“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” These words of Charles Dickens sound very contemporary. America has just experienced what some are calling the dark night of the soul.
The past four years have resulted in a reckoning of sins past and present. They have been marked by division, rage, violence, and a lack of civil discourse. A segment of the White population seemed anxious about a loss of power and status in a nation that is rapidly becoming more diverse. White nationalists became emboldened, and militia groups mobilized around the country. We witnessed an alarming rise in hate crimes against Jews and Muslims.
Unjustified police violence and unaddressed systemic racism motivated many Black and White Americans to organize protests. And to make matters worse, a pandemic became politicized to the point where too many in the country refused to wear masks because the hated other tribe insisted that everyone should.
The nation approached the 2020 election in fear and discord. The candidates campaigned in a country that had lost faith in itself. According to a study from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, 76 percent of Americans believe that the United States is in decline.
And while 70 percent in the survey think America is facing permanent harm, 70 percent also say the most important job after the election is to heal our enmity, to do the hard job of working with people whose views we find completely objectionable. Even in the midst of our polarization, it seems Americans deeply love their country and appear to long for unity.
National unity will not be easy to restore as our fractured nation disagrees on what course to take, what values to live by. We are locked in a struggle where each side believes only it can preserve the freedom and dignity that are the natural rights of every American. And following the election, each side remains resolute. In the winter of 1776, Thomas Paine wrote a Revolutionary War pamphlet series, The American Crisis, with the opening lines: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Words that resonate as much today as they did then. It is important to recall that Paine also wrote: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
On that optimistic note, we propose five ways forward for our nation following this election.
Remain calm and de-escalate the anger.
Following the fiercely fought presidential election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson made this plea in his inaugural address: “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.” In our present hostile political climate, it has become easy to justify hateful thoughts, words, and actions in defense against the other side. It is imperative that we find a way to lower the temperature, step back from the fray, and become less anxious. The future of our Republic depends on a peaceful resolution to our current cultural conflict.
Restore civil discourse and engage one another in dialog.
A model for this is offered by The Braver Angels Alliance. Their motto is “Let’s Depolarize America!” and they suggest “start a conversation, not a fight.” The group has hosted workshops, debates, film talks, and book clubs, providing civil discourse and a neutral ground for people of different political persuasions to listen, be heard, be challenged, and reflect together. The goal is to confront difficult issues without unilaterally dismissing those with alternative viewpoints, recognizing that our political decisions have consequences for all of us.
Recommit ourselves to the common good.
For those who wish to see our country survive and thrive, we need to remember that we are more than just a collection of individuals, we are a community, and we have a corporate responsibility to do what is best for the good of all. Parker Palmer suggests, “the heart is where everything begins: that grounded place in each of us where we can overcome fear, rediscover that we are members of one another, and embrace the conflicts that threaten democracy as openings to new life for us and for our nation.”
Rethink what it means to be an American.
There are some who confuse patriotism with religious nationalism. This is the case with many in the “Christian Right” who judge others by rigid standards they themselves set. A true patriot is one who loves America enough to confront her failings past and present. A true patriot is one who is not blind to the inequities and injustice that still oppress many in this country and knows we can do better. A true patriot is one who desires to treat all people with respect and decency.
Reclaim the moral high ground by extending the rights of all citizens.
America’s worst sins have included denying fundamental constitutional rights to our most vulnerable citizens. To defend the Bill of Rights is to think beyond our partisan tribe and to fight for others to have the rights that we would like to exercise ourselves. Every American—regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, religion, or sexual orientation—should be safe and have an opportunity to succeed in this land of the free.
Nothing less than the health and future of our democracy is at stake. We must find a way forward out of the morass of the present divide in our country. It will be up to politicians, religious leaders, and citizens on both sides to find a way to work together for the common good. We can give each other the gift of a new beginning—of forgiving each other for past hurts, of trusting each other again, of showing compassion and care for those on the margins. Martin Luther King Jr. offered these wise words that can guide our actions going forward: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
Rev. Dr. Rick Rouse and Dr. Paul O. Ingram are the authors of the new book The World is About to Turn: Mending Our Nation’s Broken Faith.