In the days following the 2016 presidential election, while Americans yelled at each other over Facebook and attacks against Muslims and immigrants spiked, a group of faith leaders sat down and mapped out a different vision for the country.
They talked about how to bridge the growing divisions in our society, how to address the growing isolation we feel from each other, the “bubbles” we increasingly find ourselves living in. They talked about how to build a movement for a better way of treating each other — and how to begin by living out the values behind that movement.
The end result was the organization I direct: the One America Movement. Our goal is to build that movement, and to start by living it — by bringing people together across religious, racial, and political divides to participate in community service projects together and then sit down and have a meal and a conversation together. To talk with each other respectfully. To learn from each other. To listen to each other.
For me, the “aha” moment came before I spoke with those faith leaders. It came while sitting in my basement.
Two weeks after the presidential election, I was hanging out with some friends when not surprisingly the topic turned to politics. We discussed the election and then my friend said something that shouldn’t have shocked me, but it did.
“I’m a Republican who voted third party,” he said. “I work at an energy company. And I don’t know a single person — not one — who voted for Trump. Or at least who will admit they did.”
I knew our country was deeply divided long before Donald Trump’s campaign began. I knew that while the election deepened some of those divides, it mostly just exposed them. I knew this intellectually, but my friend’s remark was stunning. This is a white, male, Christian Republican who lives in a politically-mixed county and works in a conservative occupation and he’s saying that his personal “bubble” was so thick that he didn’t know a single person who voted for the man who had just been elected president.
If we’d been paying attention, however, we would have seen this coming. Our society has been fracturing for some time. There are deep chasms everywhere if you take the time to look.
I take the train from Washington to New York for work on a regular basis. In between the high ceilings of Union Station and the wonderland of mid-town Manhattan, the train passes by abandoned row houses and hollowed-out industrial towns. Not that you need to board a train to experience this. Homeless men and women lie in the nooks of the entrance to Union Station, with the U.S. Capitol glittering just blocks away.
In Springfield, Ohio, my friend in law enforcement tells me that most of the crime is opioid-related. While the poverty rate in Ohio as a whole is a little under 20 percent, in Springfield it’s 31 percent. Among 5-year old boys, it’s more than 50 percent. Barack Obama lost Clark County, Ohio, where Springfield is located, by 500 votes. Hillary Clinton lost it by 20 percent.
Whereas a majority of Americans were once middle-class, now that number is surpassed by the number of Americans who are poor or rich. In 2016, Democrats ran on claims of an improving economy under President Obama and offered plenty of statistics to defend that message. But the reality is that for many, many Americans — black, brown and white, liberal, moderate and conservative — you can feel the fractures.
And it’s not surprising that some politicians and some members of the media would take those fractures and say, “See? THEY are the problem. Those people.”
It’s how you win elections. It’s how politicians have been winning elections for years.
After the election, we saw a spike in hate crimes: Swastikas painted on synagogue walls, hijabs ripped off heads. These are symptoms — symptoms of a “bubble” society where racism and bigotry are the most extreme manifestations of our isolation from each other.
We retreat into social media where algorithms push us to read only the opinions we already agree with while we brag about “un-friending” the people who vote for the other party. New literature released this year looks at how that isolation is now spreading into our physical communities, making Ann Arbor, Mich., and Santa Monica, Calif., and Alexandria, VA, more and more alike while the communities in between those cities resemble a different planet altogether. This phenomenon even inspired a New York Times article this year titled “Travel Abroad, in Your Own Country.”
We’ve seen this before. A little over 100 years ago, America experienced a deep fracturing. Immigration transformed our cities overnight; in 1860, Chicago had 30,000 residents. In 1910 it had 2 million. This era gave us the growth of the Klan, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and racist books such as The Passing of the Great Race, by Madison Grant, which inspired the Nazis and modern Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. There was also real pain and fear, enormous income inequality, and elitism that ignored the needs of working class people of all political stripes.
But in the midst of today’s fractures is another critical factor: the shrinking of religion in American life. Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart notes that the conventional wisdom was that the growing secularization of America (in contrast to the “moralizing” of the religious establishment) would heal divides in U.S. society. Not so fast.
“As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” Beinart writes. “Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.” And so our country is fractured, our society in danger of falling into a void of divisiveness and hatred, and religion in America is crumbling simultaneously.
Into this void, our priests, rabbis, pastors and imams cannot blink. Into this void, they cannot say, “The country is growing secular, we are not wanted, we should stand back and only speak when spoken to.” Because as Beinart notes, one of the prime objections that those in the white nationalist movement have of religion is its “universalism.” Universalism is, of course, the radical notion that all of God’s children have value. The radical notion that grouping the world into “us vs. them” isn’t just a recipe for conflict, a road to war and genocide and darkness. It’s also spiritual death.
No, into this void faith leaders and faith communities and people of conscience of all beliefs about creation cannot blink, because their universalism is the only ideology capable of healing divisiveness. The only ideology capable of challenging the twin evils of elitism and racism. The only ideology that says that the maid who cleans your house is as worthy as you are of a bright future, even though she isn’t rich and even if she isn’t white.
It’s why faith leaders were at the center of founding the One America Movement. They recognize the need to heal divisions, not just because it feels good, but because it is consistent with the central tenets of their faith. Take Christianity for instance. Jesus doesn’t judge from a distance — he steps into personal relationships with the people he meets. He doesn’t just talk with people who agree with him, or have intellectually stimulating conversations or even disagreements with peers. He wades into the waters of humanity, touching people, talking to people, listening to people.
Building authentic relationships with other human beings is how we live out the belief that all people have value. It’s how we model for politicians how to work together. It’s how we begin to heal a fractured, fearful, violent society. It’s how we ensure that when an external shock comes — a terror attack, a divisive election, a foreign country spreading fake news stories intended to divide us — our societal bonds hold.
And building authentic relationships while serving our communities is how we rebuild our country both spiritually and physically.
Most spiritual traditions teach that the world is interconnected. In this moment, we would do well to remember that truth. You can hide in your Facebook news feed or in a segregated neighborhood. You can listen only to conservative talk radio, or you can move to Canada.
But our interconnectedness means that ultimately, our isolation won’t save us. The truth is, it was never going to.
This article will appear in the June edition of A Matter of Spirit, the quarterly journal of the Seattle Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center.