Why are our politics so divisive?

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Why are our politics so divisive?

September 26, 2016 -

Is America more divided than ever?

Pew Research Center polling would say that we are. More than four in ten Democrats and Republicans say the other party’s policies are so misguided that they pose a threat to the nation. Things are getting worse: today, 91 percent of Republicans have unfavorable attitudes toward Democrats; in 1994, only 74 percent held such attitudes. On the other side: 86 percent of Democrats have unfavorable attitudes toward Republicans today; in 1994, that number was only 59 percent.

Another Pew poll found that 88 percent of blacks say America needs to continue making changes for blacks to have equal rights with whites. Only 53 percent of whites agreed. Whether the issue is same-sex marriage, transgender bathrooms, euthanasia, or a host of other social topics, we seem to be a nation split in two.

Why has our culture become so divisive? One answer is the way we address the problem.

What’s your worldview?
Sociologist James Davison Hunter coined the phrase “culture wars” in his 1991 book by that title. Among his explanations for our divisiveness, he points to the language we use to describe those with whom we disagree. Here Hunter makes an observation that is as accurate today as when his book was published twenty-five years ago.

He begins with the “ideal of civility in public discourse,” otherwise known as the “positive face of moral conflict.” This is our effort to persuade others to our position through logic, science, humanitarian concerns, or an appeal to tradition or to faith.

Here’s the problem: “Given the incompatible nature of the polarizing cultural impulses, positive moral argument is simply insufficient as a way of achieving real advantage over the opposition. In other words, because each side operates out of a fundamentally different conception of moral authority, because each side uses a radically different measure of moral sensibility, because each side employs a markedly different kind of moral logic, neither side will ever be able to persuade the other of the superiority of its own claims.”

Hunter is right. In our red-state-versus-blue-state climate, each side embraces a worldview that is fundamentally in opposition to that of the other side. We can cite obvious examples:

  • One side sees same-sex marriage as “marriage equality.” It asks what is wrong about letting people marry the person they love. The other side sees same-sex marriage as destroying the family and the foundations upon which society is built. It asks whether polygamy and “consensual” marriage (between anyone of any age and biological relation) are next.
  • One side sees “physician-assisted death” as “death with dignity.” The other sees it as a license for physicians to violate the Hippocratic Oath by killing their patients.
  • One side sees the LGBTQ agenda as a crusade for civil rights. The other sees it as an imposition of unbiblical morality on the vast majority of society.
  • One side sees Christian engagement in culture as violating the separation of church and state. The other sees it as following both the Bible and the example of most of our nation’s founders.

Who’s your enemy?

When two sides are this far apart, what do they do to win the day? Hunter: “The struggle to gain legitimation requires something besides positive moral persuasion. Inevitably it entails the existence of an enemy to stand against.” He calls this the “negative face of moral conflict,” which he defines as “the deliberate, systematic effort to discredit the opposition.”

In this strategy, “Neutralizing the opposition through a strategy of public ridicule, derision, and insult has become just as important as making credible moral claims for the world that each side champions. Arguably, this negative persuasion has become even more important, for in public discourse, ‘dialogue’ has largely been replaced by name calling, denunciation, and even outright intolerance.”

It’s as though Hunter had a crystal ball through which he could see today’s political campaigns. But such divisive rhetoric affects far more than the election.

As we were beginning Denison Forum several years ago, a leadership expert and I were discussing our business model. He asked how we would fund this ministry, and I explained that we would depend on the donations of our readers. He then asked what I thought to be a strange question: “Who’s your enemy?”

He explained that to raise money, win elections, or otherwise persuade people today, we need to do three things: (1) Convince people they have an enemy; (2) persuade them that they cannot defeat this enemy; (3) convince them that we will defeat their enemy if they give us money, vote for us, etc. My friend meant his description as a commentary on the culture rather than a prescription for our ministry, but his words rang true.

Who’s your real enemy?

Of course, the real enemy is not the soldier on the other side of the “culture war.” The real enemy hates both sides and rejoices when we attack each other. The real enemy is “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). He “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Paul was clear: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

So, see those with whom you disagree as people for whom Jesus died. See them as the creation of your Father, souls who will spend eternity either with God or separated from him. Stand firm for the truth, but do so in grace. Be that voice that stands out in the culture by refusing the divisiveness of the culture.

The way to win the war for our culture is to win the war for our souls.

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