Healing American Division

The Public Religion Research Institute issued a new report in December 2017 that reflects on the division among Americans following 2017 and the completion of the first full year of the Trump Presidency.

Perhaps one of the starkest statistics they offer is just how much Republicans and Democrats distrust one another. The report states:

“There is a striking near equivalence in how Republicans and Democrats view the policies of the other party.
Republicans say the following about the policies of the Democratic Party:
• Five percent: Are moving the country in the right direction
• 39%: Misguided but not necessarily dangerous
• 52%: Policies are so misguided they pose a threat to the country
Likewise, Democrats say the following about the policies of the Republican Party:
• Five percent: Are moving the country in the right direction
• 38%: Misguided but not necessarily dangerous
• 54%: Policies are so misguided they pose a threat to the country”

This describes a serious problem: a nation in which half of the people in each major party not only disagree with each other, but view each other as serious threats to the nation’s wellbeing. Such distrust is itself a serious threat itself to the “domestic tranquility” the Founding Fathers sought to ensure through through the Constitution. If the citizenry of a democracy cannot even accept the basic good intentions of those they live next to, the capacity for democratic governance is effectively ended.

If the citizenry of a democracy cannot even accept the basic good intentions of those they live next to, the capacity for democratic governance is effectively ended.

As I have written many times before, American Christians are no strangers to the values held by the broader American populace, since these Christians are as much a part of the culture as anyone else. Given that, do American Christians, of whatever stripe – evangelical, mainline, historically Black, Catholic, or any other – have any means of offering a way forward in the midst of this distrust?

I think there is. Christians, by their very name, claim their values are shaped by something more – in fact, something larger – than the culture around them. They claim that they are defined by their faith. Of course, Christians vary widely on how they understand that faith, but there are distinct commonalities.

In my book Evangelism for Non-Evangelists, I explore some of those common beliefs. We all believe that God exists. We all believe that God is good. We all believe that God wants the good for us. We all believe that God sent Jesus Christ to welcome us into that goodness.

Christians, by their very name, claim their values are shaped by something more – in fact, something larger – than the culture around them. They claim that they are defined by their faith.

While we may disagree on theologies we construct from these beliefs, we can at least trust each other enough to recognize that all Christians who take their faith seriously accept these core beliefs as their foundation. White evangelicals, Hispanic Catholics, African immigrant Pentecostals, and every other mix of theologies and ethnicities we can claim all can trust each other enough to accept that these are at the heart of what they all believe.

And, can not this core set of beliefs form a powerful foundation from which to move forward together, complementing the work of each other rather than tearing each other down? If all Christians believe that other Christians are working to share the goodness of God through Jesus, can we not affirm each other whether we are working to save souls or to establish justice for bodies?

This is not to gloss over the very real disagreements that arise among Christians about the core teachings of the faith and what they count as revelations from God. There are certain issues that cannot be swept under the rug of ecumenical commonality. However, in an America that is so fractured, it seems that Christians should be focusing more on how they can work to find common ground for common acts of good than on how they can tear each other down.

If all Christians believe that other Christians are working to share the goodness of God through Jesus, can we not affirm each other whether we are working to save souls or to establish justice for bodies?

This, then, is how American Christians can begin to show a way forward in an American culture that is beset by severe distrust:

  1. Show that we can find core values that allow trust at a deeper level than the policy level distrust that the political and cultural climate is fostering.
  2. Show that we can make common ground to work for the good of others based on those core values. It becomes especially important that we do this across the dividing lines of culture (race, gender, ethnicity, political party). This will show Americans that these dividing lines are not so deep as they often think.
  3. Show we can continue to disagree even as we work together. This is not a call to lose our faith, but a call to witness to it. We can do that best by loving well. Loving well means working for the good as we share the best we have. The best we have includes are firmly held convictions that we can hold in common and that we hold uniquely. We can show that we can disagree and still love.
  4. Inviting Americans to take a step of trust by working with our local congregations to do good. Let them see what it is like to step into a community that can disagree while finding commonalities that are so deep they do not have to capitulate to cultural disagreements.

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