This piece was originally featured in Cogitare’s Spring 2023 Print Edition.
In this era of opposition and refusal to reach across political aisles, Former Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse offers an alternate framework and approach for the everyday American in his book Them: Why We Hate Each Other – And How to Heal. He recounts an anecdote from his childhood: a fan of Fremont High, 5-year old Sasse watched Fremont High’s wrestling team take on their arch nemesis, Columbus High. He describes a room filled with thunderous cheers and jeers from both sides. Fremont had to beat them.
Fast forward a couple of years, and an 8-year old Ben is at his first Cornhuskers football game with his grandfather. He notices a family from Columbus High at the game, and rolling his eyes, shimmies a little closer to his grandfather. Why are they here? he wonders. But then he looks a little closer and notices something: they are wearing Cornhusker red. How could this be? Sasse, in his recent writings, points to this moment as a significant one in his life: it was the day he realized that both Fremonters and Columbians were Nebraskans—the day that Nebraska Football turned his enemy into his ally.
The newest wave of political participants have grown up in an age of polarization. Everything Gen Z has absorbed about political engagement has been touched by post-9/11 fear, the economic turmoil of the 2008 Financial Crisis, and the carnage of the 2016 election. And now, this generation has to wrestle with cloning wooly mammoths, ChatGPT, and gene editing technology. Science and technology are advancing by leaps and bounds but, to echo Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, we are “so preoccupied with whether” we can, that we aren’t stopping “to think if [we] should.” There are a myriad of moral dilemmas coming down the pipeline, and our democracy, in its feeble state, is in no shape to tackle them.
According to a 2014 Pew Research study, “consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions have doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%,” meaning people are more consistently voting strictly Democrat or Republican, respectively. What’s worse is that views regarding one’s opposite party have significantly decayed: The percentage of Democrats that believe the Republican party is a threat to the nation’s well-being has increased from 16% in 1994 to 27% in 2014. Republicans saw an increase from 17% to 36% when asked the same question. It does not take a political scientist to infer that these figures have only grown more concerning in the nine years and two presidential elections since this data was compiled. Even without the data, the average American is aware that there is extreme tension in our public discourse and that our politics have trickled down into almost every facet of daily life. Whichever political party we identify with, we are regularly faced with the temptation to identify the other as Them.
When we categorize an opponent as a collective Them, we lose our sense of individual people – individual neighbors. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Anton Scalia shared a famous friendship that often brought their families together for holiday celebrations. It wasn’t long ago that congressmen and women would leave a congressional session and grab a coffee or lunch with members of the opposing party. Over these meetings, they would talk about work, of course, but they would also discuss how their city’s baseball team was doing and how the other’s ailing father was faring. It is much more difficult to shout obscenities and make false accusations about an opponent when you know that his child is being bullied.
As Christians, we believe that all are made in the image of God—regardless of whether we agree with their stance on immigration. The imago Dei and the call to love our neighbors does not only apply to those leading the country, but also the average American. Our rhetoric matters. In James 3:9 we read, “[w]ith the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.” We simply cannot praise God one moment then degrade and dehumanize our liberal (or conservative) neighbors the next. Everyone we interact has dignity because they are made in the image of God, and we ought to treat Them as such.
However, a distinction must be made. Respect and understanding does not always necessitate compromise. We can hold strong convictions without villainizing and disrespecting the other side.
The Republican and Democratic party platforms fundamentally disagree on issues like abortion, taxes, and gun control, and these topics are serious and worthy of debate. Our elected officials should engage in fervent discourse with each other, even where emotions run high and anger is stirred. However, these debates are no place for hyperbolic and slanderous accusations of being a fascist, communist, or idiot.
Not only should we hold our elected officials to this standard, but we need to hold ourselves to this standard. We must watch our tongues when speaking about our cousin who’s living an interesting lifestyle in LA, the guy with the Trump sticker on his truck, and our slightly progressive pastors.
Loving our neighbor is frequently equated with acts of charity or service, but it also includes loving our neighbors with our words. Our words have an immense impact on the people around us – especially in a society that most commonly describes Christians as hypocrites. We must resist the urge to be defined by our conservative identity and seek to be defined by our Christian identity. Being known by our Christian identity does not mean rejecting society and its political problems to live a monastic life – there is a long list of Christians who stepped into the public sphere to fight for their beliefs, whether we agree with them or not, including Ben Sasse, William Wilberforce, and Desmond Tutu. Christians have a history of taking strong stands in their politics and society, but that stand needs to be marked by an uncompromising, Scripturally-based, loving and respectful posture. We have deep disagreements with others and are called to stand firm in our convictions, but we are also called to love others with our words.
We are called to love Them.