Can Utah’s ‘civic charity’ help the nation overcome the siege of contempt?
The siege of the U.S. Capitol interrupted the transfer of presidential power. Days before, Gov. Spencer Cox and former federal Judge Thomas Griffith offered up a solution
SALT LAKE CITY — The scene of chaos that erupted at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday — televised for the world to see — was a moment of reckoning for the country.
An angry mob of supporters for President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol, bringing Congress’ historically ceremonial counting of the electoral votes to a screeching halt. Lawmakers were evacuated as the scene devolved into violence. A woman was shot and killed by law enforcement. A Capitol police officer died of injuries. Three others died from medical emergencies. Windows were smashed. Congressional offices were vandalized.
Republicans and Democrats alike condemned it as a disturbing threat to democracy. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney called it an “insurrection.”
While Trump in a recorded message urged rioters to go home peacefully, he kept sounding off about a “stolen” election — a baseless claim that has faltered in dozens of court cases lacking in evidence.
The swarming of the Capitol interrupted and delayed the work of Congress to certify the election and move toward a peaceful transfer of political power. Finally, in the early morning hours of Thursday, a tweet on behalf of the president signaled he would comply — “Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election” — and there will be a peaceful transfer of power on Jan. 20.
The Constitution, threatened
Pause. Rewind to a few days before those historic events, to Sunday night.
A small crowd, spaced apart to avoid COVID-19 risk, sat silent in the pews of the St. George Tabernacle, a historical church building nestled in a sleepy downtown of the southern Utah community.
It was the eve of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s inauguration ceremony. His voice and the voice of former federal Judge Thomas Griffith sounded from speakers, echoing throughout the tabernacle from a prerecorded conversation between the two men for a Sunday evening faith-based “Freedom Fireside.” The conversation was also broadcast online.
Cox, in real time, sat at the front of the chamber and listened along with everyone else in the audience as Griffith made a chilling assertion: the U.S. Constitution is in grave, unprecedented danger because of the current political climate.
“The Constitution is built for vigorous disagreement,” he said. “But it cannot withstand contempt. ... And that’s the problem that has seeped into our system right now. The contempt.”
It’s gotten so bad, Griffith said, some surveys have shown that “Republicans and Democrats think so ill of each other that they don’t trust each other at all, and the level of distrust is at the same level that Israelis have for Palestinians. That’s what’s going on in our political discourse right now. That has to stop.”
“The Constitution won’t survive with this level of contempt,” he said. “It has to be addressed and has to be rooted out.”
Not the first time
It’s not that the Constitution has never been tested. Griffith noted he was a young boy during the Cuban missile crisis. He remembers the Cold War, remembers the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He remembers the protests against the Vietnam War that took place near his home and the riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He said he went to school with sons and daughters of key figures in the Watergate scandal of President Richard Nixon.
“Those were all stressful and difficult times for our country,” Griffith said. “My personal view is what we are going through right now far exceeds any of those in terms of the peril it poses to the republic.”
“And that’s not the view of an outlier,” Griffith added. “That’s a view that many share. That what we are enduring right now — the partisanship, the invective, the contempt that is going on in American political discourse right now — is unique, and it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it undermines the very core of what’s required to have a constitution in the first place.”
Griffith said he’s “not a pessimistic person. I like to think I’m optimistic and hopeful — and I am. But I’m really alarmed.”
“I’ve never seen anything quite like what we’re going through right now in terms of the type of public discourse, the type of partisanship that it’s created,” he told his audience.
Hope and a solution
The key to overcoming this threat, the judge said, is something he calls “civic charity.”
“The Constitution cannot succeed,” Griffith said, “unless the citizens of the United States of America are committed to the idea that we are going to make a go of this together. Yep. Donald Trump supporters, you’re going to look at Bernie Sanders supporters and say, ‘You know I disagree with just about everything you’re for. But you know what, we’re in this together.’ And vice versa. ... We cannot be enemies, we have to be friends.”
That starts with individuals stepping out of their “echo chambers,” he said, turning off divisive media, deciding to learn from their opponents, and treating one another with respect.
“Democracy is built on the idea that you win arguments by persuasion. You don’t win arguments by brute force,” he said. “You’re not going to persuade somebody if you hold them in contempt. The only way that can happen is to treat one another respectfully.”
And it’s up to elected leaders, Griffith said, to defend the Constitution by setting that example.
“When you take that oath, you’re taking an oath to be an agent of reconciliation, not an agent of division,” he said. “That’s the idea of civic charity.”
Cox, listening to Griffith’s words, said he was left “almost speechless.”
“The way you framed that, that is powerful. It’s brilliant.”
Can Utah help change national tone?
Cox and Griffith’s conversation concluded two days that led up to an inauguration ceremony unlike no other in state history. Pomp and ceremony was preceded by a focus on service and faith — a “Day of Service” on Jan. 2, when Cox and his family helped box up food for the Utah Food Bank, and a Day of Prayer the day after, when they attended four different faith services all focused on messages of unity and love.
All three days were threaded with a common theme: A call for that “civic charity” to change the tone of the nation’s volatile rhetoric, starting with Utah, Cox said.
“As a nation we’re in dangerous place,” Cox told the Deseret News, laying out that theme in plain terms. “It’s helping us to remember what it is that makes Utah and our country so special. It’s that we care about each other, and the way we do that traditionally is through our faith and, more importantly, in our service to each other.”
Practicing those principles will be “critical to who we are as an administration,” Cox said. But more than that, Cox said it will be “critical to our very survival of our constitutional republic.”
“It’s been a rough year. It’s been hard in so many ways, and that divisiveness has certainly come out of that. But it didn’t start in 2020. It’s been here, and it’s been growing for a long time,” Cox said. “But like so many things, this pandemic and everything else that we’ve faced have acted almost like a magnifying glass in that they magnified the best parts of us but they also magnified the parts of us that aren’t so good. The hate, the contempt, our flaws.”
Standing in the parking lot of the Utah Food Bank Southern Distribution Center after she and her husband finished helping box food Saturday, Utah’s new first lady, Abby Cox, told the Deseret News they wanted to focus on service ahead of his inauguration to “represent what Utah is best at” amid a time of “contempt.”
“Right now, we have an empathy crisis,” she said. “We’re not seeing people as people. We’re seeing so much tribalism. ... Yes, we’re going to disagree with things. And that’s OK. It’s healthy to disagree. It’s not healthy to have contempt.”
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, also at the Utah Food Bank in St. George, said the aim of the day of service — and the day of prayer on Sunday — was to “focus on the things that are most important” after a “refiners fire of 2020.” She said she’s hopeful the Cox administration will be the start of a new era for Utah, and hopefully the rest of the nation.
“The way we tried to run the campaign, the positive way we tried to message and not attack our opponents — those are the kinds of things that are important, especially right now in America and the state of Utah. The divisions we’ve experienced over the past year, especially, has been disappointing and unfortunate, and we hope to be able to help turn that tide.”
Cox, in his inauguration speech on Monday, quoted New York University professor Jonathan Haidt, who recently warned there “is a very good chance that in the next 30 years we will have a catastrophic failure of our democracy.”
“The reason? ‘We just don’t know,’” Cox quoted from Haidt, “‘what a democracy looks like when you drain all the trust out of the system.”
“But there is good news,” Cox continued. “It’s not too late to fix this, and Utah is the perfect place to make it happen.”
Griffith’s “civic charity” is the formula, Cox said. “We must seek to understand one another, to treat each other not as enemies, but as friends, and to secure justice for all without demonizing and ostracizing those with whom we disagree.”
Practicing what he preached
It didn’t take long for Cox to be tested.
A woman, apparently the same woman who would later confront Sen. Mitt Romney while waiting to board a flight to Washington, D.C. this week, confronted Cox in Spanish Fork the evening after his inauguration, as shown in a video posted on TikTok.
In the video, the woman approaches Cox while recording and asks him if he was going to “support President Trump on Wednesday.”
Cox, who was wearing a mask, walked closer to the woman and appears to reach out toward her as he said, “President Trump lost.”
“No he did not,” the woman says. “No he did not.”
“He did,” Cox says, nodding his head. “And the sooner ...”
“You know what, the people who voted you in, people voted you in,” the woman interrupts, “to support the conservative president.”
Cox appears to reach out again toward her, and she tells him not to touch her.
“I love you, OK?” Cox says. “And I’m so sorry that you ...”
The woman tells Cox to back up. He says he would stand in place.
“It’s really disappointing, and I’m sad that ...” Cox says, before the woman talks over him again.
“You’re disappointing,” the woman shoots back. “You’re a disappointment to the people of Utah. The Republican people of Utah voted you in hoping that you would support our Republican president.”
“It’s really nice to meet you,” Cox says, before he walks away with a police officer putting a hand on his back. “I hope you have a good night.”
“You’ll be voted out,” the woman tells him. “You know what, you said protesters are your enemy. And you know what, I will be your No. 1 enemy.”
‘We are better than this’
The day before Cox was supposed to unveil his first budget proposal, the chaos at the U.S. Capitol erupted and ended up delaying those plans until next week. Instead, Cox and his team put together a video announcement strongly condemning the storming of the Capitol — and calling on Utahns to “condemn, in the strongest of terms, violence, personal attacks, the nonpeaceful use of people’s voice.”
“As patriots. As Utahns,” Cox said. “As Americans. As people who care deeply about each other and care deeply about this great nation, I urge you to stand up and speak out against this violence, against the terrorists, against the evil that we have seen at our nation’s Capitol today.”
Cox said it’s “not enough now to be silent” and “not enough to just not participate in the evil we have seen today.”
“I’m calling on all of you to speak out, to speak up, and to let your family, to let your friends to let your neighbors know that this is unacceptable,” he said. “We are better than this in Utah. We are better than this in America.”
Cox said the U.S. has been an “example to the rest of the world when it comes to our elections, when it comes to the way we protest, when it comes to the freedoms and the liberties we enjoy.
“More than ever, we need to show the rest of the world that this is not the way that America does her business,” he said. “I trust that Utahns can be that example to the rest of the nation and to the world. ... Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat whether you voted for the president or voted for someone else, let’s be better.”