Regardless of political party affiliation or policy position, the vast majority of Mainers and other Americans agree that the destructive rhetoric, name-calling and mudslinging in the current election cycle have reached a level never seen before. It would seem at times that the very fabric of our society, a unifying force for good, is frayed beyond repair.

Finger-pointing in the service of refusing to work together has paralyzed us anddeposited us in the corners of a political boxing ring from which there is no winning. People feel the negative effects of attack ads, name-calling, falsehood and vitriol that flood the airwaves and print media. It is disheartening. The lack of civil discourse in our public debates and campaigns is sometimes hard to avoid.

As a society, we say we do not like negative campaign tactics, but, ironically, many cannot help but be drawn in. Negative campaigning works, at least with regard to voter polls, even when it does nothing to better the lives of our fellow citizens.

Drew Westen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, has extensively studied the psychology of politics. He explains why negative campaigning works in this way: “Emotions such as anxiety, fear and disgust involve very different neural circuits than, say, happiness or enthusiasm. A candidate’s job is to get all those neural circuits firing – both the ones that draw voters in and the ones that push them away from other candidates.”

Indeed, in study after study, statistics show that Americans cannot avoid the wreckage of negative attack ads. If attack ads and untruths did not work, politicians would not use them.

Even if attack ads “work” on some level, does the end ever justify the means? In my own Lutheran and Episcopalian churches, and in the nine member denominations of the Maine Council of Churches, we do not believe so.

Taking an action or making a statement just because it “works” does not make it moral or ethical. To acquiesce to negative and deceitful campaigning simply because it wins votes is akin to allowing unethical medical experimentation on people and animals, something I would hope the reader finds repulsive. In other words, effectiveness is not the litmus test for morality.

At the Maine Council of Churches, our Preamble on Civil Discourse states that “for a flourishing democracy we need to have debate based on mutual respect and honesty, but communications around political campaigns have become meaner, more deceitful and disrespectful. The impact has been confusion, division, and discord among the electorate.”

The MCC is committed to seeing civility restored to the political process. As a gathering of churches with sometimes divergent views, we model the power and strength that can accrue from civil discourse in a spirit of justice and love for one another. We stand firm when we are on common ground, for we believe that we are called to do no less.

Among the provisions of our Covenant on Civil Discourse is the mandate to act respectfully toward others; to refrain from personal attacks or characterizing one’s opponent as evil; to refuse to make untrue statements; to value honesty, truth and civility (while striving for workable solutions), and to disavow statements by those working on one’s behalf if those statements don’t meet those same standards.

I would encourage the reader to check out our website. There you will find a number of resources on civil discourse. You can also see the list of the close to 200 Maine candidates for local and national office who have signed our Covenant for Civil Discourse. Is there a politician missing from the list? Is it worth a call to him or her to ask if they are willing to pledge to be civil and to avoid negative campaigning and name-calling?

As the political campaign season fills the media with ads and accusations, we ask all people of good faith and conscience to hold our politicians and political organizations to the highest standards of honesty and respect. But civility is not only for politicians. As citizens, we also have a responsibility to be civil. In our households, places of work and recreation, and yes, even in our houses of worship, we can model to one another what it means to be civil in our political conversations.

We can avoid telling untruths, and we can talk about others without calling them names. We can listen to the opinions of others with respect, even if we do not agree with them. Together, we can speak and act in peace, confident in our ability to build a just and prosperous society.

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