My good friend, Hank, alerted me to a recent survey and blog article that reported “many Americans think people in the other party are ignorant, spiteful, evil and generally destroying the country… About half of Democrats think Republicans are ignorant (54%) and spiteful (44%). Likewise, about half of Republicans think Democrats are ignorant (49%) and spiteful (54%). Twenty-one percent of Democrats think Republicans are evil, and about the same share of Republicans (23%) think Democrats are evil.” This is according to a November 2018 Axios poll first aired on HBO.
First of all I must respond by simply saying, “Wow!” Our country is, apparently, far more socio-politically divided than I imagined, but I haven’t had my head stuck in the sand either. Let me say for the record that, even though I identify as a democratic-socialist who aligns more comfortably with the Democrat Party, I do not believe most conservative Republicans are backward, ignorant, sexist, racists who are intent on destroying our country. In many, if not most cases misinformed and even misguided, perhaps, but not fiendish, nefarious individuals dedicated to wrecking society.
The results of the poll do point to an important divide in conviction and deeply held perception, though. How is it we’ve come to this point where so many folks in each party not only look at the “other side” with suspicion but even with disdain and loathing? Specifically, how is it each “side” has come to claim the moral high ground while at the same time condemning the other side as iniquitous and even malevolent? Well, perhaps part of the answer is that this is really not so completely new after all. It may be that when we look back upon the history of our country we may find some deep and wide moral-ethical ( as well as cultural and religious) divisions all along.
My friend, Hank, quoted the blog author (whom I’ve not had an opportunity to read) as opening his article by observing, “Our political and cultural environment has become so intensely moralized, in the sense of seeking with zeal virtue, absent prudence, that to compromise seems like giving in to evil.” And I agree with the second part of his statement — that is, that for many people compromising feels like giving in to evil — however, even though our political and cultural environment is very divided, it has not just now become so “intensely moralized” in its zealous quest for collective, socio-political and economic virtue, thus leading members of the two (or more) parties to harshly condemn members of the other (or some other) party.
Hank, quite gifted and deeply intelligent, surmises that if the blog author’s assessment is correct, then:
[T]he only way … it is correct is that fundamental change to our system, which includes change to the fundamental worldview of that system … is giving up what made us great as a country… The multi-cultural pluralism message is only a message because it doesn’t take into account the reality of fundamental transformation of our country and way of life … Everything may be already ‘gone with the wind,’ but there is a vast residual, in that case, who never were informed of the transformation and who never had a choice or chance to have themselves heard as the changes took place. So, the evil is what people expect to happen when the last vestige of our tradition is no more.
One might justly ask, however, precisely who is meant by “our” and specifically what is meant by “tradition.” In other words, just what is “our tradition?” To many white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants (the WASPs of old), the answer seems to come rather easily … but it also betrays gross over-simplification of American history. For in fact, America has always been multi-cultural, and the embryonic promises of the unique, constitutional, American democracy have only grown and matured down through the generations.
Yes, as Hank also observes, the newly formed United States was informed by an overall Judeo-Christian worldview, broadly speaking, and this broad worldview continued to influence our country at least until somewhat recently, historically speaking. Yet beneath the umbrella of Judeo-Christianity there existed quite some variety marking very important differences between groups, sects, and denominations. From the beginning, there were Quakers and Roman Catholics, Methodists and Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists. There were also Jews and, among the slave population, even Muslims. And we certainly cannot forget the number of Deists and Unitarians to be counted among the Founders of this country… So there we have it: Diversity.
And culturally, there were, of course, English and Scottish, French and Germans, Africans and Spanish, and many Indigenous Peoples, as well as others. Each race and ethnic group brought with it their own cultural history and heritage, norms and habits, traditions and ways of life. This was all part of what made the American colonies so very unique, and the founding of the United States so different and even astonishing. That all of these disparate groups came together under the broad panoply of Judeo-Christianity is an important fact of history, yet one that ought not distort our view of that same rich and variegated history.
Certainly we must recognize that socio-political (and economic) controversy, and in the process claiming the moral high ground, has been part and parcel of American history. After all, the very nation itself was predicated upon self-evident, moral truth, and right from the beginning our Founders wrangled over the question of slavery. And there was some controversy in some states over tax-supported churches, and then there was the question of our relationship with the various Indigenous Peoples. And what about women and their “rightful place” in society? And the manufacturing and selling of alcohol? And the rights of common laborers? Safety in the workplace, quality standards for meats sold on the market, regulation of medications for public safety?
There is so much more from early on in our history that we can mention: Should we maintain a strong military or be more pacifist? Should we invade and conquer the West as part of our “Manifest Destiny” or respect the boundaries of Mexico? Should slaves be counted in the population of a state or not … or partly counted? Should an atheist be allowed to hold public office? And, yes, this was a question, but by the first half of the 20th century was, for the most part, answered in the affirmative. If the majority of voters vote someone into an office, then that individual should be allowed to serve, period.
But my friend nevertheless laments, “we have lost something great in this country and that is character,” and I do agree with him, though perhaps not in quite the same way. Character includes, among other virtues: honesty, integrity, and courage with love and compassion, and I simply do not see this currently issuing from the White House or the Republican Party in general. Still, we should not conclude that there has been some great overturning of the American society, or that what was established and generally accepted before is now “gone with the wind.” The wind has always been blowing in this part of the world, at least, and still blows today. Where it carries us largely depends on how we set our sails, and that is largely up to us, to be decided by “we the people.”
Now we should conclude by observing that, yes, as a matter of fact Judeo-Christianity has waned in this country, its influence much diminished, but why is that? Perhaps it is not so much that the larger population has rejected truth or, especially, the love of Christ Jesus presented in the Gospel, but rather has altogether and quite understandably rejected an overly-politicized, sham gospel that Jesus of Nazareth would also reject just as vehemently as he renounced the message of the religious leaders of his own day and time. Perhaps it is time for self-professing Christians, especially of the evangelical ilk, to “get back to the basics,” so to speak, in order to re-present the light, life, and love of Christ to the whole of the hungering world suffering in darkness, sin, and death. Maybe then the masses would listen once again. Maybe then the Judeo-Christian worldview would be taken seriously… Perhaps.