A liberal Episcopal bishop on civility

I had a story on LoHud/The Journal News a few days back about whether there is less civility in the public square these days.

My hooks were Kanye West, Rep. Joe Wilson, Serena Williams, the health-care debate.

It was what we call a “talker.” People are talking about it. Reflect the conversation.

One person I called was Bishop Catherine Roskam, the assistant bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. I called her because she is always thoughtful about social trends and because I know that she has been engaged in a sometimes-civil, sometimes-uncivil debate within the Anglican world on gay issues.

tjndc5-5btp4n07l14k44srp1j_layoutRoskam is liberal on theology and politics and a strong supporter of gay rights.

She told me what she thought. But her remarks got cut out of my story, along with some others, because of a lack of space.

So here’s what she said. Liberals will agree. Conservatives won’t.


I think we’re in a much less civil culture than when I was a child. We were taught good manners and taught that freedom of speech meant not shouting each other down.

I think some of it is politics. The politics of the right have actually moved us in a less civil direction through a politics of ridicule and disparagement that we find on talk radio with people such as Rush Limbaugh. They promulgate the idea that if you think in a certain way, you are American, and if you think a different way, you’re un-American — which is probably the most un-American way there is. It’s one-way or the highway. People are reluctant to say this, because people will say “You’re very partisan.” For me, it doesn’t have to do with ideas held by the right, it has to do with the methods.

With the decline of public education, you have a decline in analytic thinking. It has become easier to sway people with emotion rather than rational argument. I don’t think we have the same social expectation of civility that we used to. It’s okay to get heated up while making an argument. But shutting other people down is bullying. Bullying has a kind of currency that it never had before.


I asked Roskam about civility in the Anglican world. She said: “I think the debate in the Anglican Communion was very much shaped by the American political debate. Again, it is the far right in the church that took a page out of the book of the far right in American politics. Their tactics are a kind of ecclesiastical terrorism.”