Here’s the most objective story about Donald Trump I could find in today’s news: his childhood home in Queens, New York, is on the market. For $2.9 million, you can purchase the house where Mr. Trump lived until he was four years old. It comes with a life-size cardboard cutout of the president.
It’s hard to open a news feed without finding polarizing stories about the president. Watching reactions to his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, you would think that two separate nations inhabit the same country.
But we’ve been here before.
“A repulsive pedant”
George Washington was the only president ever elected unanimously by the Electoral College. Anyone who believes our politics are polarized beyond repair has not studied the election of 1800. (A Thomas Jefferson surrogate called John Adams a “repulsive pedant,” while an Adams surrogate warned that electing Jefferson would create a nation where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.”)
The founders knew that complex issues would require complex solutions that can be achieved only through sometimes-contentious debate, compromise, and perseverance. That’s why they created a federal structure with three branches and a complicated system of checks and balances.
Reflecting the diversity of the new nation, political leaders soon formed the first two political parties. And a two-party system has basically dominated our political process ever since.
Whose nomination took 103 ballots?
There is no question that America’s two parties are intensely opposed to each other today. According to Pew Research Center, 45 percent of Republicans consider the Democratic Party “a threat to the nation’s well-being”; 41 percent of Democrats view the Republican Party the same way.
It’s hard to work with people you think are a danger to your country.
Donald Trump’s approval rating among Democrats is 5 percent (it was 13 percent when he first came into office); Barack Obama’s approval rating among Republicans at the end of his second term was 10 percent (it was 41 percent when he first came into office).
But this bifurcation of our politics hides a larger narrative.
For much of our history, political divisions existed within political parties. Since 1952, every Democratic and Republican convention has settled its presidential nominee on the first ballot. But that’s largely because the two major parties no longer harbor deep disagreements on major policy issues.
The Democratic Party convention of 1924 took 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis for president. Democrats took forty-six ballots to nominate Woodrow Wilson in 1912; Republicans took thirty-six ballots to nominate James Garfield in 1880. Even the first nominations of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt required multiple ballots. Racial issues, civil rights, and immigration conflicts often led to deep divisions and rancor within the parties.
A melting pot or a salad bowl?
The fact is, America has never been a homogenous society. When I travel in Europe, I am often amazed by cultures that are so much more monolithic than the US in language, racial composition, and historical connectedness.
Rather than a melting pot in which disparate cultures become one, America is more a salad bowl in which various cultures retain their identity while contributing to the common good.
How should Christians respond to the intrinsic and entrenched divisions endemic to the American experience? We can withdraw from the divisive challenges of our day in discouragement, but this keeps our salt in the saltshaker, our light under a basket (Matthew 5:13-16).
Instead, let’s consider two practical steps forward.
Be discerning but not discouraged
Joni Eareckson Tada describes the moral regression of our day: “Gradually, though no one remembers exactly how it happened, the unthinkable becomes tolerable. And then acceptable. And then legal. And then applaudable.”
Frederick Buechner quotes one of his favorite seminary professors: “‘Every morning when you wake up,’ he used to say, ‘before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again.'”
In facing uncertain times, we can claim God’s word to Joshua as his word to us: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
Be bold but not brash
Mother Teresa was a passionate champion of the unborn. Speaking to President and Mrs. Clinton and three thousand other dignitaries at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994, she stated boldly, “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.” She repeatedly tried to persuade Mrs. Clinton to change her pro-abortion stance.
At the same time, she befriended the First Lady and worked with her to create a home for infant children in Washington, DC. She continued to correspond with Mrs. Clinton until the tiny nun died in 1997.
Mother Teresa once said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
For whom will you pray today?
For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.
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Publication Date: February 7, 2019
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