James Calvin Davis is a Presbyterian ethicist and a professor of Religion at Middlebury College in Vermont; perhaps most interestingly, he is a believer in the potential of religion to increase the civility of political discourse in America. The first part of his learned book In Defense of Civility consists of four chapters that each seek to dispel a different misconception about the relationship between religion and American politics; Davis' argument is that these misconceptions have hurt religion's ability to make a positive contribution to America's public discourse. In the second and third parts of his book, Davis bravely tackles seven of the most divisive political issues of the day before concluding with a call for civility.
The four misconceptions that Davis works to dispel are (1) the notion that only conservatives are for moral values, (2) the notion that America was and is a Christian nation, (3) the notion that the separation of church and state has been and should be absolute, and (4) the notion that religion discourages conversation. Davis first "challenges that widely held assumption that moral values are the exclusive domain of conservatives" (p. x). Like conservatives, liberals (even secular liberals) value moral values; but the two sides often emphasize different moral values. Regarding the second and third misconceptions, Davis observes that conservative Christians tend to overstate the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, and that liberal secularists tend to overstate the claim that the wall between church and state has always been impermeable. Davis finds American history to be more complex than either of these views allows. For example, he writes: "A careful reading of the 'intent' of Madison, Jefferson, and others vital to the formation of the American Republic reveals that many of the founders were not enthusiastic about--were even deeply suspicious of--talk of the United States as a Christian nation. Most of the prominent statesman of the Revolution believed in an institutional separation of religion and state" (p. 35). Davis goes on, however, to show that this wall has always been "porous"; never has there been a time in American history when religion was excluded from the public square (pp. 37-54). Finally, Davis thinks that more civil religious arguments--arguments that are open to being "tested and evaluated," that are respectful, and that are characterized by consistency (pp. 69-70)--can overcome the reputation of religion as a conversation stopper.
In Part Two, Davis unpacks four of the most polarizing moral issues of our day--abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage, and euthanasia. With unusual understanding of both sides of the debate, Davis fairly articulates first the conservative argument and then the liberal argument on each of these hot topics. Davis is generous to both sides; when discussing gay marriage, for example, Davis assumes that conservatives are not homophobic and that liberals are not licentious--he gives them both the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately, Davis affirms what he calls the "muddled middle": "[M]any Americans--even those who may overall identify with the conservative or liberal camp--are part of a 'muddled middle,' a majority of more moderate Americans who pick and choose from among conservative and liberal priorities and therefore think about these issues in more complicated ways than the stereotypical extremes seem to do" (p. 111).
In Part Three, Davis discusses three issues that he believes should be added to the moral values mix--war and peace, creation care, and economic justice. After summarizing the diversity of Christian thought on violence in general and war in particular, Davis suggests that a more serious consideration of "the just-war tradition" might have prevented the war in Iraq. In subsequent chapters, Davis calls creation care "the one ethical responsibility in which our failure to act invites catastrophe" (p. 131) and appreciates a "commitment to social justice for the poor" (p. 151). On these three moral issues, there has been a convergence of progressive evangelicals and more liberal persons.
Davis concludes with a call for civility (something he has modeled throughout his book). He does not naively "ask us to pretend that our differences do not exist" (p. 157). He does think possible a civility defined "as the exercise of patience, integrity, humility, and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree" (p. 159, italics original).