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Covenant for civil discourse

Posted April 19, 2012, at 1:17 p.m.

A few weeks ago, the children in the second grade Sunday School class in a church in Maine were making artwork about the Golden Rule — the ethical principle that one should treat others as one would wish to be treated. One little girl wrote on her picture: “Think about what it would be like for kids to be fighting all the time like you are.” Another drew a communion table, with a chalice and cross, and wrote: “Do not be mean to each other.”

Sounds charming, idealistic and very appropriate for Sunday School — but could the kids be onto something the rest of us should consider as we enter another key election cycle here in Maine, when voters will have to decide which of our fellow Mainers is worthy to make decisions that will affect the lives of all of us — and all our children — for years to come?

By the middle of March, 517 Mainers had declared their candidacy for a seat in the Maine Legislature or to represent Maine in Congress. They deserve our thanks, whatever their party. Campaigning for office at any level is hard work. Public service is still a noble calling.

With so much at stake for our quality of life together, we need people of the highest moral character and ethical standards to step forward as public servants. We need responsible people of all political persuasions to engage in rigorous public debate to find solutions.

But many of us have been alarmed, in recent years, at the way public debate has deteriorated, featuring name-calling, dishonesty and plain nastiness. To many of us, this seems a waste of the precious resource of the public square. What little time the average voter has to consider his or her decision gets claimed by negative ads and simplistic slogans.

It has become harder for anyone to be heard without shouting. Outrage — and outrageousness — get attention.

Among those lamenting the decay of civil discourse in recent years are many of Maine’s religious folks. In response, the Maine Council of Churches developed a “Covenant for Civil Discourse.”

In March, this document was mailed to all 517 declared candidates, asking them to sign it, personally.

The covenant is simple — it’s a set of promises to regulate oneself, to behave in ways that we want others to behave toward us, with no exceptions for political discourse. Candidates who sign promise to act respectfully toward opponents, to refrain from personal attacks (while maintaining the right to vigorously disagree), to refuse to make untrue statements in defense of a position, to value civility and to expect those working for his or her election to do the same. The full text of the covenant can be found at www.mainecouncilofchurches.org.

At 74, the council is Maine’s oldest and most diverse statewide ecumenical organization, including both Protestants and Roman Catholics. (Its roots go back 100 years to the Maine Sunday School Association.) The covenant is an attempt to put the Golden Rule — to treat others as you’d wish to be treated — into a form that people seeking high elective office can use in the secular, high-stakes setting of a campaign.

Several dozen candidates have signed on already, including Republican Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Cynthia Dill, both running for the Senate seat long occupied by one of Maine’s most highly-regarded, and always civil, public servants — Sen. Olympia Snowe, who says she is retiring because of the dismal state of discourse and partisan gridlock in the U.S. Senate.

Various religious bodies have also separately signed on to the covenant, including Maine’s Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Episcopal and Unitarian Universalist denominations and several Quaker meetings. Issues campaigns can sign on; so can individual voters.

The council will publish the list of all candidates who have signed in mid-May. You may want to ask your own favorite candidates if they’ve signed on yet.

We will only get the quality of debate we deserve if voters demand it. Let’s do so, not only for our own sakes, but that of our children, who are watching and learning from all of us.

Rev. Jill Saxby is the executive director of the Maine Council of Churches.

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