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United States of division?

Solutions for pushing back against polarization

United States of division?

Understanding America 
Book of the Year

The United States is more polarized than at any time since the Civil War. The highly discussed book that best recognizes that—and proposes what to do—is David French’s Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How To Restore Our Nation. If Christian conservatives no longer fall into Trump and anti-Trump camps in 2021, it’s time to think through ways to forestall dissolution. Here are some questions and French’s answers.

You think the United States could break up? As more Americans live around like-minded citizens, religious separation coincides with geographic separation, and our culture continues to fragment, the possibility of a breakup increases. We’re not immune from tidal forces of history that have separated other unions. We can’t take for granted a continent-sized multiethnic, multifaith, extraordinarily diverse democracy staying together.

Divided We Fall presents dissolution scenarios, one led by the left and one led by the right. Both depend on the elimination or eradication of long-standing democratic norms so as to ram through legislation and government measures. Notions like ending the filibuster and court-packing are more a part of the mainstream conversation than they’ve been for years. 

Do the “mystic chords of memory” that Abraham Lincoln cited still exist? The ties that bind are strong and deep, but the forces of negative polarization are growing stronger. There is so much disdain and disgust on the extreme edges of the political system: Nothing is pulling Americans together more than it’s pushing us apart. 

Who might push back against the divisive forces? The effective pushback against intolerance on the left has to come from the left, and effective pushback against intolerance on the right has to come from the right. We are seeing pushback against the extraordinarily intolerant “cancel culture” mindset that says you only have a place in this country if you agree with me. 

Christians know (or should know) that all of us are made in God’s image, but do you see any positive movement among secular liberals? Look at Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy, a coalition of hundreds of mainly center-left and left academics seeking to restore small “l” liberalism on college campuses. It’s a secular revolt against increasing illiberalism and increasing intolerance in American higher education. Look at the letter valuing free speech and signed by folks as diverse as J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, Noam Chomsky, and Gloria Steinem. 

So we can find some allies (or co-belligerents) on the other side, and we should refrain from “nutpicking”? It doesn’t help if we take the worst voices on the other side of the spectrum, maybe unhinged or particularly angry, and elevate them as if they are typical of the other side. 

What role should evangelical churches play? We need to cultivate a political theology that is not completely dependent on issues. Lots of Christians go immediately to issues, but Christians should not be like the Shale Oil and Gas Association that says we’ll back you as long as you help us keep fracking: Your temperament, personality, character, etc., don’t matter so long as you support our checklist. 

What should we be teaching? What it means to be a Christian person within the body politic beyond a commitment to a certain set of issues. Our vote should not be so easily bought. If any community in the United States of America should hold politicians to a standard of character and decency, it should be the Christian community.

Honorable mentions 

The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class

Urbanologist Joel Kotkin writes about more than the United States, but America may be returning to medievalism faster than most. The pre-Reformation church opposed a dynamic economy and was content with poverty and social immobility. Capitalism gave multitudes the opportunity to improve their condition and build a solid middle class. Today, leading figures in media and academia ignore the need for broad-based development and are content to praise high-tech ascendancy. As in feudal days, Kotkin sees more gated cities coming, along with the prospect of authoritarian overlords facing peasant rebellions. He’s on the side of a modern yeomanry made up of small-business owners and skilled workers and opposes environmental leftists who fly their private planes to conferences that lament climate change.

Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland

It’s good to read many, but if you choose to read just one book explaining why only a small minority of blacks voted for Donald Trump, despite Democratic Party failures, this forceful one should be it. Isaac J. Bailey, an eloquent journalist and Davidson College professor, views the present through the prism of a lynching past in which many Christians were complicit. Bailey tells of victims like Mary Turner, burned alive in 1918, with an unborn child cut from her stomach and stomped on by attackers, after she protested the lynching of her husband. Why Didn’t We Riot is provocative reading, and I can see why Bailey is not thrilled when he and other blacks gain praise “for swallowing our anger.” 

Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents

I liked Rod Dreher’s previous book, The Benedict Option, but told him that if harassment of Christians grew to the point where that option became essential, so would the unwillingness of empowered authorities to live and let live. Dreher’s new book is a manual for spiritual survival if a surveillance state imposes secularism on all. He summarizes well what we can learn from those who lived under 20th-century totalitarianism: Stand firm but let bitterness stand down. Learn from history to avoid becoming hysterical. Appreciate the value of suffering but be merciful to those whose capacity is less. Practice hospitality and do not fear being seen as weird. Speak up with the truth but don’t worry about being prudently silent at times. 

God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money

Author Lance Morrow was a Luce-ist for years and at age 81 is still a lucid essayist. Morrow wrote 150+ cover stories for Henry Luce’s Time and often explained ideas by describing binaries, dueling visions. In this book he connects 2020 protests to the 115-year-old debates between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Morrow describes two schools of thoughts on how to use money to do good—philanthropy and charity, or government. He notes two schools of journalistic history-writing—Thucydides vs. Herodotus—but overlooks the Apostle Luke. Morrow even shows how “money and literary intellect would evolve into feuding parallel cultures”: Harvard professor William James sometimes played golf with John D. Rockefeller and called him “a man ten stories deep, and to me quite unfathomable.”

This page is part of WORLD’s 2020 Books of the Year section. Next: Understanding the World.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

Comments

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  • DCal3000
    Posted: Wed, 11/25/2020 09:01 am

    One grave concern I have about David French's book being selected as a Book of the Year is his statement in this article that "[w]e need to cultivate a political theology that is not completely dependent on issues." Though he has a larger point worth considering, what he does not openly state but has indicated elsewhere is that he is talking about issues like abortion.  Mr. French spent a considerable amount of time over the last year arguing that abortion need not govern a Christian's vote.  That may or may not be a discussion worth having, but in making that argument, he damaged the political pro-life cause by also promoting obviously untrue arguments such as the idea that abortion restrictions have no effect on abortion rates or that the national government (such as the executive) has little to no effect on abortion.  He appeared to me to be deliberately cutting the legs out from under pro-life political activism.  And, though it may be true that Christians should not have knee-jerk reactions on issues, is it not also true that there are doctrinally important Christian views on some issues? I absolutely believe we need to live peacably with all humans as much as possible, but I am doubtful that abandoning advocacy of "issues" is the correct path to follow.  Surely Christianity has more to offer on contemporary issues than merely promoting national unity (which is also important).  If we don't, I am unsure it's even worthwhile for Christians, to participate in the political process, which David French makes a living off doing.  

  • DB
    Posted: Fri, 11/27/2020 02:57 am

    Spot on DCal3000

  • CA
    Posted: Thu, 11/26/2020 11:20 am

    David French endorsed Mr. Late Term Taxpayer Funded Abortion Biden very largely because he did not like the personality of President Trump.  Plus there are so many things Mr. Biden supports including the re-writing of religious freedom (guess who wins under Biden – the government).  While I am sure Mr. French has good points, his advocacy in this last election borne out of Trump Derangement Syndrome undercuts his message of unity.  Plus what does he mean by unity?  If it is abandonment of advocacy for the unborn, for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, etc., then his “unity” is just capitulation to “Progressives” like Sanders, AOC, etc.  Thus I am saddened that World would make this choice over other more deserving voices.  Perhaps Trump Derangement Syndrome is in more than just Mr. French. 

  • Rick
    Posted: Thu, 11/26/2020 12:59 pm

    I too have trouble with some of French's anti Trumpness but I don't believe he ever endorsed Joe Biden

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Fri, 11/27/2020 01:32 pm

    He was against Trump and advocated voting 3rd party. French is no friend of our Christian cause for his effective results is to help Biden. Should Biden be elected, we see that his current cabinet picks are a disaster for America. These elites like French have absolutely no common sense to see the destruction they sew!  I agree that selecting this book as book of the year shows the bias World has against Trump. This is why we see a continual bias against Trump in the pages of World Magazine, though at times it is subtle and indirect. 

  • DCal3000
    Posted: Fri, 11/27/2020 02:22 pm

    However he may or may not have voted, Mr. French spent most of his time using his pen to campaign against Donald Trump and stated in the pages of this very magazine that he hoped Biden would win (not that some third party candidate would win but that Biden himself would win).  In an earlier comment I made here, I deliberately refrained from noting French's partisan choices because voting choices can be complicated and my concerns about French's political philosophy transcend one passing election.  But, it would be extremely, extremely difficult to argue that French was not more a part of the Biden coalition than the average Democratic voter who merely filled out a ballot and turned it in.  We each have to decide for ourselves whether that was a good thing or a problematic thing (I personally think the latter, though I am not a die-hard Trump fan), but French was in no way, shape, form, or fashion a neutral observer of the two major party presidential candidates this year.  He made his moral choice abundantly clear.  Then he also spent a considerable amount of time explaining to fellow Christians how abortion policy need not be a key factor in their voting choices.  Clearly, one of his goals was to prevent Trump from winning due to Biden's pro-abortion stance.