Even before supporters of President Trump stormed the nation’s Capitol, public opinion surveys leading up to the 2020 election found that almost a third of Americans in both parties considered violence to be justified if the opposing party’s presidential candidate prevailed.
Increasingly, political opponents are labeled “evil” rather than “wrong.” In darker turns of the debate, partisan opponents are publicly debased and dehumanized. Humans are labeled “animals” simply based on diverging political outlooks.
As author Bill Bishop noted in his book The Big Sort, political affiliation drives where and with whom we live. Our political parties have become personal identities; those possessed of differing identities are dismissed, often hatefully, as “other.”
We have built a political divide into our society and we refuse to bridge it. One need only search YouTube for homilies and sermons tied to the election to see that this anger and division has even infiltrated communities of faith.
What can be done about this division? More than we might think. Approaching political engagement from a perspective of love has the potential for radical transformation. Let us consider a few concrete ways in which that potential can be realized.
First, we must demand — and more importantly, offer — a different view of our political opponents. Shared humanity and dignity must become the starting point for any engagement. Rather than seeing others as obstacles to be overcome, we must see fellow humans to be engaged with love and with respect.
This is a simple but powerful act. It is also no small shift when almost a third the population supports violence in response to adverse political results. Nothing can happen without this first, basic step. But it opens an entirely different world of possibility. It requires nothing more than each of us choosing, repeatedly, love as our means of engagement.
Second, our political lexicon must be retooled. Far too often, campaigns and debates are cast in martial terms. Opponents must be “destroyed,” issues are existential, the nation is “in the balance,” and victory must come at all costs.
Language matters. Our current political language does not facilitate compromise. It does not reflect shared purpose and value. It does not manifest love. Language becomes action. Until we clean up our political language, our actions will likewise be gravely flawed.
Third, we must acknowledge the fallibility of our political system and actors. Many bring faith to political settings by describing their motivations in terms of divine guidance or revelation. This is a poor fit. Political systems are human creations; political actors are humans. As with all things born of human hands, both are fallible.
Seeking to match our works to our faith through political activity is a good thing. Claiming that our political viewpoints are beyond attack, or that the divergent views of others are beyond consideration, is consistently limiting and commonly destructive.
Approaching politics through love requires radical openness to others. It requires us to set aside our belief that we — and those who think like us — are unquestionably correct. It requires us to admit that no politician and no political party is perfect — including our own. A politics of love requires an acceptance of human fallibility across the board.
Fourth, and finally, we must act first — and we must act now — by showing love to our political adversaries. Love does not wait for a “bipartisan moment.” Nor does it wait for the other side to first “come to the table.” It requires setting aside the “whataboutism” that looks first at the splinters in the eyes of others before removing the poles in our own.
Love is demanded of us regardless of what we receive in return. It rises above the calculation of political strategy and game theory that counsel responding only in-kind. We can respond only in love. Always. To everyone. And we must begin now.
There is no better time than now to demand more as citizens. Especially for people of faith, there is no room to offer any less than our love — it is the only thing that can heal the wounds of division that are scarring this nation.