WASHINGTON -- I was reading with interest an interview with Richard Cizik, a leader of the National Association of Evangelicals. Previously, I had regarded the group as an entity with which I had little in common. Cizik, however, was causing me to reconsider by advocating a more protective stance toward nature. He described taking care of the environment as "creation care" and said he regarded it as a fulfillment of duties called for by the Scriptures.
That, too, was fine with me, although I tend to see such activities as neither progressive nor evangelical but as simple common sense. To me, "creation care" sounded like another name for environmentalism. But Cizik quickly distanced himself from groups associated with that term. He said he disagreed with their dependence on big-government solutions, their alliance with population-control movements, and what he saw as an overly pessimistic view regarding the fate of the Earth.
I disagreed with Cizik on these issues but could certainly see where he was coming from. He lost me, though, when he accused environmentalists of keeping "kooky religious company." His notion of such kooks, he explained, includes "pantheists, who believe creation itself is holy, not the Creator."
He went on to describe his own conviction that Jesus Christ will return and his believers, living and dead, will rise to meet him in the air. That scenario bears little resemblance to my own thoughts on spirituality, but I would never call it "kooky." Many people whom I respect share Cizik's views; because of them I could never casually dismiss such ideas with a thoughtless insult. Cizik's failure to demonstrate tolerance of others' views on religion discouraged me from paying further attention to his thoughts on the environment.
I don't mean to pick on Cizik. I may be inquisitive and open-minded concerning matters of faith but, to my considerable detriment, I can be just as obstinate as he is about other issues. I've occasionally resorted to simple name-calling in this column and been rightly called out for it by vigilant readers. I know firsthand that acknowledging someone's legitimate objections to your views doesn't provide that same enervating dose of petty satisfaction.
There is something quintessentially American about substituting insults for the genuine engagement of opponents' ideas. It is, after all, part of our national tradition. In her book "Affairs of Honor," historian Joanne B. Freeman writes that the Founding Fathers operated in a similar setting during the early days of the Republic. The political arena in particular was a world of "regional distrust, personal animosity, accusation, suspicion, implication, and denouncement." According to Freeman, insults were frequently flung through gossip, newspapers and pamphlets. Certain epithets -- "coward, liar, rascal, scoundrel and puppy" were widely considered fighting words.
So we come by our dishonorableness honestly, so to speak. And its modern practice has been embraced by both right and left. Thus George W. Bush, a self-described compassionate conservative, can refer to a reporter as a "major-league (expletive)" while Harry Belafonte, a committed liberal, can demean Colin Powell as what can only be described here as a house slave.
"A big part of our incivility crisis," writes Stephen L. Carter in "Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy," "stems from the sad fact that we do not know each other or even want to try; and, not knowing each other, we seem to think that how we treat each other does not matter." The result is behavior and language that House Majority Leader Tom Delay might call "inartful."
Marc Ian Barasch says our volatile society has enabled the rise of demagogues and media personalities "who can crystallize your grievances into one primal yawp of venom."
The author of "Field Notes On The Compassionate Life," Barasch described our social and political climate as "a schoolyard sort of paradigm in which you have some really loud kids taking over the monkey bars and drowning out everyone else."
He told me civility isn't possible without empathy, which he defined as the basis of kindness. "Everything that lasts in society is based on understanding that the other person exists."
Sounds good, I said, but don't nice guys finish last? What's the use of advocating tolerance, civility and compassion if your less tenderhearted opponents will simply stomp on you and laugh in your crushed remains?
"I think there's such a thing as righteous anger," Barasch said. "You don't just roll over. I'm with Emerson, who said your goodness must have an edge to it, else it is nothing. Kindness isn't necessarily weak."
Nor, I might add, is it kooky.