This past Tuesday, President Obama delivered his annual State of the Union address. As many presidents before him, the president called upon Americans to unite around our higher angels and lay aside partisan bickering for the common good.
Sadly, before he could leave the house chambers, critics were already in full voice denouncing the president for his own contribution to our national schism.
Charges of “class warfare,” along with other claims of partisan loyalty, filled the airways even as the president’s voice echoed within the hall that houses our highest national aspiration: E Pluribus Unum – out of the many, one.
Obviously, the nature of politics demands a certain amount of “us versus them.” After all, our system fosters the expression of diverse political and economic ideas.
But the polarization we see these days is something else. There is a hard edge to this division that will not allow for compromise.
And in a political culture like ours where true diversity of viewpoint exists, the willingness to compromise is absolutely essential.
Even if we grant that President Obama, by necessity, is a vehicle for partisan divisiveness, we can still agree that his call for national unity is a legitimate hope that ought to be the underlying goal of all political ambition.
But that is not the case. We are faced with a national divide wider than the Grand Canyon.
The character of politics over the past three decades has become increasingly negative. Attack ads have become the mainstay of political contests.
We may not know what our candidates stand for, but we will certainly know every piece of dirt that can be unearthed by their opposition – sometimes from within their own party.
Additionally, in recent years, political contests are too often cast as battles for the very soul of the nation.
Candidates increasingly present themselves as the last and only hope voters have of saving our republic from the hands of the enemy – that is, the opposing party.
Unfortunately, one of the sources of this sense of “ultimacy” in political contests comes from the infusion of religion.
Religion as political ideology has elevated politics to the level of the great struggle of good versus evil.
Even when both candidates are professing believers, only one is the truly ordained candidate.
The two may say exactly the same words about Jesus, the Bible, church, prayer and tithing. But when they start talking about tax cuts, homosexuality, social justice or war, one emerges as a real person of faith while the other is a mere pretender.
When a political contest is cast as part of the great struggle for God’s will, when candidates are demonized and held up as having no legitimacy because of their faith, the space where compromise might happen disappears.
After all, who among the faithful is willing to compromise their faith?
If we grant that President Obama spoke out of a partisan hope that he will be re-elected, must we not also grant that the same is true for all those who seek the office of president?
We must also be willing to embrace that the desire for national unity – for a consensus that leaves no citizen behind – is worthy of our founding vision and our faith vision, whatever form that might take.
If we can accept these notions, we might be able to raise our political contests out of the arena of ultimate religious concern and return them to the business of mundane human responsibility and accountability – where they function best, and for all.