We live in a partisan, divisive, and politically paralyzed age. This is true and has been for centuries around the world, but now it’s our situation at home, particularly in Washington, D.C. but also, if you look twice, in many “interest areas” like religion, social or civic endeavors, even athletics.
We seem to have succumbed to what the Founders, at least James Madison in Federalist Papers #10, feared most: “Factions.” We’re fragmenting into not simply political parties with differing points of view. We’re fragmenting into polarized subgroups, interest groups ad infinitum, each with a belief its view and only its view is the correct view. Add to this that in their polarization these factions, including the quaintly labeled “major” political parties, have become volatile, virulent, and verbally vicious, producing a form of “interaction” that is anything but “inter”—just shallow shouting—where “compromise” is the dirtiest of words, and you get what we have today in Washington, D.C., poisonous political paralysis.
In a republic such as the United States was founded to be, we are supposed to be able to trust our great issues to worthy representatives of character and integrity who engage in in-depth public discourse, believing that through this discourse the truth will out and what is best for the common good will prevail. For two hundred years of the nation’s history this republic worked mostly well, struggling for a time on the supreme issues of slavery and civil rights but through suffering and sacrifice eventually embracing a better way.
In the Twenty-First Century, our republic is struggling again, but this time without a sense of what it is (we are) trying to do or become. We’re our own worst enemies.
March 4, 1865, with spectators standing in a sea of mud up to their ankles, Abraham Lincoln shared his immortal Second Inaugural Address. Just over a month from his assassination President Lincoln famously said of the North and South: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes… With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds…”
This sense of an overarching purpose, No, this belief in not just a purpose but Purpose, a belief in God, his will, his values (in the North and the South), is what’s missing today.
What scholars once called the “sacred canopy,” a general cultural perspective on right and wrong, the good life, and the ideal, has largely disappeared. This sacred canopy used to be founded upon a “Judeo-Christian consensus” or what some referred to as our heritage as a “Christian nation.” While the Christian nation theme may be debated there is little doubt the United States was influenced before, during, and since its inception by a Judeo-Christian worldview. This Judeo-Christian consensus about the good, the bad, and the ugly was drawn from values rooted in the Word of God, as applied by multiple voices, forming the pillars of Western Civilization and in turn, American culture and polity.
Today this consensus is nearly gone, or at least it is so fractured, so depleted, it has given way to moral relativism, a kind of secular attitude with leftover religious overtones and a value set in which personal preference reigns supreme. Whatever we want to do, we do. Nothing exists outside of our own definition of reality.
While our Judeo-Christian-informed sacred canopy is a shadow of itself, vestiges of it exist. And while the moral relativism of our age is secular in its intent and impact, yet presidents still say, “God bless America,” at the end of their speeches and since 9/11 we’ve sung this song during the seventh-inning stretch at baseball games. So while we no longer have a Judeo-Christian public square, we really don’t have the “naked public square” some scholars thought we’d develop. We’re not totally secular or godless like the Communist of the Cold War.
We have more of a “religiously pluralistic public square” in which religious meanings have changed, broadened, and diluted to the point where it’s still cool to believe in “a God,” but let’s just leave it at that.
Millions of individuals living by this creed create a culture that drives our politics. With no recognized moral governor, self-interest can morph to selfishness and, for some, to unrestrained narcissism. With no moral guide, “tolerance” becomes the buzzword and watchword of a culture most interested in advancing each individual’s “right” to express his or her desires in any possible way, without concern or consequences.
This celebration of “tolerance” would seem to promote civility, but it doesn’t. Ironically, there’s little or no tolerance to be found among and at times within the groups vying for advantage and power in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile what’s been true is still true, religion and politics involve the most compelling issues and moral questions of life. If we expect American culture to survive, much less thrive, we must pay attention and must regain the capacity to wrestle with great issues and make great decisions.
Individually maybe there isn’t much we think we can do, but there are some things:
1) Base our political decisions on substance, not symbolism. Try to identify facts and stay away from the "herd mentality" and emotionalism.
2) Consider what is said, not who said it. What matters is the merit of an idea and the values behind it, not what person from a certain party, race, or state happened to say it.
3) Develop a Christian position, not argue we’ve identified the Christian position, simply evidencing a bit of humility.
4) Avoid equating biblical Christianity with a particular political party, platform, or interest group. God's Word is written for all times, countries, and cultures, and all political perspectives and positions must be held accountable to biblical principles.
5) Focus upon what’s good for the body politic, not simply what we believe advances the Christian cause. Too many Christian leaders or groups talk more about whom they’re against than what good their proposals could actually do for every American.
6) Celebrate civil liberties for all whether we agree with them or not, and promote civil rights for the weak, poor, and disenfranchised, all in the name of Christian not partisan rationale.
7) Model civility, so we sound different from those who make no bones about disliking, disrespecting, and dismissing others.
8) Do a better job of demonstrating how Christian perspectives actually work, meaning Christianity is practical, not just spiritual, blessing all not just people who embrace the faith.
9) Demonstrate a “tolerance,” nay love, of all human beings without necessarily condoning or embracing their behaviors. Sometimes we expect people to act like Jesus who don’t even know Jesus.
10) Model Micah 6:8, in which it is asked, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Rex M. Rogers, President SAT-7 USA, www.sat7usa.org,