Modeling justice, mercy, and humility in the face of division
Books | How can we maintain a unified America amid political polarization?
by David French
Posted 1/04/21, 12:29 pm
David French’s Divided We Fall was WORLD’s 2020 Book of the Year in the understanding America category. As Americans of a feather flock together and our culture fragments, French says we can’t assume that a multiethnic, multifaith, continent-sized country will hang together. Will the tidal forces of history swamp the “mystic chords of memory” that Abraham Lincoln cited?
French shows that evangelicals can help by emphasizing character and temperament in leaders, not just waving a checklist of issues and ignoring personality. We should also refrain from “nutpicking,” taking the angriest and most bizarre statements from the other side of the spectrum and claiming that they are typical. Here, courtesy of St. Martin’s Press, is an excerpt from Divided We Fall. —Marvin Olasky
It’s time for Americans to wake up to a fundamental reality: the continued unity of the United States of America cannot be guaranteed. At this moment in history, there is not a single important cultural, religious, political, or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart. We cannot assume that a continent-sized, multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy can remain united forever, and it will not remain united if our political class cannot and will not adapt to an increasingly diverse and divided American public.
We lack a common popular culture. Depending on where we live and what we believe, we watch different kinds of television, we listen to different kinds of music, and we often even watch different sports.
We increasingly live separate from each other. The number of Americans who live in so-called landslide counties—counties where one presidential candidate wins by at least twenty points—is at an all-time high. The geography that a person calls their home, whether it be rural, exurban, suburban, or urban, is increasingly predictive of voting habits. We increasingly believe different things. America is secularizing at a rapid rate, but it is still the most religious nation in the developed world, and is set to remain so for the indefinite future. While the “religious nones” (those with no particular religious affiliation) grow in number, many of America’s most religiously fervent denominations are growing as well, some rapidly. Moreover, America’s secular and religious citizens are increasingly concentrated in different parts of the country, supplementing geographic separation with religious separation.
We increasingly loathe our political opponents. The United States is in the grip of a phenomenon called “negative polarization.” In plain English this means that a person belongs to their political party not so much because they like their own party but because they hate and fear the other side. Republicans don’t embrace Republican policies so much as they despise Democrats and Democratic policies. Democrats don’t embrace Democratic policies as much as they vote to defend themselves from Republicans. At this point, huge majorities actively dislike their political opponents and significant minorities see them as possessing subhuman characteristics.
Moreover, each of these realities is set to get worse. Absent unforeseen developments, the present trends are self-reinforcing. Clustering is feeding extremism, extremism is feeding anger, and anger is feeding fear. The class of Americans who care the most about politics is, perversely enough, the class of Americans most likely to make negative misjudgments about their fellow citizens. Our political and cultural leaders are leading us apart.
Given this reality, why should we presume that our nation is immune from the same cultural and historical forces that have caused disunion in this nation before and in other nations countless times?
So, what does this mean for you? Quite simply, it means that you must be prepared to lead. If a nation wearies of intolerance and spite, be prepared to model tolerance and grace even as you keep to your underlying principles and convictions. If a nation wearies of centralization and uniformity, a new leadership should be prepared to show what it means to surrender the will to power sufficiently to allow distinct communities to build local governments in their distinct cultural images.
This is not a call for political moderation. The call for moderation is ultimately no different from calling for an end to conflict through the triumph of conservatism or liberalism. Of course political divisions would ease if Americans reached political agreement under any ideological banner. But, barring an unforeseen transformation, political agreement is not on the horizon. Even consensus on one issue merely shifts the confrontation to another policy or proposal.
It is an enduring truth of virtually any sphere of life—from politics to sports to entertainment—that the people who care the most set the tone. Why do celebrities try so assiduously to court comic book fans when cast as the latest superhero? Because they know that the energy and enthusiasm of the committed few can win over the larger whole. Why do politicians sometimes spend months shaking hands with party activists across the length and breadth of their states and districts? Again, the committed few win over the larger whole.
For too long in American politics, the committed few have been disproportionately drawn from the ranks of the angriest and most vindictive Americans. The people who truly drive American political polarization represent a small slice of the overall population, but they set the tone for national political discourse. So it’s easy to look at our polarized and decaying political elite and despair. If they set the tone, the future looks bleak. They’re exacerbating, not mitigating, the political effects of larger national trends that pull Americans apart.
There is a need for a better American political class. But for now, there is little apparent demand. Those who care the most often hate the most, and one of their chief methods of discrediting ideological allies with whom they compete is by portraying them as too tolerant of the hated political enemy. Kindness is perceived as weakness. Decency is treated as if it’s cowardice. Acts of grace are an unthinkable concession to evil.
But here’s a simple, fundamental reality. If we are to manage our divisions with any kind of wisdom and foresight, that challenge is going to require a degree of decency and grace that is, sad to say, all too rare. It’s going to require a distinctly American patriotism.
In the age of Trump, there’s been much commentary and debate about the difference between patriotism and nationalism. There’s been discussion about whether there is something unique about American patriotism, as distinct from the patriotism or nationalism that citizens of other countries feel for their own soil.
I think the answer is yes. There is something distinct about American patriotism. The best sort of American patriotism understands twin interlocking truths that were articulated by two Founding Fathers who were often fierce rivals, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
The first truth is encapsulated in some of the most famous words in the English language: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” According to this founding principle, government exists for the very purpose of securing these rights.
This truth made manifest in our constitutional republic is the heart of the American idea. It represents the notion that our shared liberty binds us together more surely than soil or blood. Indeed, if we rely on soil or blood to bind us together, our union quickly starts to fray in the face of two questions most nations (far more homogenous than ours) don’t have to answer.
Whose blood? Which soil?
When your nation spans a continent, a sense of collective place is harder to share. When your nation contains multitudes of virtually every race, creed, and color on planet Earth, a sense of shared blood is nonexistent. But men and women of dramatically different heritages and from fundamentally different places can and do unite around a shared idea—that each of us enjoys liberties so essential that our government is legitimate if and only if it guarantees their protection.
But organizing a nation around liberty brings with it a hidden danger, the danger of indulgence—the danger that a nation that protects the rights of the individual will become excessively individualistic, fracturing the bonds of community. And that brings us to the second essential truth of the American founding (and thus of American patriotism), the very words I just quoted from John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The patriotic citizen understands that their liberty is governed and ordered by a higher purpose. We live not for ourselves. We are free, but we should view ourselves as free to pursue what is good and true, to live what is good and true.
That’s but one reason the spirit of our modern politics— excusing vice in the pursuit of alleged political virtue—is so toxic to our founding principles. Conservatives could succeed in jamming government back in its box, and we could thoroughly and completely defeat political correctness and identity politics, but if the people who live in that new atmosphere of freedom are consumed with “iniquity and extravagance,” then we will live—as Adams warns—in the “most miserable Habitation in the world.” Similarly, committed progressives could triumph time and again in battles over everything from gender identity to health care, but “iniquity and extravagance” can immiserate a nation dedicated to social justice every bit as much as it can corrupt a nation dedicated to individual liberty.
It’s a sad fact of our modern era that our warring factions spend an enormous amount of time battling over whether the government is upholding its end of the social compact. We spend less time looking inward, pondering how we exercise our blood-bought freedoms. In other words, we debate whether our nation is worthy of our patriotism. We simply assume we’re worthy patriots.
We rarely turn reflective. We rarely spend serious time questioning our own role in making politics toxic or our indifference to cultural repair. But now is exactly the time to examine ourselves.
I reflect on these matters most on days like Memorial Day. I see the rows of flags by the gravestones. I think of my friends who fell during my deployment to Iraq. I hear the mournful bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace.” And I’m reminded of the eternal truth that greater love has no man than when he lays down his life for his friends. The men and women in those graves laid down their lives for friends, for family, for citizens they’d never meet, and for generations to come.
In the presence of that greater love, the least I can do is to commit to show a more ordinary love, a love that asks us to live with decency and honor. It’s a love that asks us to fulfill the purpose of humankind as articulated in Micah 6:8—to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
I would suggest that there is no solution to our national crisis absent those three cardinal virtues. It’s easy in polarized times to seek justice. After all, we fight our political, cultural, and religious battles because we think we are right. We believe we stand on the side of the angels, and our opponents are misguided. We justify the intensity of our passion by the conviction of the rightness of our cause.
But that’s not the entirety of our commitment, of course. The next two qualities, mercy and humility, are indispensable to our national life. Mercy is the quality we display when we are, in fact, right and our opponents are wrong. We treat them not with contempt but with compassion. In the aftermath of political victory, we seek reconciliation. We operate with “malice towards none.”
Humility reminds us that we are not perfect. Indeed, we are often wrong and will ourselves need mercy. As the apostle Paul reminds us, we “know in part.” “We see through a glass darkly.” Especially when tackling immense and complex challenges, we should face the task with resolve, but also with open hearts—ready to receive and hear criticism.
No matter the depth of our national division, there is no point where it is too late to show those virtues. There is no point where it is too risky to show those virtues. You can be despised for showing mercy and scorned for your humility, but national misery can last for only so long before the people cry out for a better way. We hope and pray that the cry for a better way comes before our national bonds are irretrievably broken.
But if the cry comes too late, even our wisest citizens may well reach a terrible conclusion—that our hate is too great and that separation, with all its pain and anguish, is preferable to continued union with a people you fear. We can hope that day will never come, but one thing is certain—we cannot simply presume our national unity will last.
From Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation by David French. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
David French is a senior editor of The Dispatch, a columnist at Time, a former senior writer at National Review, an Iraq War veteran, and the co-author of several books, including Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore, a New York Times bestseller. He lives in Tennessee.