Good News from Better Angels: A Strategy for Depolarizing America

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© 2018 Robert Osburn

As I suggested in my last blog “The Rejection of a Christian Moral Consensus and America’s Political Polarization,” the best hope for our divided nation would be the re-embrace of Christian culture.

But, absent that ideal outcome and notwithstanding the Economist magazine’s doubts, I settle for a better hope that goes by the wonderfully prosaic name “Better Angels.

I had barely put the last blog to bed, so to speak, when, on a fine Spring afternoon in early May, I climbed several flights of stairs to a meeting in McNeal Hall on the St Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.  I may have been the only Red (conservative) voter among the 35 or so College of Education and Human Development administrators who gave a hearty welcome to one and all for a stimulating presentation by Professor William Doherty of the Department of Family Social Science.

After learning over a year ago of efforts to create dialogue among American voters who had radically different politics, Bill, as I have known him for nearly 15 years, generously offered assistance.  He created a methodology for groups of Reds and Blues (liberal progressives) to build understanding, not walls.  Convinced secular progressivists meet convinced, twice-born Christians, along with a host of populists and rag-tag libertarians thrown in for good measure. 

Nearly 100 groups around the USA have met during the past 12 months, and the effort is still gaining momentum.

The result?  After hours of well-structured dialogue, both those on the Left and the Right come away with vastly greater appreciation for those on the other side of the political chasm.  That translates into renewed hope for our polarized nation.

This is better news than I have heard in a long time.  But, some may ask, “Aren’t you, Bob, wearing a pair of rose-colored glasses when you endorse Better Angels?”  I admit that I’ve rarely met a half-empty glass, but the doctrine of original sin helps me understand the neighborhoods, both literal and metaphorical, where getting mugged by reality is a pretty regular occurrence.  

Better Angels does not promise Kumbaya or a group hug, merely the goal of “depolarization.” There are no political conversions at Better Angels meetings, nor do participants claim to have seen the Promised Land.  They simply come to appreciate one another’s humanity and perspectives, by, among other things, looking for common ground.  

Doherty is a Unitarian, albeit one with an exceptionally gracious and open heart and mind to evangelicals. He is, above all, a realist, with which I find real kinship.  As I train international students to solve problems as Christ-honoring redemptive change agents, I have goals that (but for one obvious exception) seem nearly parallel Doherty’s: Create redemptive projects that are achievable, prioritize human flourishing, and make God’s Kingdom visible.Thus, I take account of human beauty and beastliness, weeping while also cheering.  My theology seeks the proximate good while knowing that ultimate good is delayed until Christ returns. 

But, there is a second objection: “Bob, you’ve drunk the liberal Kool-Aid. You are on the road to relativism, where all truths are welcomed and no one stands for anything!”   

If anything has become clearer in our American twilight, it is the fact that limpid relativism kills institutions and diminishes people.  Not only will a convinced follower of Christ refuse to bow the knee to the multicultural motto “My truth is mine, and yours is yours,” but Better Angels asks no one to compromise their beliefs about reality.  

Rather than relativism, Better Angels invites the kind of epistemic humility (admitting you don’t know everything) that the Apostle Paul wrote about in I Corinthians 13:12: “We see through a glass darkly.”  Because of fallenness and finitude, we do not see reality with perfect clarity, and so we quietly listen to our opponents because we might learn something. 

This humility about knowledge also fosters empathy, the ability to imagine another’s life world. Knowing his deeply Blue University audience, Doherty asked the group whether Reds (conservatives) or Blues (progressivists) have the hardest time imagining the other’s perspective.  NYU’s Jonathan Haidt, in a 2012 book The Righteous Mind, reported research showing that American liberals have a much harder time imagining the lifeworld of American conservatives than the other way around.  Doherty has found the same thing in Better Angels meetings. 

A final question from those skeptical of Better Angels: “How can a Christian defend and champion a program developed in the left-wing precincts of the American university?”  

Common grace teaches us that Jesus causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45) and that God is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35).  And so, if Prof. Doherty uses God’s grace to an end that promotes civil harmony and peace, without forcing participants to compromise deep convictions, then why should I throw a bomb?  As Jesus said in Luke 9:40, “Whoever is not against you is for you.”  If God is praised by stones that cry out (Luke 19:40), why not also by a gracious, principled academic who has created a strategy for replacing antagonism with acceptance?

I must love my neighbor as God loves me, with grace of which I am unworthy.  Of all people, Christians have every reason to celebrate Better Angels, because, by doing so, we will “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (I Timothy 2:2).  If, in our severely divided society, we can learn to imagine why our neighbor makes the political choices he makes, then we not only appreciate him all the more, but we also have an even better basis upon which to share the reason for the Hope that is within us.