A Christian Perspective on the Political Divide in America

The following is an edited version of my responses to a series of questions posed to me by Matthew Kimbara, a high school senior at the Christian Academy in Japan, an international school in Tokyo

#1: What has been your work in relation to uncivil political discourse?

To say that political discourse in Americas is “uncivil” is understatement. Those having disagreements about political issues often resort to viscous name calling and demonization of the “other.” Why is that?

I propose that the root cause of the vitriolic nature of much current public discourse in America, political or otherwise, is tribalism, an us-versus-them mentality in which me and “my people” have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the issue at hand and “those other people” are all wrong. Such tribalism, which has been called “affective polarization,” reflects a deep emotional attachment to the in-group and a visceral reaction against the opposition – the out-group. In light of that emotional attachment, there is no incentive to have conversation with “them” to discuss and evaluate whatever reasons each side may have for their contrary beliefs.

Such tribalism becomes extremely destructive when an unwarranted extrapolation is made from  a belief that the other is “wrong” to a belief that the other is “untrustworthy, immoral and threatening,” which leads to demonization.

Around 2011, I became dismayed at the vitriolic nature of public discourse in America brought about by tribalism, especially in politics and, sadly, in the Christian church. What to do? 

Out of curiosity, I did some research on blogs on the internet. What I found was appalling. A blog posting might elicit numerous comments from readers. But virtually all the comments were very cryptic, either praising the blogger or, more frequently, vilifying the blogger, with none of the comments “advancing a genuine conversation.” There had to be a better way to deal with disagreements on the internet, possibly even a “Christian way.”

In pursuit of that “Christian way,” I decided to initiate a “Respectful Conversation” project on a new website (www.respectfulconversation.net) intended to “model” respectful conversation among Christian who have strong disagreements about contentious contemporary issues.

As can be seen from my website, the vehicle I used for such modeling was to host four 8 to 11 month electronic conversations (eCircles); with each conversation followed by my publication of a book intended to capture the highlights of the conversation. The format for each month-long subtopic for each eCircle was to identify two “conversation partners” who I knew to have strong disagreements about the sub-topic at hand; each of whom posted three 3000-4000 word essays. In their first essays, they responded to a Leading Question or two that I posed. The second postings were devoted to their identifying areas of agreement and disagreement in their first essays. The third essays were  devoted to their perception of the sub-issues for which continuing conversation needs to take place. 

The four eCircles dealt with the following topics: An Alternative Political Conversation; A Future for American Evangelicalism; Human Sexuality; and Respectful Political Discourse. The titles of the books that emerged from these eCircles can be accessed on my website, the latest of which will be released in the Spring of 2019, titled Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation (more about the content of that book later).

Prior to being accepted as a “conversation partner” for any of these eCircles, each invitee had to agree to abide by a set of “Guidelines for Conversation” (also available on my website) intended to ensure that their electronic conversation with a partner would be respectful in the midst of major disagreements. It is my judgement that my conversation partners exemplified respectful conversation to an admirable degree (which can only be verified by reading their various postings). A perusal of their postings will also reveal that when the partners were actually willing to “listen” to one another, a significant degree of mutual understanding emerged, leading to an encouraging measure of mutual trust. As a result, while many disagreements remained, the partners were able to uncover areas of agreement, where each partner benefitted from the best insights of the other. 

A very important result that often emerged from these conversations is that while a particular partner’s overall perspective on the issue at hand may not have changed significantly, his/her perception of the “other” often changed dramatically. Rather than viewing the other as an enemy to be demonized, a mutual understanding emerged that each of them aspired to be “faithful” to their understandings of their faith commitments, with their disagreements often reflecting their differing Christian pilgrimages and other particular aspects of their respective social locations. Most importantly, it soon became apparent that each of them was fully committed to the inspiration and authority of the Bible, with their disagreements often reflecting different interpretations of some biblical passages (thereby recognizing that the Bible is not self-interpreting; the hermeneutical task must be undertaken).

The major premise underlying all of this internet work flows from my Christian faith commitment. Jesus calls all those who claim to be his followers to “love their neighbors” (Mark 12:31). I believe that a deep expression of such love for someone who disagrees with you (albeit woefully neglected by many Christians) is to create a safe and welcoming space for that person to express that disagreement and then talk respectfully about your disagreement. A corollary of that premise is that you don’t love someone who you have silenced.

#2. In your experience, how has the nature of the current divide between the left and the right affected your own communities?

Before responding to this question, I will set a context.

As described above, most of my attempts to model respectful conversation have taken place on the internet. I am now in the midst of pivoting toward attempting to model respect in small group face-to-face conversations in my local community in Sioux County, Iowa. To get started in this new direction has been an enormous challenge because tribalism is thriving in my community. In the realm of politics, Sioux County is reported to be the second most politically conservative county in America and my initial attempts to get diehard Republicans and members of the much smaller group of staunch Democrats in the same room together for conversation have been unsuccessful (Interestingly, I have found that the majority group of Republicans have been the least interested in talking with those from “that other party”).

But I have had a recent success. Starting on March 13, 2019, I will begin hosting a series of face-to-face conversations on the topic “President Trump and Visions for America.” After much effort, I have managed to recruit four local residents for this conversation who situate themselves as “general Supporters” of President Trump and four local residents who consider themselves to be “general non-supporters” of President Trump (I say “general” for both groups because none of those who have agreed to participate in this conversation say they are “for” or “against” everything President Trump says or does).Although the logistics have not yet been worked out, I plan on presenting this conversation on my website in the form of podcasts of the answers that my conversation partners give to Leading  Questions that I will pose prior to each of our 5 to 7 sessions. I look forward with great anticipation to this upcoming series of face-to-face conversations.

All of the above is prolegomena to my answering the above question. In brief, despite the rampant tribalism in my own community, we seem to be able to “get along with one another.” But we “get along” primarily because we don’t talk to each other about contentious issues. That leads to a very anemic negative view of “living together in peace” as “avoiding conflict.” (in our coffee fellowship after the Sunday morning worship service it is much safer to talk about the fortunes of our favorite local or national sports teams than it is to talk about contentious political issues).

What we need to work toward locally is a more robust positive view of living together in peace in the midst of strong disagreements about politics or anything else. We need to create more safe spaces where we can talk openly and respectfully about our significant disagreements as deep expressions of the love for one another to which Jesus calls those who profess to be his followers (which happens to be the vast majority of the residents of Sioux County). It is my hope and prayer that the face-to face conversation that I will begin hosting on March 13 will be first step toward that end

#3. How does the nature of this current divide between the political left and right compare to similar divisions in the past?

I start with a disclaimer. I am far from being an expert on the history of American politics. 

However, I will venture the general observation that a strength of the “American experiment” since the days of the “Founding Fathers” has been its strong commitment to Democracy as opposed to authoritarian forms of government. Such “democratic governance” is “messy” and has led to “political divides” throughout the history of America. Our challenge is America is not to eliminate political disagreements; that would work against our democratic ideals.  Rather, it is to learn how to navigate those disagreements in a respectful manner.

As to the “magnitude” of political divides in America during my lifetime; many political scientists in America believe that a significant increase in the “nastiness” of American political discourse was bought about by Newt Gingrich in the late 1990s when he served as Speaker of the House of Representatives. His basic approach to doing politics was to sow division between the two major political parties. And this “brokenness” of political discourse in America has only increased during the last 20 or so years.

#4.  What do you think a significant improvement in this area would look like? 

My seemingly impossible dream for politics in America, and everywhere else, is for there to be a huge proliferation of respectful conversations among those who have strong disagreements about public policy issues toward the goal of finding common ground for living well together or, in cases where not much common ground can be found, to come to sufficient mutual understanding and trust to be able to live well together in the midst of our disagreements.

And I am hoping that these respectful conversations about political issues will take place in local communities, such as schools, churches and voluntary organizations, as well as within local, regional and national legislative bodies.

Within legislative bodies, I am hoping that these respectful conversations will lead to a significant increase in “bipartisan” legislation, in sharp contrast to the extreme “hyper-partisanship” that is presently dominant due to the scourge of tribalism.

One hopeful sign that has emerged in American politics while I have been writing this document is that a bipartisan group of 17 members of the Senate and House of Representatives in America have just passed bipartisan legislation relative to immigration reform that President Trump has agreed, reluctantly, to sign (later today). As with all bipartisan legislation, no one is happy about all the details of the approved legislative package. Good bipartisan legislation requires “compromise” all around, where nobody gets everything that they want, but everyone gets enough of what they want.

Of course, the challenge we will face in America these next few weeks or months is the issue of whether President Trump can “build his Wall” (on the southern border with Mexico), without this bipartisan legislation providing sufficient funding for that objective, by means of an “Executive order” that declares a “national emergency.” I cannot overstate the importance of that issue since it has the potential to strike at the very heart of the “separation of powers” (between the Executive and Legislative branches of American government) that our “Founding Fathers” had the wisdom to establish.

#5. How hopeful are you that this vision of improvement will become a reality?

A first reading to my response to question #4 above may lead you to believe that I am hopelessly naïve and completely out of touch with the present realties of American politics. Is this all a grand exercise in wishful thinking? How hopeful am I?

My answer depends on which “lens” I wear. From a “human perspective,” I am very pessimistic. The scourge of tribalism is so pervasive in America that the dreams I express above appear to have little chance of being realized. I cannot possibly “succeed.”

But as a professing Christian I am not called to necessarily be successful. I am called to be faithful. Based on the parable of the mustard seed told by Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 13: 31-32, I am called to plan tiny “seeds of redemption” in my spheres of influence, entrusting the harvest to God. So, when I look at the current political scene in America through the “lens” of “faith,” I am optimistic.

#6. What can individuals like me do to solve this problem?

Far be it from me to tell others who profess commitment to the Christian faith what “seeds of redemption” they should be planting in their various spheres of influence. The marvelous thing about the biblical teaching about the “Body of Christ,” as elaborated in 1 Corinthians 12, is that God’s redemptive purposes for the world will be fostered by each professing Christian contributing in accordance with his/her particular God-given gifts. 

I believe that my recent focus on orchestrating respectful conversations about contentious issues fits well with the gifts God has granted to me and comports well with a deep expression of the love for others to which Jesus has called all Christians. I will thank God if any reader of this document who professes commitment to the Christin faith decides to “go and do likewise” in their particular context. 

For readers of this document who do not profess commitment to the Christian faith, I can only say, without elaborating, that the “values” that are the foundation for the above reflections are not just “Christian values”; they are “human values” that I believe should be embraced by all human  beings whatever their religious or secular worldview commitments. In particular, all human beings should love others and a deep expression of such love is to create a safe and welcoming space for those who disagree with you to express and talk about those disagreements.