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Religion & Liberty: Volume 30, Number 4

Repairing the breach: bringing peace to politically fractured families and communities

The 2020 presidential election will be over shortly after this is written. Unfortunately, it will not end the political fevers that boiled over into violence this summer. On a smaller scale, friends and relatives have become estranged over politics. Bitterness has become ingrained in families as America has become more politicized, more secular, and less tolerant of philosophical diversity.

People of all backgrounds could see themselves in the family conflict of Kellyanne Conway, who left her position as a White House adviser after her husband, George, publicly attacked her on social media, and their t self-described “radical agnostic liberal/leftist” daughter, Claudia, savaged them both on TikTok. At one point, the 15 year old asked her political hero, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to “adopt me.” 

In effect, the teenager substituted her politics for her family. Alas, she is not alone. Nearly one-quarter of people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 said they stopped talking to a friend or relative over politics. Others admit they cut family gatherings short or skipped them altogether to avoid political clashes with their flesh-and-blood. And 52% of people unfriended real-life friends on social media over politics. Rest assured, this post-election holiday season will offer more of the same.

As everyday life has become politicized, and virtual “communities” replace reality, political differences take on perilous undertones. Fully 62% of Americans say they hold opinions they are afraid to express publicly, according to a Cato Institute survey. Their fear is not misguided.

Antipathy toward people of opposing political views is literally the most explosive force in American civic life. Americans now discriminate against those who hold opposing political views “to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race,” researchers Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood found. Their survey revealed that 80% of partisans would award a scholarship to a less qualified member of their own party over a more qualified member of the opposing party. Should someone sneak through the academic vetting process, he’s still not safe. Cato found that 50% of “strong liberals” and a third of “strong conservatives” support firing someone who donated to the opposite party’s presidential campaign.

More alarmingly, viewpoint discrimination increasingly fans the flames of political violence. The Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group found that 21% of Americans say that physical violence would be justified if the other party wins the 2020 presidential election. In 2018, one-third of college students agreed that “physical violence can be justified to prevent a person from using hate speech or making racially charged comments.” The riots that roiled America’s cities only activated the latent pool of political hatred engulfing society.

The deepening enmity between family members has at least three causes.

First, secularization has deprived us of our identity and our neighbors of their human dignity. Without an identity as a child of God, people seek meaning in something larger than themselves – often in politics – and forge their identities around those views. Without a belief that all people are created in the image of God, those trying to thwart their political project become part of their secular demonology. And, contrary to Mick Jagger, nobody has sympathy for the devil.

Second, the politicization of all aspects of society inevitably breeds animosity. As Friedrich von Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom, when the government tries to direct the economic decisions of a diverse nation “with widely divergent ideals and values,” even “the best intentions cannot prevent one from being forced to act in a way” he regards as “highly immoral.” Since each side would instrumentalize the government to compel us to violate our moral values, we view everyone on the other side with hostility. The existence of big government is itself a near occasion of sin.

Third, the resurgence of socialism amplifies these trends. It extends the tentacles of government into every area of life and multiplies the potential for strife. At the same time, socialism substitutes a temporal paradise and situational ethics for the kingdom of Heaven. As its counterfeit values displace authentic religious faith, socialism creates atheists. Impossible utopian egalitarianism rushes to fill the void in a generation of hearts.

Love, however, has not filled that emptiness. The decision to cling bitterly to high-status opinions and social media affirmation encroaches on life’s most sacred vows. Harper’s Bazaar advised readers in 2017, “If your partner is a Trump supporter and you are not, just divorce them.” Even ties of blood and birth are not exempt.

All of this is redolent of one of the most chilling analyses in the Scriptures. The Apostle Paul wrote that “perilous times” will come “in the last days,” producing a generation that is “without natural affection” (II Timothy 3:3, see vs. 1-5). Bible commentator Matthew Henry explained:

Wherever there is the human nature, there should be humanity towards those of the same nature, but especially between relations. Times are perilous when children are disobedient to their parents (2 Tim. 3:2) and when parents are without natural affection to their children, 2 Tim. 3:3. See what a corruption of nature sin is, how it deprives men even of that which nature has implanted in them for the support of their own kind; for the natural affection of parents to their children is that which contributes very much to the keeping up of mankind upon the earth. And those who will not be bound by natural affection, no marvel that they will not be bound by the most solemn leagues and covenants.

Dissolving the most intimate connections of family renders society inoperable. The family is the first and most foundational building block of civilization. St. Philaret of Moscow wrote that it is the Fifth Commandment to honor one’s parents “on which the good order, first of families and afterwards of all social life, depends.” The words of holy people of the past, and our own aching relationships, tell us that politicizing every aspect of life holds corrosive – even potentially apocalyptic – consequences.

But to paraphrase a counterculture phrase, what if they threw a political war and no one came? What if instead people of faith chose to model Christian and classical dialogue with people who disagree, especially family and friends? These five steps may bring peace to our discussions through the holidays and well beyond:

1. Before you speak, listen. The great philosopher Mortimer J. Adler of the University of Chicago told William F. Buckley Jr. on Firing Line that listening to the other side is the necessary foundation of any discussion. That towering intellect undoubtedly knew that he echoed the Apostle James, who said, “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). After listening, Adler suggested repeating an accurate summary – and not a caricature – of the other person’s argument back to him with the phrase, “Do I understand you to say...?” Ask if you got his position right and invite clarification. Any argument deserves to be analyzed in its strongest form, which is the method Thomas Aquinas employed in his Summa Theologiae.

2. When you finally speak, proceed with humility. Friends on the other side are merely drawing the best conclusion they can from the facts that they have. We are all made of the same clay, and we could be wrong. Therefore, we should remember that the Apostle Paul wrote, “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man” (Colossians 4:6).

3. Don't view the other person as an adversary. Unless you are on a debate stage or amid impressionable company, your relationship with the other person is more valuable than winning an argument. This is especially true of family or old friends. Begin by affirming your respect, shared goals, and any other common ground. Instead of an adversarial posture, invite them to see your discussion as two people on a mutual pursuit of the truth. As the Bible says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).

4. Frame your conversation around their values. Venting our opinions makes us feel good, but it does nothing to convince others. As you speak, try to consider how the other person is processing the discussion and address his or her values. For instance, if he says people only support free enterprise out of “greed,” you could respond that you support free economies because they produce the greatest amount of wealth and the highest living standards for the poor.

5. Don’t expect an instant conversion. Our society makes it easy to hermetically seal ourselves off from opposing views (e.g., Pew found that four out of 10 Americans in both political parties say they do not have a single friend who supports the opposing presidential candidate). This may well be the first time the other person has ever encountered your worldview, especially if it is rooted in Christianity. The conversation may only be intended to plant a seed. At the end, reaffirm your common ground, thank the person for agreeing to explore these issues together, and express hope that the conversation continues. As St. Paul wrote, “If it be possible, as much as it lies within you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:19).

Following these steps does not guarantee that your friends or family will reciprocate. But they may and, in time, they may share your goodwill and respect with others. One day, you may be remembered as someone who helped “raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach” (Isaiah 58:12).

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Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.