Political Polarization: Healing the Great Divide
Perhaps the most concerning matter of public life today is our political polarization. Right and left seem to be speaking almost in completely different languages, and our leaders have reached what seems like a perpetual impasse.
Exhibit A: Government Shutdown. For the first time in nearly 18 years, the US government has furloughed nearly 800,000 employees because it could not pass a budget for the next fiscal year. Neither side will negotiate. The Left has blamed the Right for not negotiating and trying to de-fund (or destroy) Obamacare as a part of a budget deal. The Right has blamed the Left for perpetual overspending and, now, for not being willing to negotiate. (Actually both sides heap condemnation on the other for an unwillingness to negotiate.) Gridlock has become such a way of life that shutting down basic government services has become preferable to compromise. And as I write, the greater concern by far is the coming battle over raising the debt ceiling. If the national debt ceiling is not raised, the US will default on its debt obligations for the first time in 225 years. Market watchers like Warren Buffet have said this would be equivalent to an economic “nuclear bomb.”
Exhibit B: Colorado Politics. Colorado has reflected national trends and is now also a national leader in polarized politics. Earlier this year Conservatives revolted when the Democratic-run Legislature passed several gun laws – to the degree that voters gathered signatures to have two senators (John Morse of Colorado Springs, and Angela Giron of Pueblo) recalled, a measure usually reserved for extreme abuses of power, not disagreeable policy decisions. A recent article in The Economist points out that since the 1990s, the Right has become even more Conservative, and because of less of a moderate middle, Colorado has voted in more Liberal congressman of late. And Liberals, who control both the House and the Senate, wasted no time in jamming through traditionally “liberal” laws that “allow gay civil unions, require more use of renewable energy, lower tuition fees for illegal immigrants, allow voters to register on polling day and abolish the death penalty.” Let’s toss in the legalization of marijuana to this list. The result? Six counties in conservative Northeast Colorado recently had ballot measures to secede from the state of Colorado.
And so political polarization grows – and the noise gets noisier. Media sources over time have aligned with either right or left, and even Christians tend to identify primarily with rigid political ideologies, casting doubt on the genuine nature of faith of those from another party.
My question is two fold: (1) How did we get here? (2) What do we do about it?
How did we get here?
Two weeks ago I was discussing this problem with my two friends Dave Strunk, a pastor at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Englewood, Colorado, and Andrew Wolgemuth, a literary agent. Over a beer at Great Northern one afternoon (we meet every other week to discuss theological classics), Strunk said, in essence, the reason for our current impasse isn’t because of political division, but instead because everybody is a libertarian. That is, Coloradoans (and Americans in general) have become so highly individualistic, defending their own freedom at any costs, that compromise has become unthinkable because it violates their perceived personal rights.
Hugh Heclo, author of the masterful On Thinking Institutionally, put it like this: “Our moral polestar amounts to this central idea: the correct way to get on in life is to recognize that each of us has the right to live as he or she pleases so long as we do not interfere with the right of other people to do likewise.” Heclo argues that inherent in the American story is a defense of personal rights – and a “tolerance” to not interfere with others. The upshot of this ethos is that when other people “interfere” (have different political views), we cry injustice, call for liberty, and dig in our heels.
I recently dusted off my copy of Truth to Tell by Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin goes back to foundations to see why our political polarization has come to such an impasse. At the Enlightenment, language of duty (the duty owed to God, neighbor, state) was scrapped in favor of the language of rights. What must be defended, and even the reason for government, are the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The problem comes when must decide on which rights take priority. Newbigin writes,
“Both sides in the argument use the language of rights of the individual. On the one side there is the right of every individual to do what he wants with what he has lawfully earned. On the other side there is the right of every individual to have her needs met.”
And so the impasse becomes truly impassable. The Left defends the “right” to have needs met, and the Right defends the “right” keep what you earn without government intrusion. But the problem, as Newbigin explains, is that we have no way to adjudicate the difference between a “right” and a “need” apart from questions of purpose. “In a society which has no accepted public doctrine about the purpose for which all things and all persons exist,” Newbigin writes, “there is no basis for adjudicating between needs and wants.”
Because questions like, “For what purpose is a human being made?” were essentially stricken from public dialogue during the Enlightenment, it becomes almost impossible to agree on a shared vision for our political life. As the Christian story becomes less pervasive in our public discourse, society becomes comprised of millions of individuals, each with his or her own purpose (and history, culture, and religion), with little if any “duty” to either neighbor, community or country. Neighbor love become a good reason for community barbeques, but loses all authority when we consider how to deal with political opponents.
So, our political polarization is a result, at least in part, of elements of Western culture that have now reached their extremes. We’re left with the question: What do we do about it?
What do we do about it?
Let’s address this question by way of example. Let’s imagine two people who could not be more politically opposite: an environmentalist and an oil executive. One sees the fundamental issue as the health of the flora and fauna of the planet. The other sees providing affordable energy for our economy as preeminent. Green Peace and Exxon Mobil, for example, could not be further down opposing roads.
However, the biblical story has a vision for both a healthy environment and a flourishing human community, one that needs energy to survive. Actually, the Bible verses are side by side. On the one hand, humans are to care for creation by ruling “over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves in the ground” (Gen. 1:28). Hence, the proliferation of “creation care” ministries. Yet humans are also supposed to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Filling the earth requires development of the social world – including sources of energy necessary for human flourishing. Thus, my friend Chris Horst can write an article for Christianity Today (to be published this Fall) about Christian oil executives serving God in their roles by providing energy for our economy.
The point is this: the church holds within herself a biblical vision of redemption that can bring Right and Left together. She sees the value of both working hard to earn your keep and providing for the needs of the poor. Or in the immigration debate, she sees the direct need for compassion for foreigners and immigrants, but she also sees the God-ordained role of the state to uphold laws and justice. The gospel, when properly understood, pushes against both Right and Left, but also can bring warring parties to the same table of brotherhood. And even more importantly, the gospel can help us decide on the proper purpose of both individuals and governments, which the prevailing quasi-religious attitude of “I-have-the-right-to-live-as-I-please-as-long-as-I-don’t-interfere-with-others” simply can’t answer.
The action point is this: in America, we need churches, pastors, and laity to provide communal places where Christians can come together and reorient the vision of Conservatives and Liberals around God’s purpose for human history. Whether these be small groups, forums, or conferences, these events can be a good starting point for opening up our ears again to listen to our political opponents. And they do need to be events – actually gatherings of human beings. We can’t do it with online articles, books, or podcasts alone. Different results happen when people gather around a single table. When we look an opponent in the eye, if we look hard enough we can generally see a glimmer of ourselves in them. We may even see a brother in Christ.
I believe healing of our deeply polarized political environment begins with the church convening Christians from both Right and Left to discuss not just the common good, but God’s ultimate good for human life – and then how that plays out in our various industries, whether that be politics, business, technology, law or economics. Proximate justice begins with Christians taking personal responsibility to set the plates, forks and knives at the table of fellowship amidst competing visions of the good. And in doing so, the church can gently show a divided political culture a better way for living together in peace.