United We Stand

As Polarization Increases, We Can Still Choose Peace and Goodwill

According to recent data, the United States is the most politically polarized it has been since the Civil War. An article from USC News notes, “Congress is now more polarized than at any time since the late 1870s Reconstruction Era.” [1] The Social Dilemma, a Netflix documentary released in September, pointed to the use of social media as a prime culprit in polarizing Americans into opposing extremes due to the massive amounts of misinformation curated on Facebook and Twitter feeds. It is increasingly harder to escape “fake news,” or at least to digest news and articles that aren’t radically influenced by a political agenda. This is manipulation at its finest.

While 2020 has been a bleak year for the United States, there is a unique organization seeking to push back against political polarization. They are the Braver Angels. Braver Angels assembled in the wake of the 2016 election when Donald Trump shocked the world and became the 45th President of the U.S. Feeling a need to heal disunity, they consequently invited 10 Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters in South Lebanon, Ohio and conducted what they named a Red/Blue Workshop. Their goal was to see if Americans on the opposite ends of the political spectrum could still disagree and regard each other as human beings with intrinsic value. “Republican and Democrat, native born and immigrant: these Americans liked each other,” according to the site. “But first they had to hear one another’s stories. Black and white, Christian and Muslim: these Americans could appreciate each other’s opinions. But first they needed to see where these opinions came from.”[2]

We are on the brink of an election that has proven to be even more divisive than the last one, with some radicals even threatening to take up arms depending on which candidate is elected. Study after study indicate that Americans are less charitable to those belonging to “the other side,” and slowly but surely, a nation originally built on virtue and civic unity is losing any semblance of shared meaning and truth. Braver Angels understands that this sort of disunity is what threatened to destroy the American Republic some 140 years ago and is threatening it again today.

The name of the organization is actually inspired from the words of Abraham Lincoln himself, who called on Americans to summon their “better angels” and conduct themselves “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right.” Lincoln also notably quoted the words of Christ when he declared that “if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Mk. 3:25, NASB). Far from seeking to find common ground on every hot topic, however, the goal of Braver Angels is simply to foster civility, respect, and understanding among people who disagree with each other. This is precisely why the organization is comprised equally of conservatives and liberals. The goal is civic conversation, not ideological domination. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist from New York and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, is on the Board of Directors at Braver Angels. Haidt has argued that while human beings do tend to act overwhelmingly in self-interest, we also tend to aggregate in battling tribes. This political tribalism, according to Haidt, is a primordial instinct in people and is not easy to counter or overcome.

“We were fools in the 1990s into thinking that democracy was easy,” Haidt says in a June interview with Braver Angel staffers John Wood, Jr. and April Lawson.[3] “The founding fathers were under no such illusion. They knew that democracy is prone to faction, and they knew that democracies generally self-destruct. They tried to give us a system in which these tribal, irrational, emotional creatures might actually live together” (paraphrase). It is only through sustained conversation and civility that we can come to a place of security and social health.

Organizations like Braver Angels are fighting for civic conversation in a state of factionalism, but while the effort is admirable, there is still the deeper issue of sin and brokenness in the human heart that no organization can properly address. Scripture teaches that our problem far transcends a lack of conversation or mere narrow-mindedness. We are blind and bent on ruin. As Paul writes in his second letter to the church in Corinth, “[The] god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). It is the belief of the church that these hostile divisions are healed only in the life, work, and ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ, who was executed at the hands of mob justice to heal our alienation, blindness, and disunity. Miraculously, the death and resurrection of Christ means the end of our “enmity,” both with God and each other. The Apostle Paul writes in the book of Ephesians of this newfound unity in Jesus:

“But now in Christ Jesus you who were formerly far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Eph. 2:13-16).

In Christ, the things that tend to divide us are traded in for a new loyalty and identity in the kingdom of God. We may have our differing political beliefs, ethnic backgrounds, etc., but ultimately, Jesus remains on His throne and is working for the reconciliation of the world to Himself, and we are called to collaborate with Him in that righteous endeavor.  

[1] https://news.usc.edu/110124/political-polarization-at-its-worst-since-the-civil-war-2/

[2] https://braverangels.org/our-story/#problem

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMi0FgLvz0Q&feature=emb_rel_pause

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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