Americans are battling each other, this group enraged at that group, and vice versa; more, and fiercer battling with words, legal assaults, sloganeering and slurs, mass protests, and even violence.
Ingrained beliefs and attitudes have produced this “civil war”, these hardened silos, and unless we get to the root of the conflict and stare it in the eye, we have no hope—none—of reasoned debate and civility. Despite popular diagnoses, the foundational problem isn’t political, racial, or economic.
Consider how Americans view America:
- As a noble, albeit imperfect, nation based on an enlightened and still relevant Constitution
- As a grievously flawed—bigoted, chauvinistic, imperialistic—state with an obsolete Constitution, and a culture needing radical transformation
- As a nation of right-minded people, like me and my friends, and too many wrong-minded people with too much influence and power
- As the economic and social means for my personal enrichment, without obligating me to be or do anything
The fact that millions of Americans hold these vastly different visions of America suggests that the breech is an unbreechable chasm.
But we haven’t gone deep enough. The divisions we are experiencing are actually rooted in our image of the person himself or herself, something we rarely explore because it challenges deeply held beliefs and biases. Yes, making America great depends on how we view each other. Are we…
- Autonomous mortal creatures that create our own meaning and contentment in a God-less universe?
- Living tools of production and consumers of resources?
- A cognitive species, but no more special—though more dangerous to the environment—than any species on planet Earth?
- Members of an ethnic, ideological, religious, or identity-based tribe with a wariness of, or animus toward, those outside the tribe?
- Creatures that ought to achieve and acquire by any means necessary?
- Members of a society that makes and re-makes laws and norms affecting human rights and responsibilities based on predominant beliefs and historical forces?
- Subjects of a ruler, or ruling class, with rights and obligations bestowed by the rulers?
- Creatures with God-demanded duties, with an afterlife reward for fulfilling duties, and hellfire for not doing so?
- Creatures with God-given dignity, freedom, and responsibilities, which cannot be abrogated by any human agency, cherished by our Creator, and created for a larger life beyond human imagining?
Only one of these images of humanity can bridge the chasm between so many Americans.
Not so fast, many will insist. The B.C. Yahweh-worshipping Jews, Middle Ages Christian Europe, and 18th and 19th century Christian America decimated enemies, practiced slavery (or virtual slavery), murdered neighbors and stole their property. In response is G.K. Chesterton famous proclamation: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” In “Yahweh-worshipping” Israel and Judah, in “Christian” Europe, and in “Christian” America, there was never a majority that held this loftier image of man, and the minority that did were often reviled and oppressed by the majority and their rulers. Nevertheless, this minority, inspired by prophetic and saintly people, repeatedly inched their societies closer to authentic humanism, far closer than societies and cultures without this leavening image of man.
A recent Wall Street Journal article, entitled “The Sexting Scandal That Toppled One of America’s Most Powerful Lawyers” (July 13, 2018), is a reminder that in the current moral frenzy produced by small-constrained images of man, few can hope to retain jobs, reputations, and friends when their gravest human weakness is made public. An article about a CEO with a multi-decade marriage and grown children who succumbs to an unseemly Internet exchange with a woman he never met in person. Crazy, stupid, right? But how many of us have tipped over in something crazy or stupid without understanding how or why? With a larger-loftier image of man and woman, there is a way for such a person to own up to having done something humiliatingly wrong, and being given a second chance, because weak human nature is understood and the offender can be separated from the offense, especially when the person is perceived to be contrite. Absent this loftier image, the flaws of someone outside our “tribe”, or the flaws of a competitor, are likely to be used as a weapon to advance a political or economic agenda, for virtue signaling, or to attain a legal or competitive advantage.
In this moral milieu, a Peter who three times denounces Jesus cannot be a disciple, much less a pope.
Every person, including our political, ideological, and cultural adversaries have God-given dignity, freedom, and responsibilities, which cannot be abrogated by any human agency, cherished by God and created for a larger life beyond human imagining.
When a person with this image of man and woman encounters someone from another “tribe”, they are inclined to respect that person, in spite of differences and weaknesses, more likely to listen to the person and consider their views, and even when they disagree, or are obligated to oppose an agenda, they are more likely to view the person with goodwill rather than ill will. For all the bloodshed and injustice and hatred he experienced during his presidency, Abraham Lincoln called Americans to this lofty ideal, and tried to prod all around him to adopt it. A day doesn’t go by without me wishing I were better at it.
We may never have a majority with this loftier image of man, but we need a more visible, vocal, and active minority in the public arena. Only this can begin to make America great.
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