Ron Mock, Civility Project Director and Professor Emeritus, George Fox University
Robin Baker, President, George Fox University, and NWCCU Commissioner
Political polarization has been growing in America for decades, alarmingly so in the last eight years. Judging by the recent unprecedented spectacle of mid-term chaos in the U.S. House of Representatives, we may not yet have seen the worst in the decay of our political culture.
This problem is not unique to American national politics – an obvious point, illustrated at the moment in wars between Russia and Ukraine and Israel and Hamas. Now the anger and frustration expressed at the national level is also visible locally.
Hearkening back to George Fox University 25 years ago, people in Newberg with different views could live and work together. But in 2021 an election installed a slate of ideologically like-minded new school board members, who quickly began making controversial decisions about policy and personnel. Political passions flared, chasms opened between neighbors, recall elections ensued. Locals took to social media to demonize those they disagreed with. Outsiders came to our town to stoke the fires of antipathy and distrust. People began boycotting businesses whose politics they disagreed with. Service clubs, churches, schools public and private: all these and more fell victim to misinformation, distrust, and bitter animosity.
Quiet Newberg found itself the subject of New York Times stories.
Today, George Fox University stands astride these fissures. In the fall of 2020, as the nation slid toward the disputed election and the mayhem of January 6, 2021, we recognized we needed to step forward to help our community turn away from political apartheid.
The University was founded by evangelical Quakers, whose faith includes a clear vision of shalom as nonviolence, justice, and right relationships. That ethos lives in our mission and vision. Quakers believe good decision-making requires listening to every voice in the community, because aspects of Truth might be articulated by anyone.
To help our community heal and restore relationships, the two of us conceived and provided leadership in establishing the George Fox University Civility Project.
The Civility Project works on several fronts.
Conceptually, we encourage a broader, more robust vision of civility.
We start with a simple observation: our individual genetics and life experiences equip each of us with a unique perspective. We are designed to see things differently – it’s perhaps the most crucial gift we have, since it turns humanity into an immensely powerful learning community.
Since our differences are precious resources for better understanding Truth and fostering human betterment, we should embrace them and approach them with an attitude of stewardship, as we would any other critical asset.
We see robust civility as stewardship with three facets:
- Stewardship of our relationships with others, including opponents, embodied in the traditional values of civility: kindness, respect, helpfulness. We extend these virtues to include love, taking care to keep our opponents “in the game.”
- Stewardship of our disagreements, treating them as gifts. We encourage curiosity about people’s reasons for disagreeing, careful listening until we can state our opponents’ views to their satisfaction, seeking common ground and human connection, and collaborating from “the same side of the table.”
- Stewardship of our political culture, by handling disputes in ways to strengthen our ability to make good decisions together, rather than despoiling that capacity. We encourage exploration outside our ideological bubbles, getting to know people with different convictions. We promote joint activities across ideological lines, cooperative problem solving, trust building, and seeing opponents as fellow children of God.
On campus, we host events to explain this vision of civility and teach related skills and strategies. This includes incorporating civility elements in various University classes.
Locally, we encourage grass roots civility-promoting work. For example, the Project has co-hosted three candidates’ forums. One of us (Ron) has spoken to the Oregon Mayors Association, the Oregon Main Street Association, the Newberg Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, and various churches and community groups.
The Civility Project also helped form Newberg/Dundee United as Neighbors (UasN) and offers logistical support to its work. UasN has accomplished several encouraging things, including:
- Drafting and publishing a Civility Pledge, offering local candidates a way to express their commitment to conduct their campaigns in ways consistent with robust civility.
- Hosting a private pre-forum get-together for all 10 candidates in our most recent school board election, to build human connections among them.
- Fostering monthly Community Conversations, where interested citizens of varying political persuasions come to talk about difficult issues, practicing the skills of doing so constructively and listening well. These conversations have drawn anywhere from 12 to nearly 30 people each month.
Community Conversations led to a special community forum last summer on homelessness, attended by more than 200 people.
The Civility Project also connects various local civility-promoting efforts in Oregon. We highlight some of these efforts in our newsletter, on our website, and in events on campus. For example, in November we had Democratic state representative Ben Bowman and Republican legislative staffer and campaign consultant Reagan Knopp come to campus to talk about the podcast they jointly run, The Oregon Bridge, where they interview people from across the Oregon political spectrum, modeling robust civility.
This fall we hired our alumna Christine Drazan, who last year narrowly lost the Oregon governor’s race, to teach a course on Oregon politics. Mrs. Drazan’s course embodied our values of civility as she brought several political opponents to campus as guest speakers and gave them the opportunity to share their perspectives.
As we observe the events that continue to unfold in the Middle East and Ukraine, the forces propelling violence seem irresistible. Is it really possible for normal, not-particularly-powerful people to help heal a ruined political culture, reduced to brutal violence, with both sides seemingly intent on mutual destruction?
We think it is possible. The alternative is despair and giving into a dynamic leading to growing misery or – if things go really badly – extinction of the human species.
So we keep working, plowing, sowing, nurturing… hoping our efforts are fruitful, so the “soil” in our communities and around the world can be made ready to receive the seeds of robust civility.