WATERVILLE, Maine — Former Sen. George Mitchell on Thursday reminded about 100 people at a session on civil discourse that “politics has always been rough and tumble in our country.”
“In the early years, duels were common and, as one commentator noted, three-fourths of the duels that were fought were the result of political disputes,” he said at an event sponsored by the Maine Council of Churches held at a hotel in Mitchell’s hometown.
The difference between the political statements made criticizing the Founding Fathers and the candidates running for office today, Mitchell said in a speech titled “From Mudslinging to Mutual Respect: How To Make Politics More Civil,” is that in the 18th century the comments were written, were read by few people and did not come from the candidates themselves.
“In the recent campaign, many of the words are spoken, they are recorded and repeated endlessly on the cable television networks and in social media,” he said. “So as a result, what is happening now is different. The effect is deeper. It’s longer lasting, and it is much more negative.”
Mitchell said that the current slide away from civil discourse began when a candidate that he did not name used the F-word to criticize opponents.
“Many defend such comments as ‘telling it like it is’ and not being ‘politically correct,’ but this argument is based on an erroneous belief that being a straight talker somehow justifies or permits or is evidenced by the public use of vulgar, inflammatory and insulting words. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“Swearing in public, insulting and threatening those who disagree, is often a way to obscure the truth and to avoid serious discussion, not to engage in it,” he said. “It’s easy to rouse your most fervent supporters by cursing and demeaning your opponents. What is difficult is to publicly address complex issues in a serious way and in respectful language, respectful of both the American people and your opponent. That is the true process of responsible democracy.”
Mitchell urged the audience, the majority of whom were ministers, to model civility in their congregations and communities.
Civility in politics has been an issue for the organization since 2009. That year, the Maine Council of Churches created a Covenant for Civil Discourse in response to the negative tone in the successful effort to repeal Maine’s same-sex marriage law passed by lawmakers. Three years later, Maine voters approved a referendum to make same-sex marriage legal.
Every two years, the council asks candidates in races throughout the state to agree to act respectfully toward opponents, refrain from personal attacks or making statements that characterize opponents as evil, refuse to make untrue statements in defense of a position, and to expect those working on the candidates’ behalves to do the same.
So far this political season, about half of the candidates running for office in Maine have signed the covenant, the Rev. Jane Field, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, said after Mitchell’s speech.
Mitchell urged attendees to pay attention to the physical, emotional and educational needs of young children in their communities so they could grow, prosper and take advantage of opportunities as he was able to do.
The Rev. Deborah Blood, conference minister for the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ, oversees the 157 UCC congregations throughout the state. She was impressed by Mitchell’s decency and integrity.
“I was struck by him saying to us very directly, do what it is that God calls you to do — feed the hungry, take care of our children, make sure everyone has what they need to thrive, take care of God’s creation,” she said. “Those are the basic values and the basic commitments that we’re given in our faith through Jesus Christ.”
Bishop Stephen Lane, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, said that churches may be one of the last places people disagree respectfully.
“I think the church is one of the few places now where people who are different politically come together,” he said. “There is this notion in the Episcopal church that despite our differences we come together at the table every Sunday for Holy Communion. That’s a gift we have to offer. We can bring people together of different perspectives and have a conversation that matters. I think that’s a contribution that as churches we can make.”
Mitchell also spoke Thursday afternoon at the University of Maine at the lecture on sustainability that bears his name. He was scheduled to speak at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Bangor Public Library about public service.
The Maine Council of Churches is made up of nine denominations that represent more than 500 congregations throughout the state. For more information on the Maine Council of Churches, call 772-1918 or visit mainecouncilofchurches.org.