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Gay marriage issue, national elections lead to civility fight

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You might say the Mormons and Obama made him do it.

Mark DeMoss, a prominent evangelical, was disappointed over the way he thought Mormons were treated during the 2008 presidential campaign. "I had been working with Mitt Romney as an unpaid advisor," said DeMoss, president of the DeMoss Group, a public relations firm that works with some of the biggest names in Christianity like the American Bible Society, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Campus Crusade for Christ, and Liberty University. "In my work with Mitt Romney, I saw a very ugly side of the treatment of the Mormon faith. Sadly, most of it was coming from evangelicals. And that bothered me."

Then, after Romney was out of the race, DeMoss was bothered by the attitudes and rhetoric aimed at Barack Obama that questioned his faith and his love of country.

The final straw for DeMoss was how some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were treated by opponents in the aftermath of California's Proposition 8, including vandalism of some Mormon chapels and people losing their jobs.

The level of incivility of political discourse in the U.S. was unacceptable to DeMoss — and most Americans agree. The Allegheny College Survey of Civility and Compromise in American Politics in April 2010 found that a whopping 95.4 percent of Americans believe civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy. The study also found that 87 percent of Americans believe it is possible to disagree respectfully.

But the reality that DeMoss saw in 2008 didn't reflect the public's aspirations for civility.

So he decided to do something about it.

If he had only been able to see the future, he may not have tried to form a national political movement for civility. He would have seen the rhetoric sharpening up against not just one, but two Mormons entering the 2012 presidential fray. He would see the challenges to President Obama's citizenship. He would also see how the aftermath of Proposition 8 continues to dog Mormons to the point that Peter Vidmar, a former Olympic gold medalist was pressured to step down from being chef de mission for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.

He may also have seen himself again throwing his support behind Romney’s presidential aspirations and hoping for a more civil campaign in 2012.

But he couldn't see the future, and so the Civility Project was born. "I had realistic hopes and expectations, I think," DeMoss said. "My hope was that in some way, we could either start or contribute to a dialogue about civility." At the center of the project was the Civility Pledge:

I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.

I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.

I will stand against incivility when I see it.

DeMoss hoped to get people from all walks of life to take the pledge — in particular, he wanted politicians to adopt it as a model of behavior.

He had no idea that after two years of promoting the pledge on national television shows and major newspapers, only three politicians would take the civility pledge.

The odd couple

Before DeMoss launched the project, he suddenly realized he was making a mistake. "It hit me one night before I launched it, that I really needed a liberal counterpart, because I did not want this to be viewed as a conservative who was lecturing the left on civility."

He immediately thought of Lanny Davis.

Lanny Davis was President Bill Clinton's special counsel and worked for the election of Sen. Hillary Clinton in 2008. He also wrote the book "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America." It was during Clinton's campaign that DeMoss became impressed with how Davis debated tough issues. "Every time as I would see him, I would say to myself, 'That's a liberal I really like.'"

DeMoss wasn't the only one who had been impressed with Davis' ability to carry on civil discussions. Even Glenn Beck expressed admiration for the liberal Democrat. "While I still disagree with him, he is willing to say 'my side is right' and 'on this one my side is wrong.'" Beck said while guest-hosting the Larry King show in 2008. "When will we find more politicians like Lanny Davis — I can't believe I'm saying this — that will say, 'Hey, that's just the way it is'?"

DeMoss the conservative didn't just admire Davis, he wrote Davis a letter and complimented him on his strong, but civil manner.

Five months later, DeMoss had decided to start the Civility Project and knew that Davis was just the high-profile liberal who would be perfect as a co-sponsor. "I go in his office, and he is on the phone. There are pictures of him with Hillary Clinton and a signed note from her. There is a picture of him with Bill Clinton and a signed letter, and a picture of him on Air Force One with George W. Bush and a personal note from him. And then my letter. Lanny hung up the phone and said, 'Mark, that's the nicest letter I've ever received.' And through that we became instant friends. He's still liberal. I'm still conservative. But we've had discussions about a lot of interesting topics, and subjects and issues. And I just think it demonstrates how it can be done. Lanny and I both think debates should be won on the strength of ideas and words, not on our decibel level."

Davis and DeMoss launched the Civility Project the day before Obama took office in January 2009.

Fighting for civility

DeMoss and Davis were surprised at the reaction of many people towards a simple pledge for civility.

Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, for example, told Davis the Civility Pledge was "dopey" and "naive." "The reason I would not sign it," O'Reilly said, "is because my opponent may be cutting my heart out and throwing dirt at me all day long. And then I have little Lanny's pledge saying I can't fight back."

Davis countered, "You can fight back, you can strongly disagree … but you fight back on the issues."

It was a complaint that DeMoss and Davis would encounter again and again: Civility is impossible or it is surrender or it is weakness — a naive embracing of kumbayah thinking.

DeMoss couldn't disagree more.

"Civility starts with some degree of mutual respect for another person and their opinions even if their opinions are different than yours," DeMoss says. "Look, if I can't persuade Lanny to my way of thinking through thoughtful debate or dialogue, I'm sure as heck not going to persuade him by yelling at him or posting some blog that calls him names. I don't know anyone who was ever persuaded to another way of thinking by having been shouted down or bullied."

DeMoss saw this with how some religious people treated Mormons during Romney's campaign — such as popular Internet minister Bill Keller saying "If you vote for Mitt Romney, you are voting for Satan!"

"I've said to many evangelicals who treat Mormons and the Mormon faith in such an ugly manner, 'How would you ever, behaving the way you are behaving, how would you ever expect to have any influence with a Mormon to embrace your faith?' It is impossible if you behave that way. I think even if you don't have a moral rationale for being civil, I think there are practical reasons for it. I just think it is more effective if you are trying to persuade somebody."

DeMoss has seen people be civil in the most difficult situations. And he has a favorite example.

A beautiful debate on gay marriage

The National Religious Broadcasters, an evangelical group of Christian broadcasters, invited the Rev. Dr. Cindi Love, executive director of Soulforce, an organization that says it advocates nonviolent resistance against religious oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, to debate the subject of homosexuality and gay marriage at their annual convention in March. On the other side of the debate was Joe Dallas, who says he is a former homosexual and ex-gay rights activist.

It could have been an ugly confrontation.

"This is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen on something that is very, very divisive," said DeMoss who attended the event.

"It took a lot of courage for this woman from Soulforce to accept this invitation," DeMoss said. "And for an hour and a half, they had the most thoughtful, kind, respectful conversation you would ever see on a contentious subject. And I think that both people left with some new respect for the other side. ... It can be done."

Love explained how it was possible for two people who disagreed so completely to have a civil discussion. "You have to be willing to not judge your opponent's intent. That's the simplest way to say it. Civility breaks down when we decide that the intent of the person who is disagreeing with us is evil."

Love thinks that intractable disagreement is actually at the heart of civility. "Civility operates best when there is deep polarization. Because that is where the opportunity is to say, 'I am going to respect you as a human being.'"

But doing that takes effort.

"Civility is not weakness. Civility is strength," Love said. "Real strength rests in that intersection between who I believe I am and what I believe and between who you are and what you believe. And even though we disagree deeply, our first persistent attempt should be to enter into respectful dialog."

DeMoss wished that more people had this type of view of civility. He particularly hoped that politicians would take the pledge.

Death of the project

In May, Davis and DeMoss co-signed a letter and mailed a package with the Civility Pledge and other material about the project to every member of Congress and to every governor. "So we mailed 585 packages," DeMoss said. "These were personalized messages, these were not junk mail."

The response?

"Three people signed this pledge. Ever," DeMoss said.

They were U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut; Rep. Frank Wolfe, a Republican from Virginia; and Rep. Sue Myrick, a Republican from North Carolina. "I'm sure some of them didn't see it, in fairness to the members of Congress, but I don't think it is plausible that only three saw it," DeMoss said.

With that type of response, DeMoss and Davis shut down the Civility Project in January — about two years from the time they launched it.

"I shut it down, purely for practical reasons," DeMoss said. "I didn't feel I was able to devote enough time and energy to the project, not the subject, but the project — like maintaining an active website and putting content on it. If I was doing this the way I would have like to have done it, when we mailed those packages to every member of Congress and governors, ideally two weeks later I would have followed up with phone calls to all of them. That takes some time and some staff and I really couldn't devote the time and staff and resources to make it a viable project going forward."

DeMoss, being a savvy PR professional, used the death of the project as a way of promoting the project's goals: An increase of civility at both a personal and a nationally political level.

Only days later, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head at a meeting with constituents. The shooting, which killed six others including 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, sparked a national discussion on civility. Over time, however, the discussions included some of the objections that were raised against the Civility Project.

People and politicians say they want civility, but commitment appears to be the difficult part. The Allegheny College survey found that it appears to be getting worse. In April 2010, 48 percent of Americans said civility was in decline. During the November 2010 elections, 63 percent said civility was in decline. And as a hot presidential election year approaches, the prospects for civil discourse seem as far away as they did to DeMoss in 2008.

Davis said, "The only way I can recommend is that you listen to what someone has to say, and perhaps your mind will be opened a little bit for listening. And that you respect the other person's right to a different opinion."

DeMoss, for his part, paraphrased Roger Staubach, Hall of Fame passer for the Dallas Cowboys, "There are no traffic jams on the high road."

"I love that," DeMoss said. "I try to live that way. I don't think you can lose taking the high road. And if you do lose on the high road, I'd rather lose on the high road than to win in the gutter."

Civility resources:

DeMoss on the Politico website

DeMoss at a National Press Club discussion on civility (full audio available at the bottom of that webpage

DAVIS: Civility makes strange bedfellows, an article in The Washington Times

The Mormon Ethic of Civility

The Allegheny College Survey of Civility and Compromise in American Politics

Lanny Davis takes on Bill O’Reilly

Email: mdegroote@desnews.com, Twitter: degroote