A recent public opinion poll reported by ABC News said that Americans today are “ruder than ever,” with “nearly eight in 10 respondents to the poll said lack of respect and courtesy is a serious national problem, and six in 10 said the problem is getting worse.”
The evidence for this shows in simple things. For example, we used to have phone booths, so people could have public phone conversations in private. Today, people are “yammering on cell phones in public” and ignoring people around them, so they can be engrossed in the virtual world.
This shows in more noticeable things, too, such as profanity-laced talk in person or online. From politicians to professional athletes to TV shows, cursing in public has become the norm.
Now a sharp increase in rudeness is not, of course, unprecedented. There were times in history in which barbaric behavior was much more accepted than it would be in America today. However, we have experienced a coarsening, a drift toward barbaric behavior, in recent years that would have shocked previous generations.
That means Christians must step back and think about this issue and what it says about us. For believers, while polite behavior over rude behavior is not the primary virtue, rude behavior is a real problem with theological implications. Recall it was the Apostle Paul who said, “Love is not rude” (1 Cor. 13:5).
The distance between a rude society and a polite one is sometimes small. Previous generations held certain rules which, though they were small actions, resulted in a culture of politeness. For example, men would not wear hats indoors, as a sign of respect that dated back to the Middle Ages. Men would be expected to hold a door open for a lady or to stand when a lady enters the room.
Many of these rules have fallen out of favor or disappeared entirely. In fact, as the roles of men and women become increasingly blurred, these behaviors are likely to grow increasingly out of favor.
Now, we do not want good manners just for the sake of manners, or for the sake of traditions. After all, we do not want to be like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who only cared about external things, such as whether Jesus’ disciples had washed their hands before they ate (Matt. 15:2).
At the same time, we do want behavior and a heart-set that is all about putting others first and showing proper respect. If we want better manners in America, that begins with looking in a mirror. We cannot expect others, such as children or young people, to exhibit polite behavior, if they do not see us doing so.
From small actions such as saying “please” and “thank you,” we can take a large leap back toward showing basic courtesy and politeness. This would speak volumes.
William Wilberforce, who led Britain to abolish slavery, was a committed Christian who elevated the importance of manners. He said, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”
By God’s grace, Wilberforce and others achieved the first of the two great objects. The second task, though it seems much smaller in significance when compared to the first, was still important to this hero for humanity. For Wilberforce, manners, public morals and dignity each were linked and could be thought of as a whole.
As Christians living in increasingly rude times, we can demonstrate one aspect of God’s love, by demonstrating one polite act at a time. And when we realize the importance of this, it gives us the kind of rude awakening we all probably needed.