The necessity and utility of kindness in American politics

In one word what would you say it takes to make it — to be successful and effective — in American politics today? Strength? Conviction? Courage? Intellect? Maybe the words you would use fall on the other end of the spectrum: self-interest, megalomania, enmity, quarrelsomeness, or a lack of character.

One word that I would wager shows up on almost no one’s list, and for understandable reasons, is the word kindness. In the dog-eat-dog, zero-sum world of politics, it seems naive to suggest that kindness has any meaningful contribution to make — it is perceived as more of a liability than an asset; a weakness rather than a strength. But in a political climate rife with discord, a steady dose of kindness is just what our system needs.

What is kindness?

 Given the state of American politics, many assume kindness is too “squishy” to be practiced in the halls of Congress, the Oval Office, or even at the “lay level.” We think kindness is more befitting of a neighbor than a US Senator, cabinet member, or American president whose responsibilities demand stern conviction, not amiability. Kindness evokes images of Ned Flanders: a good-natured, well-mannered, well-meaning, but ultimately naive person ill-suited for the gladiatorial nature of politics and public service. We have convinced ourselves that we need iron-willed, pugnacious strongmen to lead and represent us.

But kindness is not “squishy” or weak. It is not naive. And it is not incompatible with strength, conviction, and courage. On the contrary, kindness requires strength, conviction, and courage, especially in modern politics.

In the New Testament, the word kindness (the Greek word chrēstotēs) has a whole swirl of connotations in its orbit and a companion word — goodness — that helps us to understand its meaning. Goodness, according to the Bible, is an intrinsic personal quality, out of which kindness or kindliness springs. In other words, kindness is the by-product of a pure and good character. So when we behave with gentleness, restraint, beneficence, honesty, or virtue — all words closely associated with chrēstotēs in the New Testament — we demonstrate goodness; we express kindness. Would it not it be nice to have a little more restraint, honesty, and virtue in the capitol buildings and halls of Congress across this country?

It takes no strength, no courage, no conviction, and no goodness whatsoever to cave to the current mood and behave with partisan rancor. But to go against the grain and choose kindness? Now, that is a show of strength, courage, virtue, and a demonstration of goodness; it is what our forbearers had in mind.

An expectation in government

 If you survey the earliest literature from America’s founding, you will find innumerable references to the need for comity, decorum, decency, and civility among those who swear by oath to uphold the Constitution. For instance, in Thomas Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice, on the topic of debate within the House, Jefferson wrote:

No one is to speak impertinently or beside the question, superfluous, or tediously . . . No one is to use indecent language against the proceedings of the House . . . No person, in speaking, is to mention a Member then present by his name, but to describe him by his seat in the House . . . nor to digress from the matter to fall upon the person by speaking reviling, nipping, or unmannerly words against a particular member (emphasis added).

Jefferson’s words speak to the requirements placed on each member of Congress, then and now, that inform how the House is expected to operate, and a disciplinary process for “unmannerly Members” or those who disregard House rules. In other words, it is – and has always been- part of the job description of each appointed member of the House to behave in a manner worthy of the office they hold. We have not always lived up to these standards, of course. The annals of US history are littered with instances of impropriety, from the infamous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr to the 1856 attack on Sen. Charles Sumner by Rep. Preston Brooks to the brawl in 1858 between Rep. Galusha Grow and Rep. Laurence Keitt and their colleagues. Nevertheless, the men and women whom we appoint to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution” and to serve as our representatives bear the responsibility of maintaining the centuries-old standard of conduct inscribed in America’s founding documents.

 A Christian expectation

 As Christians, we recognize that the call to kindness doesn’t originate in Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice. Kindness is a Christian virtue that originates in scripture (Rom. 2:4, Titus 3:4, Eph. 2:7) — God rules the cosmos with love, strength, justice, righteousness, goodness, and kindness (Rom. 11:22).

 When we become followers of Jesus, we bear the responsibility of imitating the God we follow. Once saved, God changes our nature and implants his Spirit in us, imbuing us with his Spirit’s fruit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal. 5:22, emphasis added). By God’s grace, we become objects of his goodness and kindness and conveyors of his goodness and kindness, meaning he intends for us to “put on” the attributes and character traits he possesses in full supply and which he’s growing in us (2 Cor. 6:6, Col. 3:12). And these character traits aren’t weak or “squishy” or ill-suited for public service. They epitomize strength and virtue, and we need them more than ever.

We should be grateful to live in a country where decorum and civility are valued so highly as to be written into some of its earliest, most binding documents. And each new generation of Christian Americans should strive to ensure that we and those who represent us in government abide by those standards of kindness, and not primarily because Jefferson and Madison said so. But because the omnipotent, omnibenevolent God has placed his Spirit in us and given us the capacity to model for others the kindness he’s shown us.

 Kindness in action

 Here’s the real dilemma. We can acknowledge that the American founders expected public servants to comport themselves with decency and decorum — with kindness. Reading our historical documents renders that fact indisputable. We can also acknowledge that Scripture calls Christians, without exception, to behave in a way befitting of the Spirit who lives in us, whether in “the people’s house” or our own house; in the Senate Chamber or on social media; on public television or in private conversations. But what do we do when the whole system encourages and incentivizes the opposite?

Even though the value system of American politics is trending toward (and rewarding) the “reviling, nipping, [and] unmannerly words” that Jefferson outlawed more than comity and civility, God still expects us to “follow” and “walk by the Spirit.” He expects us to bear witness to his character before others by behaving in a like manner, regardless of the political incentive, because it’s right. To say it differently: Obeying God’s command to “put on” kindness (Col. 3:12) is not optional, preferential, or contextual. It is simply expected of us. And there are a thousand ways we can apply kindness to our political ethic. Here are three simple ways to think about it: kindness in what we do, what we say, and what we don’t say.

What we do

In the last eight years, American politics has devolved into a cesspool of toxic partisanism; a misguided struggle between good and evil that is more Manichaean than American, and certainly not Christian. Each side treats the other as if it’s a party of lepers, unclean and unworthy of dignity, refusing to cooperate, negotiate, compromise, or even associate with one another. Democrats and Republicans alike are in a near decade-long temper tantrum: backs turned, ears plugged, shouting at the top of their lungs, and unwilling to relent. It’s childish, immoral, and profoundly unproductive.

The single greatest thing we can do to reintroduce kindness into American politics is reject this toxicity and engage in bipartisan cooperation. For example, we can develop friendships across the aisle reminiscent of President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill; we can work with opposing party members to advance bipartisan legislation; or we can simply view those on the other side as people worthy of respect. Kindness demands that we put a halt to naked partisanship by tearing down this modern “dividing wall of hostility” one brick, one act of kindness, at a time.

What we say

One of the most discouraging things about our current political moment is the way we and our country’s public servants speak. To say that we lack kindness doesn’t do the problem justice. Our political speech isn’t merely indecent or obscene, it lacks fundamental goodness — it is often self-interested, blatantly false, charged with malintent, hateful, spiteful, inane, and contemptuous. And the more we speak to and about one another in these ways, the more our national decency will continue to unravel (Proverbs 15:1). It shouldn’t be this way, and in fact, it can’t stay this way long before something breaks. In John Adams’s words, “Our Constitution . . . is wholly inadequate to the government” of this kind of immorality.

As Christians, we should be exemplars of the goodness, kindness, comity, decency, civility, decorum, honor, and respect (not to mention the selflessness, truthfulness, integrity, and charity) that Adams and Jefferson expected all American citizens to exercise. As we’ve seen, that doesn’t mean we become weak or “squishy.” On the contrary, in a political culture like ours, speaking with kindliness means we must be inherently strong and virtuous people.

What we don’t say

A character trait that’s become fashionable in recent years is what some refer to as authenticity, which in politics is code for “telling it like it is.” In the minds of many, our public servants have spoken for too long with polish instead of saying what needs to be said. The result has been a meteoric uptick in the use of profanity, gibes, and defamatory language, along with a flood of ignorance and imprudence. The Bible is unequivocal in its disapproval of this kind of behavior.

Rather than falling in line with this so-called authenticity and blathering on with reckless abandon, Scripture advocates for a different kind of ethic: being “slow to speak” (James 1:19) and, when we do speak, using language that “is good for building up;” that is, edifying or strengthening (Eph. 4:29). When people on both sides of the aisle, politicians and laymen alike, persistently gush with contempt and indignance, one of the kindest, most decent things we can do is to refrain from speaking — to wait, to listen, to process, and to deliberate before uttering a word. What a stark contrast to the current state of Western politics. What an immediate difference it could make.

The kindness that crosses boundaries

In 1776, in a letter written to the Provincial Congress of North Carolina, John Adams stated that without “the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation (to which I would add kindness) . . . every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.” Looking out at the state of democracy in America, Adams’s words seem almost like prophetic utterings. We’ve forfeited our political and cardinal virtues, and we’re in a tailspin. Politics no longer feels like “the art of the possible;” it feels more like a nihilistic descent into the abyss.

It need not be this way. It cannot stay this way. But nothing will change unless serious people with serious virtue decide Thomas Jefferson was right and behave as such. Nothing will change until Christians demonstrate goodness, decency, and kindness whether it’s politically expedient or not. We do not have to choose to be kind or effective, to be kind or strong, to be kind or successful — none of these are mutually exclusive. We need only to choose to be faithful and to walk by the Spirit of the omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.

In the history of the cosmos, kindness has a strong track record of inspiring change (Rom. 2:4). And if God’s kindness is so efficacious that it can reach across the wide chasm that separated us from his kingdom, imagine what he can do through us if we’ll reach across the narrow aisle that separates and divides us between Blue and Red America.

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a writer/editor at RightNow Media. He’s a board member at The LoveX2 Project, an organization seeking to make the world a better place for moms and babies. Jordan is a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. He’s married to Juliana, and they have three children.