“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” (From Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address)
The United States is more divided now than it has been since the start of the Civil War. And in the mid-1800s there were at least good reasons for Americans to battle one another! The Founders knew when our Constitution was written that the issue of slavery would have to be addressed; but if they had tried to enforce abolition then they could not have created a union. So they cobbled together a temporary patch, knowing that slavery was going to have to be abolished at some future point. And as is the way with politicians, the right moment to do something so politically difficult as ending slavery never came, so the issue festered for another three-quarters of a century before it was settled in blood. Historians argue over whether slavery was the reason for the Civil War, or whether the issue was whether or not states that had entered the Union had the right to leave it. Let’s embrace the healing power of “and”! The issue was whether states that preferred slavery over remaining in the Union still had the right to make that choice. These were two thorny, complex, and highly emotional issues that could not be easily resolved.
There are no such major issues now. The Constitution the Founders approved 231 years ago, even despite its birth defect, has been the most successful attempt ever made in human history to guarantee to as many citizens as possible reasonable freedom, security, stability, and the opportunity to advance economically. And broad surveys show no present issue that is even remotely as divisive as either slavery or the right of a state to secede! A recent poll suggests that the current most important issue to Americans, with 21% putting it first, is illegal immigration. The second most important issue is healthcare, which was chosen first by only 7% of those who were polled. And both of these problems could be readily resolved! Our politicians could enact a way to manage illegal immigration if they did not prefer to maintain it as a political issue for the next election; and 85% of Americans are covered by either Medicare or private insurance, so closing that gap for the remaining 15% would be a simple matter. Yet shockingly, such trivial issues have contributed to creating what is arguably a greater division among Americans today than what resulted from even the highly contentious issues that precipitated our Civil War.
I am reluctant to suggest it here, but as I have done the research for this post I have come to think that the most significant issue that divides us now is the simple fact that many Americans wish the 2016 Presidential election had come out differently. There was some worry before the election that Donald Trump would refuse to accept the will of the people. This concern was perhaps best expressed in The Atlantic in October of 2016, in an article that is disconcerting to read now. To the surprise of many, Mr. Trump actually won the 2016 Presidential election; and it is not candidate Clinton, but rather it is some who had been her backers who have amazingly spent most of the past three years trying to unseat a sitting President. The party out of power is meant to serve as the loyal opposition, acting as a useful check on the party then holding the Presidency while respecting both the office and the one who holds it. That sort of orderly interface between our two main political parties simply is not happening now, but rather elements of the Democratic party have spent the past nearly three years attempting to impeach and destroy the sitting President. My dear younger friends, Americans of your parents’ generation or older will tell you that nothing about this is normal. As is suggested in a surprisingly blunt opinion piece on the carefully balanced website Real Clear Politics, what is going on now is appalling!
And all this vicious destructiveness is happening when, by objective measures, the start of Mr. Trump’s administration has been more economically successful for most Americans than have been the starts of the administrations of any of his more recent predecessors. African-Americans, especially, have enjoyed historically low unemployment and significant increases in earnings over the past few years.
In case you wonder why I even would be bringing all of this up now, please know that the current turmoil in American politics is a terrible spiritual problem. We cannot unite spiritually when so many of us are so viciously divided politically, and our ambient rage is making it more difficult for us to ever practice real kindness and love. If we cannot empathize with all our neighbors, we can make no spiritual progress at all! And tragically, our terrible political and social climate is increasingly harming our next generation. In fact, some recent mass shootings seem to have been largely the result of our polarized culture’s inadvertent radicalization of a few lonely and troubled young men.
This way lies madness! If we don’t like the current President, then as has been true for 231 years and counting, our solution is to campaign against him and remove him at the ballot box. We know by now that no chief executive can harm the United States so much that a later incumbent won’t be able to fix it; but the same cannot be said of those who still continue to attack President Trump so viciously that they are even using the prestige of their nation as a political weapon. The United States has sunk to an unprecedented level of internal chaos, so I am relieved to tell you that a few Americans have begun to work in various ways to heal what seems to have become so broken in this nation’s civic life.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist who has long seemed to this observer to be nothing more than a pampered aristocrat disassociated from the daily realities that most people face. So I was heartened to see his recent Ted talk, and to find him setting a larger-spirited tone. I urge you to watch it! Here is a very successful man discovering rather late in life some of the same essential truths that you and I talk about each week. The organization he mentions, the Weavers, is making an effort to repair communities under the auspices of the nonpartisan Aspen Institute.
And this spring I joined a new organization called Better Angels, a name that hearkens back to the words of Abraham Lincoln that begin this message. The idea behind Better Angels is that Americans actually have much more in common than whatever might separate us, and once we learn to discuss even difficult issues without political rancor, we will be able to work together to truly heal and prosper our nation.
I have attended three Better Angels events in the past few months. The organization is only two years old, so it is still determining how best to carry out its mission; and the chapter in my city is barely a year old, which means that all of us are learners. Everything Better Angels does includes “red” and “blue” members in roughly equal numbers, and the rules are designed to encourage meaningful discussions without anger or disrespect. So far we have tackled both illegal immigration and gun control, so we haven’t shied away from the most divisive topics! And here is some of what I have learned in my first few months with Better Angels:
There are Better Angels chapters now forming nationwide. If you are an American and you can find a chapter in your area, I urge you to give it a try! As we work to help one another grow spiritually, let us also begin the essential work of healing and better prospering first this nation and then the world.