A Divided Country?
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
June 5, 2005

Ever since the very close presidential election of 2000 we have heard and read that the nation is “deeply divided.” The nearly evenly divided U.S. Senate and another close presidential election have, to some, confirmed the existence of that division.

“Closely divided,” however, is not the same as “deeply divided.” The closeness of recent elections indicates an electorate divided into two roughly equal camps. That alone does not indicate that the divisions are “deep” or even great.

Indeed, considering human behavior, the likelihood that two groups in equal in size, but diametrically opposed on most issues, would develop within a particular region would seem slim, at best. This reason alone should give us reason to question any media pundit that declares our nation is deeply divided.

From an international and historical perspective, the United States has rarely been seen as deeply divided. The ethnic, economic, class, and ideological divisions that perpetually dominate the politics of many countries has, for the most part, never existed here. To many outside observers, the differences between Republicans and Democrats seem nonexistent or insignificant.

The differences between the major political parties are in many cases only differences in degrees or emphasis. The differences become even more obscure in states like North Dakota where the Democrats often differ from the party’s national leaders on issues like abortion, marriage, and guns and where the Republicans have a big tent that includes ideological conservatives, fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and social moderates.

Nevertheless, despite the absence of great differences, the words and actions of both politicians and many citizens certainly sound and look like the differences are great and many. Partisan politics – political actions guided solely for partisan reasons – seems more and more common. The level of hostility recently expressed by citizens in letters, calls to radio shows, and speeches, toward those who do not agree with them is alarming. Even both “progressive” and “conservative” religious leaders have made statements that sound prejudicial and personal. While the country may not be deeply divided on most issues, the tenor and manner of how the differences that do exist are expressed has reached a heightened pitch and uncivil level.

What accounts for this? It could stem from the very closeness of the division. People are often louder and more careless when they are very close to winning or losing. Perhaps it reflects a sign of people waking up to the seriousness of issues like war, abortion, and healthcare.

From a Catholic perspective, moving from complacency to concern is part of what it means to be fully human – alive in Christ. Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead . . . Passion for a just cause, however, should not be misdirected and become hostile, partisan, vitriolic, or personal. That passion – which, if authentic, stems from our love for Christ in our neighbor – must guide our political life in a way that reflects its source.

Our model for this type behavior can be the great Pope John Paul II, who always expressed the Church’s thirst for justice and human life with passion. Never, however, did we see that energy and enthusiasm expressed in partisan, personal, or hostile ways. If more of us acted as Pope John Paul II, we could have a more civil and positively engaged populace, even if it is still closely divided.