Earlier this week, PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones spoke at The Episcopal Church’s forum, “Civil Discourse in America: Finding Common Ground for the Greater Good.” Jones joined the Huffington Post’s Executive Religion Editor Paul Raushenbush and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori at the historic Christ Church in Philadelphia for a morning of discourse on political civility, the changing American electorate, and what role religious organizations play in promoting civil conversation.
The entire forum, including Jones’ speech at the 16:40 mark, is below. Read our corresponding report, “Is Civility Possible?”
It is an honor to be here in this historic venue here at Christ’s Church in Philadelphia, such a fitting place to talk about civil discourse in America. My role is to lay out what the best social science tells us about how divided the country actually is and what Americans think about the state of civil discourse in America—all in five minutes.
It is tempting to say with the writer of Ecclesiastes, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Certainly questions of factionalism and incivility were paramount for the Founders, several of whom lay at rest just outside these walls. But looking at the data, there are some unique challenges for the current phase of our grand experiment in democratic self-governance. The conflicts of the Founders were largely circumscribed within a fairly homogeneous space by modern standards—largely white and Protestant.
In comparison, today we have our first African American president and, within a few decades, the U.S. will be a majority minority country, where whites will constitute less than half the country for the first time. Also for the first time, we have no Protestant justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. In just the last couple of years, we have become a minority Protestant country. Religiously unaffiliated Americans, who comprise approximately one-in-five Americans, now rival the largest religious groups in the American landscape.
Within this context, we face challenges. Both elected officials and rank-and-file Americans are indeed more polarized along party lines than in the past. These partisan and ideological divisions also run through religious denominations today in ways they did not in the early 20th century. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assertion that 11am on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America largely continues to be true. Only 13 percent of congregations are multi-ethnic. The 21st century media landscape also creates challenges for civil discourse. More and more, our country’s polarized media outlets reward extreme rhetoric at the expense of moderation. Last, both in our personal social networks and online, we tend to silo ourselves into echo chambers, where we hear perspectives that mostly reinforce our own; and incivility in online discussion forums constitutes as many as 1-in-5 (22 percent) of public comments.
But there are also some opportunities amidst these challenges. If the first step toward a solution is to know you have a problem, we are there. More than 8-in-10 Americans say lack of civil discourse is a serious problem. There is a growing appetite for political leaders who compromise in order to get things done and for less negative campaigns, changes from even just a few years ago at the last midterm elections. Finally, there is solid evidence that churches play a role in encouraging civic engagement. Americans also continue to see churches as places where people overcome their differences in order to get things done. However, younger Americans tend to have stronger indictments of churches as being part of the problem and are more skeptical about whether churches can play a positive role.
Without a doubt, there are considerable embedded structural challenges. But at least we can say this: one place where otherwise divided Americans largely agree is that incivility in our culture and in our politics are a problem and there is an appetite for change, even if the path toward that change is not quite clear.