By Bishop Joe E. Pennel Jr., Special Contributor…
I have been a pastor for more 50 years and during that time I have officiated at more than 500 funerals. It was not unusual to hear a loved one say something like, “I never heard mother say an unkind word about anyone.”
Tributes such as these will not be featured in today’s political drama. Discrediting tactics, smear language, appeals to ridicule, misleading advertising and dirty tricks seem to be the order of the day. In our commodity-driven economy there is no doubt that negative campaigning garners votes, but is it moral and ethical?
Those of us who live in the U.S.A. do not favor the regulation of public speech. We are anchored in our commitment to the open exchange of ideas and by fundamental legal protections such as those that are guaranteed by our Constitution. We hold fast to the belief that free speech is essential to a healthy democracy. We support the conviction that political parties can and should hold different views on the big questions of today: gay marriage, school funding, immigration, Social Security, military cuts, the income gap, health care and job creation.
However, negative campaigning does not contribute to healthy and far-reaching solutions to these thorny problems. Such practices tend to further polarize a group-oriented and partisan country. In a word, negative campaigning does not contribute to the common good.
Negative attack ads are beginning to explode over the airwaves and the Internet. They work if they are believable because they tend to play on the suspicions of those who listen to them. The best ads are those that seem to underline what you think you already know. They put into words what people are already feeling in their hearts.
There is nothing affirming in most attack ads. They focus on the negative aspects of the opponent, and they exploit people’s fears and misgivings. These techniques have the ability to describe the opponent as soft on crime, dishonest, corrupt, unknowing and a threat to the nation. We saw this in the campaign of Lyndon Johnson when he portrayed Barry Goldwater as threatening nuclear war.
Dirty tricks also provide another sad example of how one side will try to feed the other with false information, hoping they will use it to embarrass themselves. I have heard it said that dirty tricksters also leak damaging information to the media. Dirty tricks do not call out the loving gifts of people nor do they affirm the gifts of others. They do not strengthen love, hope and genuine learning. They divide rather than create community.
Negative campaigning is sinful because it intentionally presents twisted or spun information under the guise of shedding light on the weakness of the other person. It causes people to be turned in upon themselves. The concern of this negativity is not to lift up love and justice in a broken world. The motive is not to heal, to restore, or to increase compassion.
Sin, in its broadest sense, is any thought, word or deed which separates us from God, others or ourselves. Negative campaigning does just that—it separates and it does not bring people together.
I know that the religious community does not have the power to bring about change in this area of public political life, but we can teach another way of having conversation. We can teach our children and ourselves what it means to “love God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with your entire mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This teaching of Jesus is counter to culture. Culture believes that we “win” by way of power and influence. The highest religious values teach that we “win” as we are rooted and grounded in love.
Negative campaigning presents a strong and vibrant challenge to the religious community. It dares us to find ways to speak the truth in love and to speak it in a way that rises above the negativity of this generation. If we act and speak with clarity and purpose, we just might cause some political group to revalue its values.
Retired Bishop Pennel is professor of pastoral leadership at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn.