A necessity to preserve a nation

Published 7:11 pm Friday, October 23, 2020

We are living in perilous times. Families, churches and neighborhoods are under assault. And not just by a deadly pandemic. America is divided by political disagreements and a rogues’ gallery of other issues that threaten to pit us one against another, in sometimes violent confrontations.

As a college student in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I disagreed with my southern father on just about every major issue of the day. As a WWII vet and Marine, he supported America’s continued military presence in Vietnam; I marched against it in the streets of Baton Rouge and planted crosses on the LSU quad to honor the fallen. He supported Nixon’s call for law and order; I saw the president as two-faced and would not have followed him to an ice cream shop.

Our discussions sometimes got heated and seemed to go nowhere. I see now that what saved our relationship was a mutual commitment to stay in conversation and allow one another the space to voice opinions without ridicule.

We tried to avoid giving the reality of our differences the power to destroy our relationship. We intuited that failing to do so would permit our prejudices to assume priority over our commitment to one another.

It saddens me, therefore, that in the 50 years since the end of the Vietnam War, the dislike and distrust of those with contrasting political opinions has only increased. According to a recent Pew Research Survey, majorities in both political parties (85% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats) say divisions between the two parties are increasing. In addition, majorities of Americans describe both parties as “too extreme.”

History is witness to the fact that extreme partisan animosity can be a prelude to democratic collapse. And, yes, Virginia, it can happen here.

Perhaps you have a family dinner or a virtual reunion coming up, and you dread the idea of conversing with your crazy Republican uncle or your radical Democratic aunt.

Perhaps you find yourself reading contentious back-and-forth comments on your social media account. Or maybe you are party to a contentious conversation in the grocery store or a parking lot. How do you maintain your calm and your integrity when you find yourself speaking across divides?

How do you typically respond in these situations? Do you just walk away, concluding that it’s best never to talk about politics or religion? Do you try to change someone’s mind? Do you just listen?

Spiritual texts and teachers tell us to love ourselves, love our neighbors and even love our enemies. Having productive and open-hearted conversations is one way we do that. In the weeks leading up to local, state and national elections, this kind of engagement is not only a critically important spiritual practice, but may prove necessary to preserve the nation.

Try it. You might like it.

Polk Culpepper is retired Episcopal priest, former lawyer and a resident of Washington.