Looking for Love in Public Life

This is not about sex scandals, but if you thought it was, that may be a sign of how far we have strayed from the kind of love that should guide us as members of the political community we call the United States of America. In late June, for example, a woman running for Congress in Tennessee had this to say about the proposal of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's plan for a new facility. The center, she said, is "designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee." A resident opposing the center at a public meeting earlier in June, commented that "Our country was founded through the founding fathers - through the true God, the Father, Jesus Christ." In short, why should we be doing anything to support another religion, especially one that, as another member at the meeting said, is "against everything that I believe in..."

Speaking of what we "believe in," 86 percent of Americans believe in God, and 79 percent say that religion is fairly or very important in their lives (Gallup polls, May 2007 and Dec 2009, respectively). So the question may be asked, what happened to the message, expressed in all religions, about loving thy neighbor as thyself? (In the Qur'an, by the way, there are several expressions for this, including: "None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.")

Unfortunately, too many of us are better at hate than love - at least in public life - and before you dismiss use of the word "hate" here as hyperbole, recall the dictionary definition: "to dislike intensely or passionately". Hate is practiced by politicians, by special interest groups and by individuals, such as some of the citizens of Murfreesboro (and plenty of other communities, to be fair). It is aimed at all kinds of Americans. Indeed, hate seems the coin of the realm if you want to purchase electoral victory these days. On the short list of those who get hated are liberals, conservatives, Tea Partiers, gays, lesbians, Muslims, illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, gun rights advocates, gun control advocates, Right to Lifers, Freedom of Choicers, Wall Street traders, big business, members of Congress, the President, government bureaucrats ... well, you get the picture.

Now hate does not necessarily mean violence, but it almost always means seeing those we hate as separate - as "them". Since it's not as socially acceptable to hate, we often disguise it through separating ourselves. So we have Red States and Blue States, the middle class and the rich, "average Joes" and elitists, followers of Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow loyalists, Fox News and NBC news, etc.

But separation, to quote the candidate from Murfreesboro in a way that might surprise her, does "fracture the moral and political foundation." Separation is psychological violence. It can turn physical - as it did for Andrew Stack, who hated the IRS enough to fly his plane into its building in Austin last February.

Joining groups is not the problem. Americans are joiners, and our political system is based on contending groups that express strongly held interests. But when groups turn from having differences to isolating themselves in their separateness and then to hating, we cross an important line.

Martin Luther King Jr. received his share of hate in the 1950s and 1960s. He could easily have hated in return. But he knew - and often said - that hate destroys the hater as much as it threatens the hated. Racists, he argued, were hurting themselves and the South. Their hate was consuming them and destroying their potential to grow psychologically and prosper materially. King's answer: "We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love."

Such a message can get lost in psychobabble or bumper stickers, so we need to know what King meant. He often recalled that the Greeks had three words for love. Eros was akin to what we call romantic love; philia was mutual likeability, friendship. He was not asking his audiences, white or black, for either of these. If you're black, it was too much to ask that you like someone who lynches your neighbor and withholds your right to equal treatment under the law. What King preached was the need for agape, for "understanding, redeeming good will for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return... we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them." Agape does not discriminate between worthy and unworthy people, and it seeks not one's own good but the good of his neighbor. For King, this kind of love is essential to preserve and create community: "It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community."

It is this kind of love that is lacking in our politics today. Until we recover it, we will continue to fracture our society and our psyches. That recovery demands we act respectfully toward those with whom we differ and restrain the escalation of hateful words and deeds, even (and most especially) when they seem essential to "win". This demands courageous moral leadership from politicians and the leaders of interest groups. That recovery demands we speak up if hating goes too far. Imagine a massive demonstration demanding those in (and running for) Congress, and those active in interest groups, sign a "Contract for Civility" in their public behavior. That recovery demands that the broadcast media host reasoned conversations representing multiple sides of an issue, not one-sided position statements under the guise of "analysis" or shouting matches between those on the far right and far left. That recovery demands we see and feel the people behind their positions, their hearts not just their heads. If we truly love the United States of America, perhaps it's time we started loving Americans.