Fears Run High, ‘Hope’ Turns Hopeless — What Do We Do Now?
Bombs in the mail, protests in the streets, politicians calling for mob action — we are so divided in this country, so at risk of fragmenting to pieces, what are we going to do? It’s getting worse every day. Hope for restoring civility fades further into the distance, and people grasp at straws to find it again.
A recent episode of God Friended Me ended with the clergyman saying his congregation had grown since he lovingly accepted his “out” daughter. It had grown, he said, on the strength of people realizing “faith is about uniting people, not dividing them.” That’s not truth speaking, but it sure is hope.
It only takes a half-second’s thought to know he’s factually wrong. Faith has never meant, “Believe what you want — we don’t have to worship the same thing to worship together, do we?” It’s also never meant, “Believe what you want, but don’t worry about actually committing yourself to it.” It means taking a personal stand for something not everyone agrees with.
It’s not true, but it’s hopeful. I get that, in a way. I imagine Americans at peace with each other everywhere, and I just sigh: It would be so much better than what we have, but it’s so far out of reach.
It isn’t just the faithful who have these strong commitments. Consider the seven American “tribes” identified by a research group whose very name — “More in Common” — speaks the same yearning for hope. These tribes come grouped by their beliefs and commitments, not by race, class or sex — positions ranging from Progressive Activists (8 percent of Americans) to Devoted Conservatives (6 percents). Just look at how strongly they disagree:
(Click to enlarge. The dotted vertical lines mark the U.S. average. It’s worth noting, by the way, that Progressive Activists are further from average on most of these measures.)
Between these two groups, five other “tribes” comprise a majority whose label speaks for itself:
Despite these stark differences, this study also finds reasons for hope. America’s political landscape is much more complicated than the binary split between liberals and conservatives often depicted in the national conversation. In particular, we find, among the seven tribes, an “Exhausted Majority,” whose members do not conform to either partisan ideology.
They’re resting their hopes on an “Exhausted Majority”? That’s how they think we can unite people as far apart as Progressive Activists and Devoted Conservatives?
Yes, that is indeed what they have in mind. Fixing it. By learning how much we still have in common. “Our polarization is not simple, but nor is it insoluble,” they say as they explain why they’ve done this research. “We need to understand it, so we can fix it. More in Common hopes that this report can help inform and inspire this urgent work.”
Hope springs eternal — even though the largest Exhausted Majority tribe, a full one-quarter of Americans, is “Politically Disengaged.” I’m sorry, but we have to be realistic. Something’s off there.
Now, I do believe we could settle things down a whole lot if we would just have coffee together and learn what we share in common. “More in Common” hopes their research will help inform such a movement of reconciliation. They’re wrong, I’m sad to say. It won’t, at least not the way they think it will. They’re flailing, acting as if the answer is to try the same failed strategies again, only harder this time. Politically disengaged people are not the key to re-unifying America, now or in the future. Exhausted Americans won’t spring us all back together again.
Driven by Fearfulness
In fact we might as well face it: “More in Common” uses the word hope, but they’re really talking about fear. You know when people really grasp at straws, right? They do it when they’re falling and they can’t find anything real or substantial to catch them and hold them and they know they’re going to crash and get broken and maybe even die — which is the condition we’re in now in America. We are very much at risk of tearing ourselves apart.
They know that, of course:
America’s differences have become dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants, the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and putting our democracy in peril.
And I gave them kudos for not giving in to those fears; but hopeless hope is only a palliative. It won’t lead us out of the hazards.
Love for Ideological Enemies: Our Best Hope
Hopeless hope won’t alter the two sides’ commitment to their positions. Progressive Activists and Devoted Conservatives are so strongly opposed to each other, it’s no overstatement to call them ideological enemies. The fighting will go on, for it must; but it need not go on the way it has been. People don’t have to treat their enemies this way. A far better path was set in just three words almost 2,000 years ago, and if there’s any hope for us at all, it’s in this: “Love your enemies.”
I don’t know if I land in this survey’s “Devoted Conservative” tribe or not. (I’ve seen their questions, and I have trouble with how ambiguously some of them are worded.) Regardless of that, I’m solidly opposed to Progressive Activist ideology. I don’t have to tolerate the other side’s false ideas, but in Christ I can still love and respect the individuals who hold the ideas. I can respect them as fellow humans on the same hard path we’re all walking. I can seek their best, and try to re-enliven poisoned relationships.
A Very Christian Hope
Obviously that’s a very Christian hope. There’s nothing like it on the secular, Progressive side, and I’m afraid we can see that lack of love for enemies too much in action. (I’d be grateful to see a lot more of it on our side.) It’s Christian, but nothing like the TV pastor’s hope. This is true Christian hope founded in a faith that’s uncompromisingly committed to Christian truth, yet with the promise of bringing love to relationships where disagreement persists — as far as the other person allows, at least.
And it opens the door to even greater hope, true hope for our friends, family and fellow Americans. I have more to say on that, but I’ll have to save that for next time.