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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Lowering the decibel level

Does the volatile rhetoric involved in some of America's most contentious political and moral issues such as abortion and gay rights lead to violence? Can the decibel level of public discourse be lowered without abandoning deeply held ethical principles?

Leaders from more than two dozen groups often at loggerheads in bitter religious disagreements over such social issues met in December to explore a platform for civil coexistence.

"Even the most entrenched opponents are seeking an alternative to rancor and distrust," said moderator Martin Marty, an ELCA pastor and renowned historian.

Much of the rapid-fire three-hour roundtable, while touching on family planning and abortion, centered around homosexuality.

"We're not trying to spread any particular agenda," said Robert W. Patterson, editor of a publication of the Family Research Council. "Is it uncivil to suggest that homosexual behavior — I'm not talking about the orientation, but the behavior — is destructive to the moral order?"

"There's a consequence to your message no matter how civilly you say it," said Judith Schaeffer, People for the American Way. "You did not kill Matthew Shepard, but you created an environment in which homosexuals are seen as alcoholics, kleptomaniacs — as something sick."

Marty, scholar-in-residence at the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith and Ethics, said the Chicago-based think tank is developing a set of principles for restoring civility to public discourse. "The principles are an urgently needed transfusion to help faith communities realize civil dialogue on a wide range of controversial issues," he said.

In the coming months, the center will distribute at least 2,000 copies of its principles to people in positions of religious leadership.


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