Public discourse today is in a sorry state. Internet technology mixed with identity politics helps to drive its degeneration. Communication at the speed of light does not encourage thoughtful deliberation, and gazing at a screen cannot convey humanity like a living face. Ill-considered and intemperate words fly – words that would never be spoken face-to-face.
Add to this a growing party spirit that devours goodwill and civility with an insatiable appetite. From the opinion page to the front page, TV to Twitter, we are awash in a sea of seething rage.
Decent people on all sides of the debate recoil. They are faced with a devil’s choice of either leaving the conversation and letting the degeneracy accelerate or joining the scrum and being dragged into the mire.
This column is for those decent people. It is a word of encouragement and advice – encouragement to enter the fray; advice on how to stay above it. This balance is not easy, but it is necessary. Christian readers should recognize that this balance is precisely the life of faith and love.
Love looks always toward the good of your neighbor, while faith looks to God. Both are necessary for civil discourse. Neither a loveless faith nor a faithless love will do.
Every fruitful conversation begins with an eye toward the neighbor. Selfishness driven by fear poisons the public square. Self-preservation chokes out selflessness. But love motivates engagement in a completely different frame of mind.
If you have ever participated in a March for Life, you know what that is. “Nobody in attendance is marching for themselves,” wrote Matt Walsh. “Nobody is demanding rights or privileges for themselves. Everyone is marching on behalf of those who cannot march.”
That’s why the March for Life is a great example of how civil engagement need not debase the participants. Rather, when focused on the neighbor, it is truly uplifting and a source of peaceful joy.
While anger breeds anger, love cultivates love. Caring about the weakest person opens hearts to ever more people. Such love does not need ideological agreement. It flows from a common humanity.
The terrible poison of identity politics is that it sorts people into a thousand different tribes and then demands that they hate one another. People are no longer viewed as people, but as problems. Individuals are identified with their sins – whether imagined or real.
Identity politics invents new “sins” for the purpose of identifying and isolating political opponents by their sins. The invention of new sins is only part of the problem. The deeper problem is when people are identified by their sins. This makes respect and love impossible.
For this reason, Christian thought has always distinguished sin from the person. “Hate the sin, but love the sinner” is one way of expressing that distinction. This maxim has undergone withering attack in recent years. Purveyors of identity politics loudly claim that it is hateful and disrespectful even to think that something is a sin.
But not only is this distinction legitimate, it is vital to civil discourse. Without this distinction, lock-step conformity is required before love and respect are possible. Identity politics is an oppressive tyrant.
Freedom comes when an ideological opponent is no longer an enemy but a fellow traveler. Conversation is about helping one another see more, not less. That love, alone, will change the tone drastically.
What will change it even more is faith that looks to heaven. One reason that politics has become so caustic is that, for many, politics has become a religion. Every human psyche looks for an ultimate source of good – that is, a god. Those that reject a transcendent creator look, instead, to the power of government.
When politics becomes the end-all and be-all of life, desperation sets in. Political victory must come at all costs. Those, however, who believe that America is “one nation under God” can engage in the public discourse with a confident tranquility.
They can exercise their duty to speak and act for the neighbor without being burdened by a god-like need to right every wrong. Knowing that God will take care of the big picture also means that fear fades away. If your policy preferences do not come to pass, it is not the end of the world. It only means that God may have something even better in mind.
The peace that comes with such faith is truly freeing. It removes the anxiety of fending for one’s self and frees people to focus on their neighbors – both the weak and the strong, both those who love and those who hate. The eye of faith that looks to God in heaven enables an ever clearer and more loving view of the neighbor on Earth.