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Politics not a litmus test for friendship

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I remember where I was when it happened.

A friendship of two decades nearly splintered in a heated and personal battle over the 2016 presidential election. I was in the paint aisle at Home Depot with my kids to get supplies for a weekend project. Instead, I was firing off another message to a friend, questioning his sanity and judgment. I actually told him to "put down the adult coloring books and get serious."

We didn’t talk for months. But after the election, I grew remorseful over our disagreement and began to regret how I treated someone I loved and admired. Thankfully, we reconciled and we still share some disagreements, but we don’t let our politics get in the way of our friendship.

I’m afraid I’m not alone: 2020 has become more divisive, with a pandemic and racial tension and a new Supreme Court opening providing opportunities for acrimony. According to Pew Research Center data, politics is increasingly becoming a litmus test for friendship. Forty percent of registered voters do not have a close friend voting differently from them in this election. Some of this is due to geographic and cultural sorting in America, but it’s also due to the way politics has seeped into every crevice of American life. There is a growing tendency, fueled by social media algorithms, to disown and destroy people for holding opposite political views. It’s tearing apart our social fabric.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Politics is important, a useful vehicle for human flourishing. Our debates are important, vital even. And yet temporal politics has become a hideous religion, complete with systems of judgment and shame.

The answer is not for us to retreat from the political process, but to do politics in a way that recognizes the humanity of those with whom we disagree. That person on the other side of Twitter or Facebook is not merely a collection of pixels to be crushed, but a human soul, made in the image of God.

Many dismiss civility as weakness, the last refuge of a coward. But tolerance is essential to justice, creating space for bold arguments and strong ideas. Without a robust pluralism, we surrender the public square to the strong. When politics is war, those with the most power drown out everyone else.

So let’s engage this moment, speaking up and speaking out, going to the polls. But when all the ballots are counted and the confetti is swept up, let’s recognize that we share a country with people who are in a different place politically. No matter what happens in November, half the country will be jubilant, and the other half will be in despair.

We have a choice. We can view our ideological foes as enemies, or we can recognize their humanity. Those with whom we disagree are not the sum total of their opinions, but whole people.

What’s more, we might learn something by resisting tribalism and not letting our political allegiances destroy our relationships with family and friends. Everyone should have a friend to the right of them and a friend to the left of them, sparring partners that either help us see our own views more clearly or embrace ideas we had not considered.

My Christian faith teaches me that civility and courage are not enemies. Gentleness and kindness benefit our public witness (1 Peter 3:15). So while we can’t control what our politicians do or how the media does its job or change the algorithms that manipulate social media conversations, we can determine, one friendship at a time, that love transcends this temporary moment.

Daniel Darling is senior vice president of communications at the National Religious Broadcasters, and the author of several books, including his latest, "A Way With Words."

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