As the 2016 campaign season grinds to a painful close, prospects for healing our nation appear remote. Like estranged spouses, citizens are unsure how to speak civilly to one another, much less how to enter into the collaboration necessary for the caretaking of children or a country. For Christians, the path forward is not easy, but it is apparent. It requires us to take a broader view of political engagement.
We need to rediscover civil friendship, a concept offered by Catholic social teaching to remind us that our political life is shaped not by election results, but by the attitudes of citizens. We must internalize and live out the spirit of solidarity with one another.
Seen through the lens of civil friendship, the problem with our political polarization is not widespread disagreement, but separation and alienation. We should not see polarization as a call to become better at persuading others, but as a call to restore relationships. For civil friendship to gain traction in today’s society, it will make (at least) three demands of American Christians.
1. Civil friendship requires us to think locally. Polarization withers in the face of relationship, which requires us to shift our gaze to the local, where political engagement and relationships go hand in hand. American Christians, I fear, have embraced the dangerous lie that our primary path of political engagement is through our choice of whom we support for president. That matters, of course, but that is a relatively small component of our common good.
Aristotle defined the political community as a partnership of citizens. The purpose of this partnership is to allow citizens to achieve virtue and happiness. American Christians have placed too little importance on participating in local politics, where Aristotle’s vision is most likely to be possible. And too often, when Christians enter local politics, they do so not in a spirit of partnership among citizens, but as a smaller skirmish in a larger national culture war.
The local is important not primarily as a microcosm of a larger national struggle between worldviews, but as a path to relationship. It is where civil friendship can be most easily realized. Opposing views on abortion, marriage or immigration do not stand in the way of collaboration on beautifying the local park, fundraising for the library or creating after-school programs for at-risk kids. Politics requires time, effort and emotional energy, and our allocation of these resources should reflect the fact that our local communities are where we can work together, face to face and hand in hand, with those with whom we may not share worldviews. Civil friendship is not a call to withdraw from the national stage, but it may encourage us to rethink our priorities.
2. Civil friendship requires empathy. In my relationships with fellow citizens, is my primary aim to convince or to understand? Have Christians followed the broader culture in losing our capacity for empathy?
Earlier this year, my local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, conducted a survey on Black Lives Matterand found that while 94 percent of black Minnesotans have a favorable view of the movement, only 6 percent of white Minnesotans do. These and similar statistics from across the nation should be sobering for followers of Christ, in whom there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.”
If we aim to transcend our cultural constraints in pursuing civil friendship, Christians must resist the increasingly common tendency to choose sides and then treat that choice as the end of moral reflection on the matter. We must help one another walk in the shoes of those on both sides who are too easily demonized, to help translate justifiable anger into social change and to help build bridges across the racial divide—not through arm’s-length pronouncements but through the painstaking process of mutual understanding. It requires long, difficult work to permit your story to shape my story, but it is work that has never been more important.
When protesters shut down the interstate in Minneapolis last summer, my initial reaction was, “Well, that tactic is hardly going to win new supporters to their cause.” But then I asked myself, “What would it take for me to walk out onto I-94 on a rainy night and stop traffic? What level of desperation would I have to feel?” Such questions do not necessarily lead to consensus, but they do enhance mutual understanding and start us down the path toward relationship. We have to recapture our capacity for empathy.
3. Civil friendship requires collaboration outside our comfort zones. The development of “voter scorecards” by various Christian groups in the early 1990s did not bode well for civil friendship. These scorecards can help voters learn candidates’ stated policy positions with minimal effort, but they do so in a simplistic way, emphasizing sound-bite campaigning over coherent governance, and equating a candidate’s willingness to check a box with a demonstrated track record of real progress on an issue.
More troubling, though, is that the scorecard approach tends to lead Christians to view themselves politically as nothing more than bundles of policy demands waiting to be met. While premised on our need to evaluate candidates, I fear that such checklists implicitly encourage Christians to evaluate our fellow citizens on the extent of overlap between our policy demands and their positions. We focus on the breadth of disagreements rather than the potential for collaboration. Scorecards are not a fertile ground for civil friendship. Christian political engagement should not be as easy as filling out a bingo card.
The Gospel calls us to run toward those with whom we have very little in common, not with the primary aim of convincing them we are right, but as vessels of God’s love. The point is not agreement, the point is relationship. I do not just mean relationship in terms of serving their needs, which is necessary but not sufficient. I mean relationship in the form of collaborating toward common goals, seeing each other as moral beings capable of work that aims at the true, the good and the just.
So what is the path forward for Christians after the debacle of the 2016 campaign season? How do we engage faithfully in politics without exacerbating the polarization that has come to define us? The first step is to recognize that, as Christians, winning the next round at the ballot box is not our only—or even our ultimate— goal. We are called to civil friendship, embracing the frustration and messiness, but also the ultimate beauty of friendship shared with those among God’s children with whom we vehemently disagree about politics.
Robert K. Vischer is the dean of the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, Minn.