Published April 13, 2022
Despite a nationwide emphasis on restoring civility (assuming it was once even there), America seems more inclined than ever to tear apart at its seams. Literal talk of civil war proliferates now more than at any other time I can recall in my life. Everyone wishes to get along with one another, but when it comes to doing the work of civility ourselves, we are prone to think the problem exists out there rather than with, well, me. But we should have a healthy enough skepticism of human nature to know the problems that plague society plague human nature. G.K. Chesterton once quipped, when asked what was wrong with the world today: “I am.”
To some degree, this perpetual wishing-for-civility, but destroying-it-at-every-turn is the natural consequence of a nation with an increasing polarity of viewpoints. The “woke” progressive barista from Brooklyn who champions the de-criminalization of “sex work” may truly have little in common with the conservative Christian mailman from rural Alabama who loves Tucker Carlson. No one ever said these two had to get along or be friends. The bigger questions are: Can they now even co-exist? Would one defend the other’s right to lay equal claim to participating in the public arena through the airing of one’s views?
Increasingly, the answer is no. Free speech is in decline and individuals feel less inclined to state their viewpoints openly for fear of mobs and cancellation. Such factors are not the ingredients for nation-making, but a loosely organized assembly of persons occupying the geographic territory. If that sounds bleak, that’s because it is. We cannot persist in this maddening cycle of bitterness and rage and think we’ll have a future.
Everyone has their suggestions for how to move forward through the sludge of cultural animus. I won’t purport to say my suggestion is the best way or the only way, only a component of what I think we need as a civilization—a serious commitment to an open, honest airing of viewpoints that do not fit neatly into our culture-destroying social media and cable news boxes. Allow me to specify.
There is a relationship between division, reason, and reconciliation. In one of the most well-known verses of Scripture, the prophet Isaiah declares in 1:18–20:
 “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
 If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
 but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Understandably, going to these verses to explain what is at the heart of America’s continued polarization may seem odd. But hang with me.
Notice what Isaiah says, “let us reason together, says the LORD.” God calls us to reason together, which is another way of saying, “Let us talk this through. Let us understand what the nature of things truly are.” God goes on to say something miraculous—“though you, sinful humanity, are far from me, I’m going to bring you back to me.” God wants to clearly establish the dire terms of the separation. In other words, if we’re going to get back together, let’s really understand how far the divide is. He’s getting brutally honest with Israel. There’s a parallel lesson for us: To reason about disagreements means to set forth an explanation for our beliefs in a self-controlled manner. In other words, we do not let our emotions gain the upper hand over our intellects. Do you notice how rare this is? It’s because the conditions of our culture make it impossible. One is supposed to either “own the libs” or “own the cons” not “understand the libs” or “understand the cons.” We’re a post-reason society where emotion functions as today’s “might makes right.”
As a culture, let me suggest this: We need to learn to reason. But to reason deeply must mean there is an honest airing of differences and an honest willingness to hear the other’s side making their argument before you simply make your own. We must listen and empathize, even if we do not agree. We need to subject ourselves to interrogation. Socrates once said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” That’s another way of saying the unreasoned, impulse-driven nature of our society prohibits deep thought from testing our assumptions and convictions.
What does this mean practically? For example, if you are pro-choice and you want to have a discussion with me, a pro-life ethics professor, about abortion, it means we’re going to have to sit down over coffee for an extended period (not via Twitter) and hear each other’s views. You make your arguments. I’ll make mine. Both should appeal to valid reasons for the persuasiveness of their beliefs on their own terms, not as part of a tribe or group to which they belong. There should be evidence and rational argument, not simply emotion and instinct.
This is possible, mind you. It’s why long-form podcasts like Joe Rogan are so popular. It reveals that our culture is longing for deeper discussion and reflection than what cancel culture or cable news allows for.
Let me suggest a few ways to move forward:
- Are you able to express your honest opinion with self-control?
- Are you willing to expose yourself to viewpoints that would test your own?
- Do you feel free to express your honest opinion?
If you answered “no” to any of these, then let me humbly suggest that you still have work to do in helping till the soil for a more peaceable society where difference is not equated to hate. We need to mature as a civilization and stop putting up emotional roadblocks just because you feel disagreed with. Think. Reason. Get honest.
I do not think it is a mere coincidence that Isaiah’s words from God situate reason and reconciliation next to each other. Understanding the true nature of the divide—through reason—is the precursor to finding pathways to peaceful co-existence. Nowhere is the American experiment premised on comprehensive agreement. In fact, one could make the argument that the constitutional structure of America was designed to protect against the extremes of disagreement in the form of preventing political majorities from exerting raw numerical power over one another. We have the constitutional means to have the reasoned discussions we need to have, so what’s stopping us?
Andrew T. Walker is an associate professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center and managing editor of WORLD Opinions.