Not every political issue is a battle between good and evil. In fact, most are not. But more and more issues at the Capitol are being framed that way because we continue to lose a sense of the dignity of our political opponents.
When we do not get our way in politics, we think increasingly that it is because the other person is not only ignorant or mistaken, but that they are bad people and lack character. This is especially true as the legislative session draws to a close and people’s goals are thwarted.
The result of a failure to see our political opponents as Jesus sees them is what Catholic scholar Arthur Brooks calls “the culture of contempt.” Overcoming the culture of contempt is one essential element to renewing political life and helping politics work for the common good. Responding to this challenge is a beautiful opportunity for evangelization that Christians should embrace with boldness.
Propose, don’t impose
Politics, as the Church sees it, is about answering the question of how we order our lives together. The Church presumes that for this conversation to work appropriately, there must be a sense of solidarity among the people and a shared pursuit of the common good — what is also called “civic friendship.”
In public life, most questions are “bread and butter” issues: roads, schools, workforce, natural resources, energy, law enforcement. In those debates, we must have a sense of humility about our own perspective and see those with whom we disagree as friends, or at least potential friends, and not enemies. It cannot be a matter of simply imposing our will and being angry when it does not prevail, but instead must be one of constructive and rational engagement.
And even on the most difficult questions — questions that often involve who will receive the full protection of our laws — we must remember that most political conflict is rooted in a diverse population having different perspectives about how to achieve good things, or at least perceived goods.
Five rules of engagement
In his book “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt,” Brooks offers five practical (and countercultural) suggestions for productively engaging political life:
1. “Stand up to the Man. Refuse to be used by the powerful.” In other words, don’t be beholden to ideologies that make you conform to a party line, nor be a stooge of a manipulative leader or media figure who stirs up animosity against perceived enemies.
2. “Escape the bubble. Go where you’re not invited and say things people don’t expect.” Ask yourself if you are truly hearing other perspectives and encountering others who may sharpen your thinking. Break down stereotypes people may have of those on your side of an issue. Most importantly, begin to see other people not as “other,” but as your friends and fellow citizens.
3. “Say no to contempt. Treat others with love and respect, even when it’s difficult.” This applies especially when you see your opponents as immoral. It is easy to love our friends. But we are called to love our enemies.
4. “Disagree better. Be a part of a healthy competition of ideas.” We can disagree without being disagreeable. In fact, ideas are often refined in the crucible of debate. The checks and balances in our political system are meant to encourage a long deliberative process. We are supposed to engage that process and work for something better if we are dissatisfied, especially at local levels of government.
5. “Tune out: Disconnect more from the unproductive debates.” Social media can be useful, but it is often destructive. Recognize that outside the context of a real relationship of trust, you are likely not going to change someone’s mind.
Brooks’ five rules will, if practiced, foster a healthier political culture. If we embrace them, we will also evangelize other people because, unlike so many hyper-moralizing militants who poison the conversation, we will be offering a bold and fresh model and perspective rooted in respect for the dignity of each human person — someone with his or her own unique and valued perspective, and someone we wish to persuade, not someone who is an enemy to defeat.
Loving our enemies (that is, willing their authentic good) is the best Gospel witness. And, G.K. Chesterton said, our neighbor and our enemy is often the same person.
Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota.
School choice for families
Minnesota’s students deserve to attend schools that meet their individual educational needs. Parents, as the primary educators of their children, need to be enabled to enroll their children in the school that they feel best meets those needs.
The good news is that there is now legislation, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, that will help provide families with better access to the schools of their choice and ensure we have educational freedom in Minnesota.
Opportunity Scholarships are generated through donations to qualified scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs). Individuals and organizations that donate to a scholarship-granting organization of their choice receive a tax credit for their donation. The SGO, in turn, grants scholarships to low- and middle-income families to attend nonpublic schools.
Let your state representative, senator and governor know that you support Opportunity Scholarships for our kids.
Connect with your legislators by calling 651-296-2146 for the House of Representatives, 651-296-0504 for the Senate and 651-201-3400 for the governor. Or, to send a message, visit mncatholic.org/actioncenter.