By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Racial and religious anger continues to polarize our politics. Politicians have long used “hot button” issues to motivate their constituents with anger, and unfortunately it has often worked. The cumulative effect has made partisan politics a dysfunctional process that doesn’t provide satisfactory choices for voters. Few are happy with the choices they have for President.
If we don’t expunge anger from our politics it will corrupt and undermine our democracy. It happened in the Civil War of the 1860s and to a lesser degree in the civil rights revolution in the 1960s. The 18th century English sage Edmund Burke warned Americans that in a democracy we would forge our own shackles, and Pogo the Possum, a popular cartoon character of my generation, affirmed Burke when he observed that we have met the enemy and it is us.
In a democracy we shape our own government. It is a reflection of our national morality, for better or for worse—and lately it’s been for the worse. Partisan politics have become so divisive and acrimonious that they threaten political stability. To avoid forging our own shackles we must promote a politics of reconciliation and restore legitimacy to our political process.
Religion is the primary source of our standards of legitimacy, but there is no mention of democracy, human rights or the secular rule of law in the ancient scriptures. Those concepts were irrelevant in ancient times. For moral guidance on political issues today we have to go to the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. It requires that we love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
The love command requires that we first provide a rule of law that protects our individual rights and that also provides for the common good, and balancing those two objectives is a continuing challenge in our democracy. Second, we must protect people from those who would do them harm, and that requires law enforcement at home and military operations overseas. Both security functions require the use of lethal force, and limits on the use of such force.
Providing the essential functions of government raises contentious issues that require a politics of reconciliation. It doesn’t require political unity, but it does require a willingness to debate public issues in a civil and respectful manner and to compromise on important issues to avoid gridlock. But don’t expect Republicans or Democrats to support such a concept. Our two-party system is by nature divisive and favors an “us versus them” partisan dichotomy.
Both parties have a vested interest in maintaining a divided electorate with ”hot button” partisan issues that promote special interest politics divided along partisan lines. Partisan politics is about gaining and maintaining political power, not about doing what is best for the country; and unfortunately, the public seems to have acquiesced to such partisan polarization.
A politics of reconciliation is based on the moral imperative of faith to love God and our neighbors as ourselves—and that includes those of other races and religions. But many believers are reluctant to consider such matters of faith with their politics, even though there is no reason or requirement to separate religion from politics and every reason to relate the two. The so-called separation of church and state in the First Amendment to our Constitution only prohibits government from “...establishing any religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The Civil War was the tragic result of distorted religious and political beliefs trumping (no pun intended) reconciliation, and 100 years later in a separate but equal South racism again blocked justice. While a measure of political reconciliation allowed passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, racial hatred and anger have continued ever since, and once again we are experiencing deteriorating racial relations that threaten our political stability with racial violence.
Like race, religious differences between Christians and Muslims have created hate and violence that require reconciliation. Religious institutions should be leading the way toward interfaith reconciliation, but they aren’t doing that. Most Christians and Muslims are exclusivist in their beliefs and resist religious reconciliation, and that has fostered religious polarization that is aiding and abetting radical Islamist terrorism at home and abroad.
God’s will is that all humanity be reconciled and redeemed, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer. Unfortunately, Satan does a convincing imitation of God in the church, mosque and in politics, and seems to be ahead of God in the polls. Political reconciliation may seem an elusive ideal in today’s divisive political environment, but a politics of reconciliation is necessary to keep Satan from giving God a bad name and corrupting our democracy.
Paul Waldman has opined that President Obama can’t bring us together primarily because his “…opponents have guaranteed that he would never be able to unite Americans about anything,” and because the current crisis is one of race. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2016/07/08/why-president-obama-cant-bring-us-together/?wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1.
Patrick Healy has commented on the inability of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton to be a unifying voice for the nation because of their unpopularity—more evidence of the failure of the two-party system to produce the political leadership needed to address racial and religious issues. See http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/us/politics/donald-trump-hillary-clinton.html?_r=0.
Michael Gerson has commented on how the forces of enmity versus empathy shape our decisions in our moment of division who will lead. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/in-our-moment-of-division-who-will-lead/2016/07/11/1a8232fa-4798-11e6-acbc-4d4870a079da_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
On President Obama’s radical experiment in national reconciliation with a meeting of senior police officers and Black Lives Matter activists, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/07/14/inside-obamas-radical-experiment-in-national-reconciliation/?wpisrc=nl_evening&wpmm=1.
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