Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in a Polarized Democracy

  Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Americans are losing faith in democracy and in each other.  That dark reality is either the cause or effect of the sordid politics we have witnessed this election year.  Before the Revolution Edmund Burke warned Americans that in a democracy we would forge our own shackles.  Will the pervasive hate and anger that has polarized our politics validate that ominous prediction?

            Pogo the Possum echoed Burke when he observed, We have met the enemy and it is us.  If we recognize that ugly reality, then we can examine our souls and counter the enemy within; but I’m not sure the American people can do that.  Many have come to believe that they are the victims of some external enemy, and Donald Trump has stoked the coals of their insecurity and fear into a political inferno of hate and anger that threatens our democracy.

            A democracy is no more or less than the people in it.  Without a collective will to work together and compromise on critical issues, no democracy can survive.  There is a desperate need for a politics of reconciliation to salvage our polarized democracy from its demise, and that reconciliation must be based on finding common ground in matters of faith as well as politics.

            The pervasive hate and anger that have polarized our partisan politics must be countered by a willingness to compromise in Congress.  None of the critical issues it faces—immigration, health care, the budget, taxes and monetary policy, as well as the terrorist threat and foreign affairs—can be addressed and resolved in a polarized Congress.

            A politics of reconciliation doesn’t require agreement on issues, only a commitment to civil debate and compromise.  Politics has been described as the art of compromise.  That doesn’t require compromising ideals, only sharing common ground and respecting differing viewpoints on important issues.  Americans must relearn the art of compromise in an increasingly pluralistic world to ensure that the diversity that should be our strength does not become a fatal weakness.

            The problem of polarization is as much one of faith as it is of politics, and exclusivism is its root cause.  It is the belief that one religion or political ideal is right and all others are wrong.  That idea—whether it relates to God’s kingdom or to worldly politics—polarizes people and prevents the reconciliation needed for peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic culture.

            History offers numerous precedents for the negative consequences of such exclusivism.  In religion the Church orchestrated the Crusades and Inquisitions, and radical Islamism has spawned the contemporary violence of al Qaeda and ISIS.  In politics there was the slavery and white supremacy in the antebellum South, Aryanism in Hitler’s Third Reich, and South Africa’s Apartheid.  One thing is obvious: religious and political exclusivism are interwoven.

            In the 100 years following the U.S. Civil War, the South was an example of racist, one-party politics that were supported by the church.  Whites in the states of the old Confederacy were Democrats.  In 1870 Blacks were given the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment, but the Democrat Party denied them that right by various means until the 1960s, when U.S. civil rights laws finally opened the door of the Democrat Party to Black voters.   

            The Jim Crow South was a single party “democracy” that maintained a segregated separate but equal culture until the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which was followed by the civil rights laws of the 1960s.  Then Whites began leaving the Democrat Party and joining the Republican Party, tainting the party of Lincoln with racism. 

            Today in the South most Whites are Republican and Blacks are Democrats.  Donald Trump has exploited that racial and partisan divide to motivate his constituency, and evangelical Christians have enthusiastically supported Trump, whose lifestyle and political rhetoric represent the antithesis of the teachings of Jesus.  Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of Liberty University, went so far as to say that Trump “lives a life of loving and helping others, as Jesus taught.”

            The polarization of politics by race and religion is not limited to the South.  It is pervasive throughout the nation, and if not countered with a politics of reconciliation it will undermine the stability of our democracy.  Religious and political reconciliation must begin with the moral imperative found in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.  That love command is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

            God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity.  Satan’s will is to divide and conquer.  But Satan does a convincing imitation of God, and does some of his best work in the church, mosque and in politics.  Americans must be able to discern the difference between those two competing forces if they expect to rescue our polarized politics and failing democracy with a politics of reconciliation.                       


On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see

On a politics of reconciliation with liberty and justice for all, see

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