It’s not just you. America is getting more divisive. We, as a country, are having an increasingly difficult time getting along because we feel more and more like the disagreements we have with our fellow Americans run deep.
That’s the finding of a 2020 Pew Research Poll, which found that eight in ten registered voters didn’t see those who backed a different Presidential candidate as just having a different opinion on politics or policy, but as having a fundamental disagreement about the core values of America. Likewise, nine in ten registered voters — of both parties — felt that if the other candidate won, it would do “lasting harm” to the country.
So if you disagree with your co-workers, neighbors, friends or family members about politics, it’s very likely that you see the stakes as enormous. You’re not just debating policy issues. You are, in your mind, trying to slam the brakes on an existential crisis. No other country sees politics this way, according to Pew.
It gets worse. Research also tells us that Americans define themselves more by their political party than any other single identifier, including race, ethnicity and even religion. A 2017 study from Stanford University found that “partyism” was the single strongest predictor of how an American will feel about everything else in their life.
All this means that the divide between us all is growing deeper and and more intense on multiple fronts, and it is wreaking havoc on us all. It is increasingly difficult for any of us to assume anything but the worst of someone we disagree with, because we see those disagreements as fundamental to who we are as people. Someone who thinks differently than you isn’t just coming from a different perspective — they are as unknowable to you as a space alien, and likely as hostile. From this vantage point, you don’t just disagree. You are arguing with someone who hates what you stand for.
It goes without saying that this is not a recipe for a functioning society.
Kirsten Powers is well versed in these debates. As a political analyst for CNN and a writer for USA Today, she’s had a front row seat to the growing intensity of the American divide. And now, she’s not just concerned about the state of things on a national scale. She’s concerned about it at her soul level as well. She said she realized at some point around the 2018 midterms that where she was at personally, professionally and spiritually was just “not sustainable.”
“At a minimum, I can’t keep doing this as a job,” she remembers thinking. “But I also just don’t think it’s sustainable as a human being or as a country. Everybody I knew was saying the same thing. Even people who weren’t working in the media were just saying, ‘I’m so miserable. I’m so worried. I’m so angry. I’m hate everybody.’”
That feeling is what got Powers interested in thinking more about grace — the foundation of her theology as a Christian. She realized that while she (like the majority of Americans) believed in Jesus, who made loving one’s enemies a core part of his earthly ministry, that never really made it into her day-to-day action.
“I say that I’m a Christian and that I believe in loving my neighbor and loving my enemies, but can I really say that I’m anywhere in that ballpark? I’m so far away from that,” she says. “And if I’m being totally honest, I don’t even really want to do it. I’m at that point where I’m like, ‘That’s for some other time. That’s not for this.’” The idea that “loving your enemy” is for some other time probably feels familiar to you, too. Who has time to love their enemy when our country is on the line? There might be a time to love your enemies, but Jesus didn’t really mean that verse for times like this, right?
“I think this is actually meant exactly for this time,” Powers realized. “I actually think that’s the point.”
Powers says she had an “intuition” that what she needed — what we all need — is to return to the notion of grace. “We have a toxic culture and I’m contributing to it,” she realized. “I can see that I’m contributing to it and I want to stop contributing to it, and I think we need more grace.”
Powers says this is the realization she wants us all to have. Millions of Americans need to realize that the problem is not just “out there” with “the other side.” Most of us are contributing to this in one way or another, and we all need to return to the idea of grace as a baseline attitude in our interactions with others.
But training ourselves to live that way is easier said than done.
Powers says that, at first, she just decided she’d try to be a more gracious person. “I thought it was just going to be enough to just decide to do it and pray and meditate and read the Bible and all those things.”
“Spoiler alert,” she laughs. “It doesn’t work.”
Instead, Powers found that living a life of grace took a good deal of effort. “Like any meaningful practice, it’s very hard in the beginning,” she says. “It’s miserable, it’s agonizing and all the things, it’s like training for a marathon, right? It’s not fun.”
Powers found that she had to start by reassessing many of her held assumptions about the nation and about herself. She realized how rare it was for her to ever try and actually get to know what someone different from her thought and believed. For her, like many of us, most of our information about what other people think comes from political and media figures who go to great lengths to paint them in a bad light, and characterize everyone by their most extreme caricatures.
“We’re not really learning about each other from actually knowing each other,” Powers says. “We’re learning about each other from people who actually want us to be pissed off. They make money off of it. It’s a business strategy.”
She also had to rethink her idea of what grace was. “I use the Christian paradigm of grace: unmerited favor, and extending that to one another,” she says. “So that means nobody can earn it. Everybody just gets it. It doesn’t matter whether you like them or not.”
That last part is key, because grace doesn’t necessarily mean you like someone. In fact, it’s most important to have grace when you don’t like them. You may not be able to change how you feel about someone else’s character, attitude or opinions — but you can show them grace.
“Grace creates space for people to not be you and then not be demonized,” she says.
In other words, grace doesn’t mean we back down from what we think for the sake of zero conflict. It means we see others as human beings with their own thoughts and opinions that may be different from ours, but that has no impact on a person’s inherent worth.
Disagreeing With Grace
“I think we have a real misunderstanding,” Power says. “I get it because I had the same misunderstanding. I thought, ‘Well, that just means being nice or rolling over or not confronting people.’ But no. That’s not what it means at all.”
Part of our fear of being gracious to those we disagree with is that we’ll have to back down from our principles. And sometimes, those principles are deeply meaningful. Nobody should have to compromise on their opinions about things like the marginalization of historically oppressed groups or the dignity of every single person. Powers doesn’t think we should. In fact, she says such a compromise wouldn’t be gracious at all.
“If we’re going to go back to Jesus, I think he was a very good model of somebody who spoke plenty of truth and certainly called out a lot of problems, and also had grace,” she says. “If you look at the Civil Rights icons, MLK, John Lewis or Ruby Sales — they’re the epitome of grace, but they were saying very hard things about this country.”
Powers says that grace doesn’t mean burying your disagreements or your anger. “Anger is a good emotion. It tells you something’s wrong,” she says. “The question is what do you do with that anger? Does that anger become corrosive and make you miserable, and angry, and bitter and filled with hate all the time? Or does that anger activate you to do something to make that situation better?”
As one example of how this might change our attitude, she points to our reactions to people who are caught doing something wrong facing consequences — whether that means losing their job, going to jail or just facing a few rough days on social media. Powers says that usually, this is a good thing — it means someone is facing justice for what they did. The problem is when those people’s political and ideological opponents get a real kick out of watching the shoe drop.
“Unfortunately, I think what you do see a lot is people being happy about it,” she says. “A more graceful way to approach it would be to say, ‘This is accountability.’ You engage in X behavior and now you’re being held accountable for it. I think a grace-infused society would create an opportunity for repentance and repair.”
Room for Nuance
Another hard part of talking about grace is that it is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Grace requires approaching situations with empathy, nuance and intelligence.
For example, Powers notes how grace can be deviously “weaponized” by people in power as a way to shame others calling for justice. When an abused individual or a historically marginalized community calls for change, authority figures may urge those people to have “grace” as a spiritualized way of telling them to “shut up.”
“It is astonishing to me how frequently that calls for grace are for the person who has all the power and has all the influence,” she says. “But then somehow they’re the victim and the people who they have been trashing and demonizing or dehumanizing are the aggressors. We shouldn’t buy into the idea that that’s grace, because it’s not grace. It’s enabling.”
In these situations, the abuser or abusive system isn’t the one in need of grace. “The people who need grace are the people who have been putting up with this for generation after generation, after generation, after generation.”
Another reality is that sometimes the hardest people to extend grace to are those closest to us — the people we feel responsible for, or who we think should know better. Powers has sympathy for those people, and she says that sometimes, having grace may mean distancing yourself from relationships.
“You actually can look at somebody and you could literally say to them, ‘I don’t like you.’ That doesn’t lack grace. Grace doesn’t say you have to like somebody,” she says.
“You don’t have to be in a relationship with every single person that you meet. You’re not obligated to do that. You can say, ‘These are my boundaries. I don’t have relationships with people who believe these things. But I’m not going to demonize you. I’m not going to make you subhuman.’”
None of these attitudes come easily or naturally in our culture but, then, that’s the way of grace. Grace will always, always be counter cultural.
Strong and Gracious
“I am very, very concerned — I assume other people are very, very concerned — about where this country is heading,” Powers says. “But the idea that pouring more hatred and demonization and domination into this world is going to make things better just seems like a very flawed idea to me.”
You are probably in agreement with Powers, though the specifics of your concerns may be different. And if you do agree with her, you might find her assessment of our era helpful.
“I sign on to the idea that this is an apocalyptic time,” she says. “And I mean that in the Greek sense of the word, which means uncovering. Things are just being uncovered, things that have always been there, but we haven’t really reckoned with. So now we’re reckoning with all of these things. So, in that sense, it is apocalyptic.”
That doesn’t necessarily make things feel better. In fact, Powers says, “it feels very unsettling and very scary.” And if we’re going to be wise about how we live in these times, we’re going to have to change the way we approach the world. For Powers, that has meant becoming a person of grace.
“I think that we need tools to navigate it. Practicing grace has been the thing that has helped me stay grounded and feel… I guess feel like I can handle it.”