Far too often, our legal, political, and religious debates descend quickly from disagreement into demonization. Opposing sides choose to mischaracterize, or sometimes even shout down, the other’s position instead of engaging with the merits of the argument. We live with what the essayist and novelist Marilynne Robinson calls a “joyless urgency.”
Why? Because it’s easier. It’s easier to pick apart the most extreme form of your ideological opponent’s position, often espoused on Facebook or Twitter, than it is to carefully consider each facet of their line of reasoning. And it’s easier to assume the person has evil intentions than to grant that he or she may have the best of intentions.
Our public discourse is done no service by many in the mainstream media or much of the discourse on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, which feeds on clicks and outrage.
In a recent essay, Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute deftly broke down the effect a spirit of gratitude could have on discourse in our nation. Levin writes that how you respond to cultural events has much to do with what your expectations are. Do you expect humans to be good—or bad?
When one expects humans to be good, one naturally notices first where we fall short. “To be struck first by the bad is to begin from high expectations of society and politics and to assume that a failure to meet them must be the result of malevolence, or selfishness, or some form of oppression,” Levin argues.
But if you expect humans to act badly, you notice the good first. “To be struck first by the good … is to begin from low expectations and to assume that instances of human beings consistently rising above barbarism must be the result of intense effort and noble commitment over time,” Levin writes.
According to Levin, the first view “believes that repairing what is broken would be easy, if not for a corrupt and selfish few…” But one who starts from the second position believes that healing our divides will “be a perpetual challenge that requires constant commitment” and “must be taken up anew in every generation…”
Levin’s prescription for an ailing American republic: gratitude. “To be grateful is, in part, to know you have a lot to lose,” he argues. To be grateful is to be thankful when and where justice is served in our fallen world, while being fervently committed to securing justice where it has not been served.
At Alliance Defending Freedom, we know that there is much to be grateful for. Our work is primarily focused on preserving the full strength of the First Amendment and its guarantees of freedom of religion and speech. America’s longstanding commitment to the legal protection of these God-given freedoms is to be lauded. Our mission is emblematic of the biblical adage, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Religious freedom and free speech are integral to human flourishing.
With our calendars flipped to 2020 and a contentious election year staring us down, we would do well to remember Levin’s call for gratitude and charity toward others, and to keep one historical president’s admonition ever before us:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
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