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Political and social scientists are reporting that Americans are more divided today than at any time since the Civil War. Arthur C. Brooks, scholar of public policy, and president of the American Enterprise Institute argues that the primary problems are not just incivility or intolerance. He says it is worse.

Rancor is ripping us apart

Brooks notes that one in six Americans has stopped talking to a family member or a close friend because of the 2016 election. While that may create awkward family gatherings, of greater concern are the millions of Americans who organize their social lives and their news exposure along ideological lines to avoid contact with people holding opposing viewpoints. Brooks says that political differences are ripping our country apart.

For example, in an early excerpt from his forthcoming book, “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt,” Brooks cites a 2014 article in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on “motive attribution asymmetry” — the assumption that your ideology is based in love, while your opponent’s is based in hate.

Researchers found that the average Republican and the average Democrat today suffer from a level of motive attribution asymmetry that is comparable with that of Palestinians and Israelis. Each side thinks it is driven by benevolence, while the other is evil and motivated by hatred — and is therefore an enemy with whom one cannot negotiate or compromise.

According to Brooks, our high level of political disdain leads to contemptuous that distorts our perception of reality. Studies show that Democrats now think Republicans are richer, older, crueler and more unreasonable than they are in real life. Republicans, meanwhile, think Democrats are more godless, gay and radical than they actually are. As we become more self-righteous, our perception of others becomes less accurate. This results in people being less friendly, less trusting, more suspicious and aloof.

Inaccurate social perceptions isolate us from benevolent neighbors and folks in our communities who are actually very much like us. To improve our world, we need to trust and work with people and institutions essential to a thriving society, including scientists, teachers, the medical community, law enforcement, political representatives, the media, businesses, and others.

Disagreeing in a more congenial way

At least part of the solution involves learning to disagree in a more congenial way. And that starts when you turn away from those who peddle rhetorical dope — those powerful voices on your own side who profit from advocating contempt. Though it can feel satisfying to hear that your foes are loathsome, stupid and intractable, remember: Those promoting acrimony usually do it to help someone make money, win elections or become more famous and powerful. Real leaders don’t use you, rather they help you expand your worldview and moral outlook.

So, if you are wondering why an article with so much socio-political information, commentary and advice is appearing here instead of on the IR editorial page, it is because the rancor and division now affecting Americans also has a distorting influence upon faith and religious life.

Many Christians feel disillusioned and wonder if their religion is broken when they see religious leaders praising the words and actions of our country’s highest-level political leaders whose lives exhibit the antithesis of the outlook and lifestyle advocated by Jesus. Sincere Christians know that only false teachers of religion promote love of political power, promise prosperity, and fan the flames of fear. Younger people in particular shake their heads in incomprehension as they try to rationalize how the loving God of scripture can be connected to churches, institutions, and people who inflict violence, approbate racism, turn a blind eye to injustice, and seem to care more about preserving wealth, power and notoriety than assisting the downtrodden, abused and helpless.

Start with yourself

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The Bible teaches that we who have received the vocation of being God’s people need to start with ourselves. Keep your own pants zipped up; learn to root things like lust and envy out of your hearts. Not only refuse to murder, also learn to be kind, and gracious, and generous. Come to realize the ease with which the power of wealth becomes an intoxicant that makes the appetites of the powerful insatiable. Then show the world your own moderation, temperance and justice.

The Bible never teaches us to “Make America Great Again,” nor does it endorse dramatic, showcase attempts to post the Ten Commandments in the state capitol, self-assuredly wagging our fingers and wearing our guns. Instead, Christian greatness comes through service, compassion, love and from the world-liberating possibilities of truth telling.

Let’s talk about it

In turbulent times it is especially important that Christians see their faith leaders, churches and places of worship take a stand for the Kingdom of God and its governing principles of love, benevolence and peace, rather than siding with the self-serving powers and kingdoms of the world that operate with greed, fear and violence. Two of your longstanding Helena Independent Record religion writers are going to attempt to do just that.

Steve Brehe and Mark Wilson will soon launch a weekly community conversation based upon the recent book: "The Great Reckoning: Surviving a Christianity That Looks Nothing Like Christ," by Stephen Mattson (October 2018). People of every faith tradition, as well as those without a practicing faith will be welcome to attend. Get yourself a copy of the book and plan to join us. Watch this column for forthcoming details. Questions can be directed to: Steve Brehe 406-431-5134, or Mark Wilson 406-439-0024.

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Mark Wilson holds a master’s degree in theology, is a Bible teacher at the South Hills Church of Christ, and coordinates the religion writer columns appearing on the Religion Page in the Saturday edition of the IR.

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