On the eve of the 2020 presidential election, anxiety is mounting over the looming prospect of continued divisiveness in our country. No matter who wins, anger and resentment from the other half of the electorate are bound to follow. The intense polarization of American politics has created a culture of distrust, social tension, and tribalism that threatens our democracy, harms our relationships and diminishes our quality of life.
The decline in public trust in both government and each other is well-documented. A recent study from Pew Research Center reports that 75 percent of Americans believe that public trust in the federal government has been shrinking, and 64 percent believe the same holds true for peoples’ trust in each other. Although levels of and reasons for distrust vary across a spectrum of income, ethnicity, gender, and political affiliation, an encouraging finding is that most Americans believe the decline in trust can be turned around with political reforms and better leadership. Similarly, 86 percent of respondents believe it is possible to improve peoples’ confidence in each other with efforts to ease partisan tensions and overcome tribal divisions at the community level and in the media.
While changing the status quo may be possible by changing the administration, government, and the media, as institutions, they are insufficient for changing our hearts and minds, especially toward those outside of our tribe. Certainly, institutional reforms can improve trust, but genuine transformation begins at the human level, in people who find the goodwill within themselves to grow, and when necessary, to change.
Our culture is awash in information, yet starving for wisdom. Perhaps society needed to sink to this level to create people hungry enough to do the work necessary to heal ourselves. Critical to our healing is to close the divides within our minds, which are created by biases and beliefs that keep us separate from those who seem different than us. One thing I’m working on is checking in with myself to identify my own unconscious biases so that I can appreciate the perspectives of others whose life experiences have been radically different than mine and not to reject them automatically out of perceived threat. I’m also examining the beliefs I inherited by the system I came up in and giving myself permission to decide whether I want to adopt these or new ones based on the knowledge I have acquired in my life experience and studies.
I recall feeling guilty when I first began the process of trying on different modes of thought, being, and believing, as if I was being disloyal to God and country for questioning rather than merely accepting what I had been taught about both. In hindsight, I’m grateful I mustered the courage to continue seeking because it gave me a fuller understanding of what God and country might look like if they weren’t confined to the definitions constructed by partisan politics and fractured church denominations.
Even the great faith traditions—perennial sources of wisdom inspired by divine revelation—have been interpreted and shaped throughout history by humans whose limited understanding and egoism often have led to the perpetuation of false ideologies and self-serving doctrines disguised as God’s will. For example, consider the religious rationale for the Catholic church’s “Doctrine of Discovery,” which justified the conquest of the Americas and the African slave-trade. Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, in their book Unsettled Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (InterVarsity Press, 2019), write:
The doctrine [of Discovery] emerged from a series of fifteenth-century papal bulls, which are official decrees by the pope that carry the full weight of his ecclesial office. . . . On May 4, 1493, the year after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull Inter Caetera . . . and offered a spiritual validation for European conquest, “that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread. . . .” It gave theological permission for the European body and mind to view themselves as superior to the non-European bodies and minds. The doctrine created . . . an identity for African bodies as inferior and only worthy of subjugation; it also relegated the identity of the original inhabitants of the land “discovered” to become outsiders, now unwelcome in their own land.
The above excerpt was published in a recent daily meditation I received from the Center for Action and Contemplation based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Founder and Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr and his fellow ecumenical teachers produce books, articles, seminars, and podcasts teaching the perennial tradition, which encompasses recurring themes in all of the world’s religions and philosophies. In all my years of searching, speaking to theologians, visiting churches, and reading about religion in an effort to understand its power over society, both good and bad, this organization is among the best I’ve found in terms of its capacity to answer the big questions. Whereas fundamentalists base their beliefs on dogma and doctrines of the institutional church, these contemplative teachers have courageously stepped outside the lines to study comparative religion, Christian mysticism, and monasticism. They teach seekers to follow the way of the desert mothers and fathers, early Christian monastics whose practices of contemplation and compassion for the marginalized more closely mirror the way of Jesus than the rancor and hypocrisy of the Religious Right ever have.
Ironically, it took my wandering away from organized religion to learn to see certain biblical truths in a new light. For example, the phrase “fruit of the spirit” comes from Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (New International Version). These traits come through in the writings and actions of the spiritual teachers I follow, and stand in direct contrast to the bombastic, ego-based rantings of our politicians (some much worse than others). By stepping out of the system of religion and onto a spiritual path, I am able to ascertain the wisdom that resides in my own faith tradition rather than parroting someone else’s version of it.
Learning from people who seem different from me also has expanded my appreciation for what is universal to humanity. The needs for belonging and meaning, for example, are common to us all. At the same time, in pursuit of these, we can find ourselves adhering to ideas and traditions that no longer serve us. When we allow our tribe’s proclivities to create a bias in our own minds, we block our own creativity and potential for growth. While facing unpleasant truths is no picnic, I’ve met some amazing new friends and fellow advocates along the way, who have played a significant role in expanding my horizons. In them, I find both inspiration and spiritual sustenance for continuing my quest to see the beauty in the diversity of all the people, cultures, and faith traditions present on this planet we each call home.
Confronting our nation’s tragic history of slavery and the ways that colonialism subjugated indigenous people does not negate my fondness for the enlightened ideals of our founding fathers—but it does help me see them as the fallible humans they were. Learning to accept myself the same way has helped me see that I and my tribe will never have all the answers. To join me in this work, try CAC’s new podcast Learning How to See, which helps listeners uncover 13 types of biases that prevent us from coming together. This individual act may seem small, but only in learning to see and listen to others can we heal the divides within, and as we do, the culture will follow.
Anna Clark is the co-founder of the Inclusive Economy Consortium and a fellow of the Hunt Institute for Engineering & Humanity at Southern Methodist University. In partnership with the Institute, Anna researches the intersection of corporate social responsibility (CSR), social enterprise and inclusive business. She is a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.