Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my other excerpts, click HERE.
Insight doesn’t usually come to me in big EUREKA! moments, but tends to creep into my awareness through a series of little epiphanies. And so it was with the realization that our society’s culture wars were wreaking real damage, both in our communities and in my personal life. Even worse, I began to discern – albeit more slowly – that my own attitudes and behavior might be contributing to the problem.
The first of these little epiphanies came during my 20-year career in human services. Between my paid employment and my volunteer commitments, it was hard to avoid the fallout from our larger society’s political battles because the never-ending conflict so often affected my ability to simply do my job. Government funding to the social service agencies where I worked would be cut or delayed on a regular basis because elected officials liked to hold state and federal budgets hostage until they got their way on ideological priorities. This often resulted in staffing shortages and a reduction in the level of services we were able to provide for people in need.
“Philosophical differences” within the social service system itself sometimes kept helping professionals from working together for the benefit of people who sought assistance for problems ranging from drug addiction and homelessness to domestic violence and mental health issues. Conservative colleagues said poor choices and lack of personal responsibility were to blame for these individuals’ problems, while progressive colleagues insisted bad luck and social oppression were the culprits. My own experience told me the cause of most client problems was a complex combination of poor choices, bad luck and social oppression, but I often felt pressured by colleagues on both the left and the right to deny the reality in front of me when certain details of a person’s situation were not “ideologically correct.”
Outside of work, I frequently found myself sucked into arguments with friends, relatives and even strangers over contentious “hot-button” issues such as abortion, gun violence, climate change and racial unrest. Sometimes online squabbles would get sufficiently nasty for me to block or “snooze” Facebook friends – both progressive and conservative – who refused to stop insulting my other Facebook friends. This situation got more pronounced after the 2016 election, with some friends actually pressuring me to stop associating with people on the “wrong” side of the ideological divide.
However, I have to admit I wasn’t always the innocent victim or bystander in these skirmishes. For years, I had been repelled by the culture wars and yet attracted like the proverbial moth to a flame.
One sign that I might be a bit too invested in the culture wars came when I realized I had just wasted an entire afternoon arguing with total strangers about jello. Yes, jello. Progressives and conservatives on one Christian denomination’s Facebook page had been wrangling for days over this question: “Is it racist to make jokes about jello at church potlucks?” I further realized it wasn’t the first time this had happened. Conservative and progressive Christians frequently mauled and skewered each other on Web sites such as Patheos, gleefully calling each other names and dropping F-bombs on people left and right. While I didn’t resort to insults or profanity myself, I confess to participating in too many of these “discussions” for longer than I should have.
Another “Aha!” moment came during election season when I realized I hadn’t done my morning meditation in several days. Morning meditation was one of my favorite prayer rituals. I settled in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee by my side and a cat in my lap and asked for God’s protection and guidance as I journaled about my priorities for the coming day. Sometimes my husband serenaded Oley Cat and me with sacred songs on his dulcimer. So why was I missing out? Not because of early doctor appointments or work commitments. Before I even had my morning coffee, I would rush to my computer and click into Real Clear Politics or FiveThirtyEight.com to see who was ahead in the polls. Housework and my writing also languished while I aimlessly surfed the web, looking for that news story or editorial that would magically reassure me the right side was winning.
One beautiful October day, I was taking a twilight walk when I suddenly stopped short. Mother Nature’s handiwork prompted me to gasp. Fall leaves flashed yellow-orange-crimson. Light from the setting sun bounced off the tops of trees in even more vivid colors. The sky competed with the trees for sheer outrageousness – the sun painting the clouds red, orange, yellow, pink, purple. A still-warm breeze blew gently across my face. Then I stopped short again. I realized I had been walking for several minutes before I noticed what was in front of me. While God was putting on this living fireworks display, I had been gazing at the sidewalk, my mind flitting from one surly thought to another: I wish our elected officials would stop acting like children. … What kind of people would vote for a monster like that? … What on earth is wrong with people?! … How can they think that way?
The final straw that convinced me I’d had enough of the culture wars came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Here we were, facing a virus that was killing hundreds of thousands of people, and our elected officials would not stop brawling long enough to develop a coherent plan for addressing this urgent public health issue. One would think the general public might urge lawmakers to put aside their political differences and collaborate on ways to get personal protective equipment to our frontline workers, ensure ICU beds were available for everyone who needed one, and help families and small businesses affected by our shutdown orders. Instead, all we could seem to do was bicker about face masks and shame each other with Facebook memes while we retreated further into our ideological camps and dug in our heels.
So what could one person do to stop the lunacy? I was pretty sure the answer was not to retreat from the political arena, look the other way in the face of injustice or stop working to resolve problems such as poverty and hunger. On the other hand, something clearly wasn’t working – either in our society or in my responses to the endless strife. At the very least, my own responses needed to change.
Unfortunately, the church community – where one might hope to find some guidance – seemed only to provoke more confusion and discord. Many Christian denominations were drawing progressive-versus-conservative battle lines that matched those of secular society. As people on either end of the political/ideological divide pressured me to take sides, I often found myself performing mental gymnastics to make my religious beliefs about an issue fit a particular political party’s platform. And I came to realize how much my own beliefs were being shaped by my desire to fit in with the people around me rather than by an objective search for truth.
This internal tug-of-war brought on by the increasing divisiveness in our society prompted me to ask myself several questions: What were my own beliefs about the hot-button issues that consumed our nation’s culture warriors? Should I continue holding onto these beliefs and values, or should some of them be changed or discarded? How could I avoid the continual pressure to “choose sides” and do more of my own thinking? What was my role as a Christian in fighting or mitigating society’s political battles? How should I engage people who disagreed with me, while keeping in mind God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves? And perhaps most importantly, how did I avoid becoming part of the problem as our society grew ever more partisan and angry? How could I be part of the solution?
To help me sort through these questions, I engaged a spiritual director shortly after the 2016 election. With her encouragement, I began questioning many things I thought I knew. I questioned values other people wanted me to hold – whether they be conservative or progressive. I began asking myself how much I really believed everything I claimed to believe concerning church dogma and secular political ideologies. Was it possible I was merely paying lip service to certain ideas to please my peer group? I decided for the time being to ignore what academic “experts” thought. I did not want a value system that simply let me fit in chameleon-like with my surroundings. Ultimately, I wanted a personal faith that would stand up to reason, scrutiny and pressure from the various culture warriors in my life.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:21, the Apostle Paul said, “Test all things; hold fast to that which is good.”
I certainly haven’t figured out all the answers. But I do think one key to finding an appropriate Christian response to our society’s polarization problem is to avoid knee-jerk ideological responses to heated controversies, hear people out on all sides and keep asking those pesky questions.
Questions for readers: How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally? How do we become part of the solution rather than part of the problem? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).