The world we live in is deeply divided between East and West. And within each of these are further subdivisions. One of the major divides in the East is between Sunni and Shia Muslims. In the West, the divide often runs between liberals and conservatives. And nowhere is this divide more evident than in today’s United States of America.
Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, writing in a press release about the December 2019 issue, said, “ ‘We don’t believe that conditions in the United States today resemble those of 1850s America [the decade preceding the Civil War]. But we worry that the ties that bind us are fraying at alarming speed—we are becoming contemptuous of each other in ways that are both dire and possibly irreversible.’ . . . The American experiment as we know it is not guaranteed to be eternal.”
One of the nation’s oldest and most respected American journals warns that the political divide in this country is so great that, unless things change, we could be on the verge of a civil war. Perhaps, most telling, is the line, “The American experiment as we know it is not guaranteed to be eternal.”
Consider the heat, the anger, the rhetoric of American politics during and since the last election cycle. One can’t help but wonder whether the American experiment can survive the upcoming 2020 presidential election, much less eternity.
And the issue isn’t limited to just one side of the debate. It doesn’t matter whether a person is a Democrat, Republican, Independent, liberal, conservative, moderate, social-justice warrior, lifelong member of the National Rifle Association, or anything in between. We are all a part of this divide, and we are all taking sides.
All Americans have shared, in some way, the fruits of the American experiment. Because it has been around for so long (about 244 years, if you start with the Declaration of Independence), we tend to take it for granted. We shouldn’t. Our republic is only as stable and secure as our national consensus—and that’s getting shaky. What’s happening to our world? What’s happening to this country? And what, if possible, can be done, particularly as we approach the next election in the United States, to bring back some sanity to our political life?
A story, perhaps apocryphal—but powerfully instructive, says that after the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, a lady approached Benjamin Franklin, a delegate. She asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
“A republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”
“If you can keep it!” Easier said than done. Franklin was obviously aware, even then, of the dangers that this newly formed country and government confronted. Yes, almost from the start, this nation faced forces without and within—but mostly within, that threatened to destroy the republic. Most Americans take for granted our rights and freedoms, not realizing how quickly and easily they can be trampled upon.
And though most Americans today tend to revere the Constitution, its acceptance was hardly a forgone conclusion. Many powers, and with some good reasons, rejected it right from the start and sought to keep it from being ratified. In fact, Rhode Island never even sent a delegation to the convention! The worst part, of course, was the Constitution’s acquiescence to slavery, which it never named. Instead, it referred to “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit.” That was a euphemism about the slave trade if there ever was one! But it was included to keep the Southern colonies on board during the Constitutional Convention.
Also, because the Constitution didn’t have a bill of rights, Baptists in Virginia, who had long suffered at the hands of the established Anglican church, threatened not to support ratification. Without Virginia’s support, ratification would surely have failed. James Madison didn’t think a bill of rights was necessary. Still, because the Baptists threatened to support James Monroe instead of him for Congress, he agreed to include one. Hence, our much-revered Bill of Rights, which enshrines so many of our cherished freedoms, resulted from some hardball politicking by a special-interest lobby. It’s frightful to think where we would be today had things turned out differently!
After an often-virulent ratification process, the new republic was still fragile. Vicious political fighting between two opposing forces, the Federalists and the Republicans, almost rivaled what we see today between political parties. Even the much-revered George Washington, in his second term, was not spared the bitter political calumny that characterized the times.
As early as 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts threatened to tear the young nation apart. These acts granted new powers to deport foreigners and made it harder for new immigrants to vote. Then the nullification crisis came in 1832. South Carolina, not liking a federal tariffs law, called a special state convention to declare the law null and void in their state. The crisis ended only when the United States Congress passed a bill authorizing President Andrew Jackson to use the military to force South Carolina to comply.
Of course, all this was just a preamble to the greatest threat that America ever faced, the Civil War of 1861–1865, which, before the deadliest war in American history ended, left about 620,000 soldiers dead!
Since then, despite wars, a depression, recessions, protests, civil unrest, assassinations, and impeachments, this nation and its republican form of government have managed to hold it all together. Even during Watergate (1972–1974), in which the most powerful man in the nation was removed from office, America hardly blinked. Richard Nixon left office in a helicopter, Gerald Ford was sworn in, and the nation moved on.
How did America do it?
Perhaps the broadest answer could be that, except for the Civil War, we loosely share a sense of common values, of what it means to be Americans, of what we, despite our differences, hold in common. All these elements have helped this nation to endure—indeed to thrive—despite the challenges.
So what about now? The antagonism, the divide, the rhetoric, if not bad enough already, will surely increase as the 2020 election nears. Somehow, we must all learn how to hold our political views strongly, even fight for them, but without hating our fellow citizens who don’t share those same views. This doesn’t mean that we need to accept opposing views. It means that we need to respect those who hold them. We need to stand up for what we believe while being careful in defending and promoting our views so that we don’t degenerate into disrespect and hatred.
Today, of all times, we need to apply two biblical principles in our own relationships with those who disagree with us. The first is to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44); and second, “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (verse 39).*
We need to remember, too, that our fight is not against flesh and blood. It is “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Paul rightly underscores the fact that, behind the scenes in our world and in our nation, a spiritual conflict is taking place. Only by kindness, goodness, and self-sacrificing love can we be sure that we are on the right side of the conflict—whatever our political leanings may be.
With this, I make two suggestions to every American as we approach the polls this coming November. First, discuss your political views respectfully, both with those who agree with you and those with whom you differ. Second, go vote! Vote your conscience. Then, whoever wins that election, accept that person and treat him and his political party with respect.
The Atlantic press release said that the American experiment “as we know it is not guaranteed to be eternal.” True enough! What is eternal will come only when the God of heaven sets up “a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44). God’s kingdom, no other, and certainly none that we make, will stand forever. Until then, we should all, by faith, seek to be part of the solution to our political divisions, not a part of the problem.
* Bible verses in this article are quoted from the New King James Version®.
Clifford Goldstein is an author, playwright, television presenter, and keen scholar of both the humanities and sciences. He lives in Maryland, USA.