Can We All Just Get Along?

HDS professors offer ways to manage disagreement in civic life

Emily Click and David Holland. Photos: Justin Knight, Jonathan Beasley

Bitter budget fights. Political battles over same-sex marriage. Religious radio-show and television hosts demonizing opponents. Heated debates on gun control in the face of massacres. Why are Americans so polarized on so many issues, and what can be done about it?

Put the question to a couple of Harvard Divinity School professors, and you hear some interesting answers.

For Emily Click, Assistant Dean for Ministry Studies and Field Education and Lecturer on Ministry, it's about finding where you're in alignment with your opponents.

"We need to build a culture that values mutual respect. This depends upon understanding how we can align with each other without having to be in total agreement. If I agree with you on one issue, it doesn't mean I have to go to church with you and recite your creed. We need a capacity to work together for common good without having to be in complete agreement."

Civic Education Lacking

Click turns to the potential, but also the challenges within the modern education system. "You have to be educated for civic responsibility, and we haven't done that for a long time," she says. "We educate students for individual achievement, and that's how we evaluate them. But people aren't born knowing how to be good citizens. It's not their natural inclination to work for common good. To achieve alignment, you have to focus on relationships. How do you build relationships characterized by respect? Communications technologies—the mobile phone, the internet, social media—have broken down our ability to relate to each other as human beings."

Click also notes the modern tendency of Americans to live, work, learn, and play in communities of similar people, in which tussling with the difficult business of negotiating differences is minimized.

"We retreat from relationships with others who are different," she explains. "The misunderstanding we have is that the best kinds of relationships are with people who are just like us. One of the things that HDS contributes is that we learn how to celebrate difference, and that frames civic engagement."

David Holland, Associate Professor of North American Religious History, thinks there has long been an imbalance in our view of religion and civic life.

"Religious discourse and our political life are intimately intertwined," he says. "It's unrealistic to expect people to check their religious experience at the door when they enter the public square. Their religious life informs their values and sense of life's purpose, and government's role in that.

"The other side of that, though, is that when people do bring their religious lives into the public conversation, they need to do so in a responsible and respectful way. That's a struggle I see at the root of this polarization: people either want to silence religious voices, which is impossible, or to give irresponsible free rein to religious perspectives, which is destructive in its own way.”

Holland's solution lies partly inside the circle of faith.

"In our religious institutions we need to discuss what it means to be part of a pluralistic society," he says, "and how to stay true to your own religious values while also participating responsibly in a diverse public square."

A Lesson from History

Holland recalls a successful, if unlikely, lesson from America's founding: before the American Revolution, America's Baptists had a longstanding commitment to religious freedom because, from their perspective, government would corrupt religion if that relationship were too close.

These Baptists joined forces with deists such as Thomas Jefferson, whose concerns were exactly the opposite—they were worried that religion would corrupt government. Coming from opposite sides, Jefferson and the Baptists urged the disestablishment of religion—a common stance that these unlikely bedfellows used to establish an enduring principle of American civic life.

Holland also believes that a profound misunderstanding of each other has distorted civil discourse.

"At root the problem is that we confuse disagreement over solutions with disagreement over problems. Just about every religious conservative I know—and I know a lot—is concerned about early childhood well-being, economic injustice, and so forth. And just about everyone on the liberal side is concerned about issues of personal responsibility. Each side demonstrates this in their personal lives all the time.

"But when we enter the public sphere, we confuse our disagreement over solutions with a disagreement over the problem. I do believe there is a lot more common ground there. If we could get to the point in public conversation where we said 'I disagree with your solutions, but I recognize that you share my basic concern about the problem,' I think we would enrich our political discourse considerably."

He continues: "In part, at the root of this is a failure of religious literacy, and here, institutions like HDS have an important role to play in this process. Neither side can see the sincerity and commitment of the other to what really are often shared values. When we understand someone else's religious commitments and thus become better equipped to recognize the sincerity of their values, we are empowered to have a conversation that is much more productive and meaningful."