The political and social divisions our nation is suffering at this time seem unprecedented. The inability to even carry on a respectful conversation with one who thinks differently politically or socially appears universal. Even among friends and fellow Christians, the darkness prevails. Disagreement is no longer regarded as simply the result of a differing though sincere perspective or worldview, or even, less charitably but still somewhat civil, lack of awareness or astuteness regarding the realities of political and social matters. No, disagreement or thinking differently is attributed to evil roots and nefarious designs.
As such, people feel justified in accusing those who think differently of the worst of motives for holding the positions they do. If you voted for Trump, it’s because you’re a racist and misogynist and were horrified at the ascent of a black man to the nation’s highest office. If you voted for Clinton, surely you must be in league with those who plan the ruination of Western civilization and the submission to radical, foreign ideologies.
Many have succumbed to a Manichean dualism of angelic Democrats and demonic Republicans or, conversely, angelic Republicans and demonic Democrats. Neither is there refuge in a neutral middle ground. Even though millions were turned off by both candidates of the major political parties and many voted third-party or wrote in a preferred candidate, even if only as a protest vote, now that the election is over, the lines are drawn in permanent marker. You are either all Trump or all anti-Trump. You are either with her or against her. To declare that you really don’t care for either side is not an option. Either choose a side, or one will be chosen for you. Any attempt to treat one side or the other with the slightest deference or merest respect, any disagreement with the smallest measure of one side’s platform, much less any effort to ascertain the truth from among the lies, will be interpreted as proof of your total adherence to the other side, opening you up to severe, unrelenting attack.
The saddest part of this is that it has infected the Church, and that confreres are too often finding themselves at each others’ throats, or the recipients of unjust accusations of not being Catholic enough, or of putting their devotion to party before their devotion to Jesus.
How did this happen? How did identification with the political party that is not my political party become the standard for heresy?
And, when did we forget civility? When did winning the argument become so important that integrity no longer mattered? That false accusation and misrepresentation of another’s position became a legitimate means to the end of making yourself feel good and righteous and virtuous because you had defended the noble cause of equality, or freedom, or the Constitution, or women’s rights, or whatever it is you thought you were defending?
I haven’t watched late night TV in years, but based on what I’ve seen on the news and on clips shared on Facebook, it has become a cesspool of vulgarity. The felt need to stop Trump and his agenda at all cost has been used to justify all sorts of malignant attacks and obscenity-filled vitriol. And Trump himself twitters and spits out his attacks on the media, disparaging and threatening the free press, with such regularity that Ben Sasse, Republican Senator from Nebraska, has asked if he has disavowed his promise to protect the First Amendment when he took his oath of office. Assassination humor aimed at Trump has become all the rage among comics and other celebrities, and support for Trump is so visceral in the minds of some that I wonder if it really is true, as he jokingly claimed during the campaign, that he could shoot a person in cold blood and his supporters would cheer.
Recently, I experienced a new low, a deeper sadness, related to the divisions in our nation when someone, one I had respected and who is a fellow Catholic, accused me of not being a true Catholic or a true follower of Jesus because I am not a member of his major political party. That had never happened before. I know plenty of members of the other major political party, and they know I am not a member of their party, but none have ever accused me of not being a true Catholic or a true follower of Jesus because of it. I’ve known plenty of non-Catholics who have accused me of not being a true follower of Jesus because I’m a Catholic, though it’s been several years since that’s happened. But this is new for me, and I’m honestly not sure how to respond to it.
I don’t want to stop talking about politics or social matters. They are extremely important, and it’s important that we have these discussions. But, it seems more and more rare that people are able to discuss them in meaningful, respectful ways. The problem, I think, is that people want to win. They don’t want to teach or learn. They want to win. They want to prove, if only to themselves, that they are just and righteous and right. People simply cannot handle it when someone challenges their claims. It’s as if such a challenge is taken to be against them, as a person. It’s as if, by challenging their claim, I am questioning their dignity, their honor, their self-worth. No, I am challenging their claim. But, our culture takes politics and social matters so personally now that to do one is to do the other. This is why, I think, the strategy of responding to a challenge by accusing the challenger of being some sort of monster has become so popular. If I can throw out the accusation of bigot, or racist, or supremacist, or homophobe, or un-American, or a race-baiter, or anti-cop or what have you, then I can successfully de-humanize the one who is challenging me and, by doing so, reaffirm my own humanity by denying his. My opponent’s challenge is not to be taken seriously, because my opponent is not to be taken seriously, because my opponent is not human. He is a bigot, a racist – in other words, he is a monster!
This is not good. This is not healthy. This is not how a free and responsible people can move forward. We must be able to challenge each other’s claims. We must be willing to teach others and learn from others. If every challenge to a claim is regarded as a challenge to a person’s identity, or dignity, than productive conversation stops, because the only people with whom we’ll be discussing important matters are those who already agree with us, because they’re the only one’s with whom we’ll feel safe. We’ll never be able to refine our ideas in the fire of public discourse and debate. So, our ideas will never improve. Our arguments will never grow stronger. Rather, our minds will become weak because they will fail to ever be exercised against the heavy weight of another mind that thinks differently. When our minds grow weak, our ideas grow weak, and our society grows weak.
So, what to do? Perhaps a switch in approach is what’s needed. My experience recommends to me that many people are unable to talk about particular politicians without becoming emotional. Obama, Clinton, Trump – these politicians, especially, incite in both supporter and opponents so much emotion that it’s almost impossible to discuss them, or their policies in the context of discussing them, without the discussion quickly devolving into anger and people becoming offensive.
But, is it still possible to discuss the issues? Is it still possible to discuss abortion, religious liberty, gun control, capital punishment, immigration reform, international relations, race relations, the economy, school choice, or any other particular issue with a clear mind and reasoned voices? I’m not saying even talking about these will be easy. But, if we can disassociate the issue from the politician that riles so many emotions, perhaps it’s possible to discuss them.
Another thing to keep in mind is how I approach these issues. I know that tone can be difficult to communicate in the written word. But, there are softer words, there are kinder ways of saying things. I confess that when I get riled up, too, I have too often resorted to words that were hard and unkind. That’s on me. So, when I discuss these matters, I can be kind, generous, and not so eager to make the point so sharp.
We have to be able to discuss important issues, especially with those who think differently. We have to be able to forge our own ideas against the anvil of ideas that are contrary. Otherwise, our minds will grow weak, our ideas will grow weak, and our society will grow weak.
Come, Lord Jesus!
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.