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On Tuesday of this week, Pew Research Center released a massive amount of data regarding Americans and religion. I wrote about the Millennial insights in the data on Tuesday, and I had the opportunity to help out on a couple of articles by Ed Stetzer on the data at Christianity Today and the Washington Post.
After sifting through the data here and there the last few days, the increasing ideological polarization of the United States has become ever clear. Religiously unaffiliated Americans are adopting ethics and values far different than those of their religiously affiliated neighbors and friends. The chasm between the religious and the irreligious is widening because the nominally religious are dropping the label.
As Ed wrote for the Washington Post, any cultural home field advantage or privilege Christians may have had in the United States is quickly slipping away through our fingers folded in prayer. It’s come time to negotiate the terms of our surrender, stop fighting for the widespread adoption of Christian values, and start protecting our right to practice our faith. Even in 2011, The Newsroom‘s Will McAvoy knew that the country is more polarized than it’s been since the civil war, and attempting to civilize it is like being Don Quixote:
(Watch that whole scene here, for context [language warning])
The ideological landscape in this country is only going to become more diverse, and both the religious and irreligious are wise, I think, to commit to a peace treaty of sorts in order to promote a culture of understanding amidst disagreement. Like the characters in The Newsroom, I’m on a mission to civilize. Is it a bit quixotic? Sure it is. But as polarization increases, the religious and irreligious alike must find peace.
I hope that the religious and irreligious alike can commit to the following as a means of charitable communication and peaceable living:
A common companion of a negative attitude is a certain baseless cynicism regarding the motives of others. I think one of the most tangible, simple ways Christians can live out Luke 6:31, treating others as we wish to be treated, is by assuming the best in others and giving others the benefit of the doubt. If we get burned, so be it.
For instance, when it comes to social issues in American politics, the Right and the Left often think the worst of each other. When it comes to the Right’s opposition to same-sex marriage, the Left paints the Right as gay-hating homophobes, when truly, the Right just is trying to do what they think is best in terms of marriage. At the same time, when it comes to pro-choice/pro-life issues, the Right paints the Left as baby-killers, when in fact, abortion breaks the heart of many who favor pro-choice, they just think women should have more rights.
As we wade through the muck and the mire of ideological polarization and wrestle through complex social issues, we may vehemently disagree, but perhaps we may acknowledge that we are each trying to do what we think is best? Perhaps from there, we may engage in constructive conversation and cause real change.
Religious and irreligious, let’s commit to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
Too often, the religious and the irreligious interpret the disagreement of the other as a sort of attempt on character assassination. Sometimes it is. Sometimes people disagree with others because they truly do hate them, but that’s not always the case, and I think we handicap any attempt at civility when we interpret “disagreement” as “hatred” more often than not.
The Christian stance against same-sex marriage, for instance, rarely comes from a hateful heart. Do some Christians who oppose same-sex marriage hate gay couples? Yes, they do. But the understanding that Scripture is the highest authority and its formula for marriage is one man and one woman is not inherently hateful. In the same way, the stance of the irreligious that creation shouldn’t be taught in science classes doesn’t inherently mean they hate God, Christians, or even disagree with a form “creation.” They just don’t think it should be taught in public schools. Gay marriage and creation in schools are obviously two very different issues, but the point is that in both cases, misunderstanding can run rampant, and that we ought to dialogue about controversial issues with grace.
The commitment to differentiating “disagreement” and “hatred,” is intertwined with the first agreement to give each other the benefit of the doubt. If Christians want to truly be like Jesus, and if the irreligious truly want what is best for humanity, both groups must work to better understand each other, and that is going to require us to listen to each other.
Religious and irreligious, let’s commit to not interpret “disagreement” as “hatred.”
This is a difficult commitment to make, isn’t it? The religious and irreligious define “good” in vastly different terms. Each religious group understands the end “good” to be the mass conversion and allegiance of people to a particular faith, and the end “good” of man for the irreligious depends on who you ask. Suffice to say, for Americans as a whole to “work together for the good of all” sounds a bit naïve and unrealistic. I don’t really think it is.
I think it’s important for Christians to remember that when Christ came, he didn’t attempt to overthrow Rome. He spoke to those who listened and sought others to whom he may minister. It is important for Christians to be involved in public life—the work The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission does is vital and valuable. Too often, though, I think Christians act like the consummation of the Kingdom of God is brought about through elections.
As followers of Christ, we must work together for the good of all, but in doing so, show the love of Christ. Advocate for issues from a biblical perspective, by all means, but spend more energy effecting change in your neighborhoods than complaining about how the government isn’t.
It’s not the job of the government to accomplish the Great Commission—it’s the job of the Church. Don’t blame the government for not doing your job.
At the same time, it’s important for the irreligious to understand that when Christians attempt to “legislate morality” they aren’t doing it because they want to be “right” but because they truly do think it is what is best for others. In the same way that many irreligious think it is best for same-sex marriage to be legal, many religious think it is best for it to not be legal. Each is attempting to work for the good of all, it is simply that the religious and irreligious have different standards for how “good” is defined.
So, in the end, while I hold to a Christian ethic because I think it is the one, true, right ethic, I can still “work together for the good of all” amidst the irreligious who define the “good of all” differently than I do. I hope my irreligious friends can work together with me for the good of all, even if they disagree with me as well.
Religious and irreligious, let’s commit to work together for the good of all, despite our differences.
This looks like Christians partnering with Muslims to work for religious liberty protections. This looks like a Christian giving a gay family member a place to stay when times are tough. This looks like a non-Christian giving a Christian friend a ride to church if he or she needs it. This looks like feeding and helping the homeless without quizzing them on social issues or questioning their habits.
It looks any number of ways, but until we learn to peaceably live with one another, the religious and irreligious in the United States will tear it apart by their unwillingness to work together.
The United States may be irreparably damaged by people who could have prevented it had they not been yelling at each other all along.
May it not be so.
Let’s commit to peace.