On 10/13/2016 Transform Minnesota presented Q Commons at City Church in Minneapolis. The topic was “Engaging Our Divided Nation,” educating Christians on how they can bring hope and leadership to their communities in a critical moment for America.
As we are on the brink of one of the most controversial Presidential elections in recent history, we are seeing more and more division among Americans. With many Christian asking how can we, as Christians, think well about politics and voting? Where do policies and politics fall short? Should I even vote?
The following are remarks delivered at Q Commons by Robert K. Vischer, Dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law
The remedy for our polarized political culture is the restoration of relationships, not winning the battle over Constitutional interpretation.
Our Constitution is a framework for peaceful co-existence, not a recipe for human flourishing. Its interpretation is important, to be sure, but as American Christians, we’re thinking too narrowly if the composition of the Supreme Court is our primary focus for how to live out our convictions in the world.
The Constitution’s separation of powers, for example, reflects the Founders’ belief in a type of Christian realism found in the work of theologians from Augustine to Niebuhr to Martin Luther King Jr. Given our fallen condition, we need to be skeptical about concentrations of power.
But skepticism is not an affirmative vision of the good, and to some extent, our divisions reflect an inability to move beyond skepticism. Indeed, in America today, a healthy skepticism toward those seeking power over us has turned into outright fear of “the other,” regardless of whether they wield power, and much of our political discourse – especially among Christians – is dominated by fear.
Instead of fear, I propose civil friendship, a concept offered by Catholic social teaching emphasizing that our political life is shaped not primarily by election results, but by the attitudes of citizens. We must internalize and live out the spirit of solidarity with one another.
Seen through the lens of civil friendship, the problem with our political polarization is not widespread disagreement, but widespread separation and alienation. We should not view polarization as a call to become better at persuading others that we’re right, but as a call to restore relationships. I’ll offer three observations about civil friendship.
1. Civil friendship requires us to think locally.
Polarization withers in face of relationship, which requires us to shift our gaze to the local. American Christians, I fear, have embraced the dangerous lie that our primary path of political engagement is through our choice of who we support for President. That matters, of course, but that’s a relatively small part of our common good.
Aristotle defines the political community as a partnership of the citizens, and the purpose of this partnership is to allow citizens to achieve virtue and happiness.
American Christians have placed too little importance on participating in local politics, where Aristotle’s vision is most likely to be possible. Too often, Christians have entered local politics, not in a spirit of partnership among citizens, but as a smaller skirmish in a larger national culture war.
The local is important not just because of outcomes, but because it’s path to relationship – it’s where civil friendship can be most easily realized. Local matters.
2. Civil friendship requires empathy.
In my relationships with fellow citizens, is my primary aim to convince or to understand? Have Christians followed culture in losing our capacity for empathy?
Earlier this year, the Star Tribune did a survey on Black Lives Matter – 6% of white Minnesotans have a favorable view of the group, while 94% of black Minnesotans have a favorable view of the group. Those statistics are remarkable and sobering.
Christians must resist the increasingly common tendency to choose sides and then treat that choice as the end of moral reflection on the matter. We must help one another walk in the shoes of those on both sides who are too easily demonized, to help translate justifiable anger into social change, and to help build bridges across the racial divide – not through arms-length pronouncements but through the painstaking process of mutual understanding. It requires long, difficult work to permit your story to shape my story, but it is work that has never been more important.
When protestors shut down the interstate in Minneapolis, my initial reaction, I confess, was, “well that tactic is hardly going to win over new supporters to their cause.” On reflection, though, I asked myself, “What would it take for me to walk out onto I-94 on a rainy night and stop traffic? What level of desperation would I have to feel?” Such questions do not necessarily lead to consensus, but they do enhance mutual understanding and start us down the path toward relationship. We have to recapture our capacity for empathy.
3. Civil friendship requires collaboration outside our comfort zones.
One unhealthy development in the early 1990s was the development of “voter scorecards” by various Christian groups. These scorecards can help voters get up to speed on candidates’ policy positions, but they do so in an overly simplistic way, emphasizing sound-bite campaigning over coherent governance and equating a candidate’s willingness to check a box with a demonstrated track record of real progress on an issue. More troubling, though, is the scorecard approach’s tendency to lead Christians to view themselves politically as nothing more than bundles of policy demands waiting to be met. While premised on our need to evaluate candidates, I fear that they implicitly encourage Christians to evaluate our fellow citizens on the extent of overlap between our policy demands and their positions. We focus on the breadth of disagreements rather than the potential for collaboration. Scorecards are not a fertile ground for civil friendship. Christian political engagement should not be as easy as filling out a Bingo card.
The Gospel calls us to run toward those with whom we have very little in common, not with the primary aim of convincing them we’re right, but as vessels of God’s love. The point is not agreement, the point is relationship. I don’t just mean relationship in terms of serving their needs, which is important but not enough. I mean relationship in the form of collaborating toward common goals, seeing each other as moral beings capable of work that aims at the true, the good, and the just.
So how do we live out our convictions in a pluralistic world? Through a renewed spirit of civil friendship, and through the frustration, messiness, but ultimate beauty of friendship shared with those among God’s children with whom we vehemently disagree about politics.
Robert K. Vischer is the Dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law. His scholarship explores the intersection of law, religion, and public policy, with a particular focus on the religious and moral dimensions of professional identity. He is author of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Morality of Legal Practice: Lessons in Love and Justice and Conscience and the Common Good: Reclaiming the Space Between Person and State.
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