

Now that we are well underway in the 2012 election, we will experience a barrage of political rancor that has become all too ubiquitous in our civil discourse.  In an election, as in any political process, words matter.

Where would we be without the power of words?  Ours is a society built upon discourse and speech, as both our founders and our own forebears in the faith have exemplified.  We have felt the power in a:

“We the people…”

“Four score and seven years…”

“I have a dream…”

“Ask not what your country can do for you…”

“Boogida, boogida, boogida.  Amen.”  (Well, some words are more powerful than others.)

The Bible attests that God uses words as a medium of revelation.  In Genesis, God spoke all creation into being.  The prophets of old received God’s words in order to declare what God was up to next. Jesus is the Word of God incarnate.

Perhaps God said it best in Jeremiah:  “I will give you my words…to build and to plant.”  Whether it be political, religious, or social, words provide a sacred space that either marginalizes and oppresses or liberates and redeems.  Words do indeed matter.

I often tell my congregation that if anyone wants to run for president, they better watch out and read all of my sermons before they run: Guilt by association is common, and my words may end up getting them into hot water.

It’s a jovial reminder that all of us, not just politicians, are responsible for our speech. In Ephesians 4:29, Paul instructs readers to, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (NRSV).

There does not seem to be any other option for those who believe in Christ: We are to be mindful of how we speak with others, to others, and about others.  Our words contribute to God’s community, and God calls us to nurture grace with our speech.

Are you a vessel for God’s grace?  Can people tell that you are redeemed in Christ by the sanctity of your words?

Let us not confuse this command with political correctness, although speaking with a sense of community awareness will benefit all of us.

Just several weeks ago, Representative Doug Lamborn of Colorado used a reference from Br’er Rabbit, “tar baby,” when referring to political entanglements with President Obama.

Unknown to Lamborn, the reference is actually a racial slur.  Lamborn was quick to apologize to the President for his faux pas.  The media, however, did not let him off so easily, and Lamborn’s words tore down his own credibility.

There are many individuals who would like to discount political correctness altogether.  Although part of me feels this might be useful–(it would help us to see people for who they really are, prejudices and all)–we can’t forget that words do build up or tear down.

And that is just the public side of our conversation.  Why is it that we seem to reserve our harshest words for our families and friends?  Married couples allow their conversations to spiral into destructive, unhealthy sarcasm.  We allow simple misunderstandings to escalate into family feuds.  Parents take their stress out on their children by yelling and spouting threats.

The measure of our integrity will be tested in how we speak to our families first, and then to others (and about others) in the public sphere.

As we head into the next election cycle, let us all pray for civility so that our speech may reflect godly integrity.

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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