Our country is polarized, and that is nothing new. What is new—or, rather, what feels new—is the extent to which this polarization affects our everyday lives and relationships. According to Pew, overwhelming majorities of Trump and Biden supporters claim to have no more than a few close friends who disagree with them politically. Making it worse, however, are the not-insignificant numbers of people who have had relationships destroyed over politics—or, more specifically, over one’s opinion on Donald Trump. This Reuters article paints a particularly grim picture of this reality: divorce; the estrangement of grandchildren from their grandparents; the alienation of brother and sister, to the point that one did not find out their mother died until only after the fact. All over Trump!
This is certainly discouraging. But I have to say: despite all the vitriol, despite the terrible campaign, despite the ongoing pandemic, economic calamity, racial strife, open-and-filled Supreme Court seat—despite everything—I actually feel pretty great about where our country is.
This is not my natural state. As an Eeyore myself, I tend to be a realist (read: pessimist) when it comes to my view of the world. (Eeyore saying, “Good morning, if it is a good morning,” never fails to elicit a chuckle, because I understand him.) And I found 2016 to be the most disheartening election of my life. The campaign, the way I saw people I know and love interacting with one another on social media, the awful things I heard people say—it was utterly depressing.
Not much has evidently changed. Why don’t I feel the same this time around?
For the last six weeks, I have taught a class on politics at my church. There, I laid out my conviction that there is no one Christian approach to politics—I cannot simply apply the Bible or a Christian worldview to politics, because I never come to the Bible from a perspective of perfect purity. There are always other things—say, our upbringing, culture, context, time, age, race, tradition, etc.—that affect how we interpret the Scriptures. Thus, to speak of a Christian worldview necessitating supporting a certain candidate—as one particularly prominent evangelical has claimed—is, to my mind, wrong. So at issue is not necessarily whom we vote for—at issue is how we think about the whole process. We ought to consider what bearing the life, death, and resurrection of Christ—and our command to love God and others—has on our participation in politics, while humbly acknowledging that we are imperfect purveyors of this gospel.
We discussed the history of the church’s involvement in politics (among them, the early church, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin), some contemporary approaches (the religious right, progressive evangelicals, the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, and the black church, through the lens of Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Cone), and how to have a constructive conversation about politics even with those with whom we disagree. Yesterday, we met for the final time, simply discussion today’s election, what we thought would happen, whom we are supporting and why.
And here is why I am encouraged. Contrary to our broader polarization, our group consisted of an almost even mix of Trump and Biden supporters, with another handful of Jo Jorgensen voters and others who rejected the two main political parties. And our conversation was civil! We remained friends! We talked about politics, the things we disagreed about, and, rather than resulting in the destruction of these relationships, I feel as if they are deeper than they have ever been. To use the framework of Robert George and Cornel West, we were able to discuss differences of opinion on the policy level because we focused on our agreement on the moral level: we discovered our overlapping levels of agreement, clung to our connection at a human level, sought intellectual generosity and humility, and we achieved what has become ever so elusive in these times—polite political disagreement.
This fills me with such joy. Admittedly, this is a small slice of the country (over the six weeks, there were about 30 of us, off and on). How could so few affect such change? And yet—what if we all approached politics by looking to our agreements, rather than as a zero-sum game, a war of all against all? What if we all committed to being generous toward the motives of other people and skeptical of our own? What if we remembered that we could be wrong, and acknowledged it when we were? What if we who are Christians approached politics by asking the question, how do I love God and my neighbor (who, the Bible says, could may well be my enemy) through the political process?
Is this possible? I don’t know. But I have hope.