Gentle readers, I have a confession that may surprise you. I regularly consort with the right wing. A lot. And sometimes in the Biblical sense.
One of my best friends, for example, is a hardcore conservative, devout Roman Catholic who used to crank out propaganda for arch-right Regnery Press, actively campaigns to ban abortion, and as the Op-Ed page editor for a leading conservative newspaper wrote many editorials against gay marriage. And yet, I adore her and I am not in the slightest bit conflicted by our friendship. She’s not the only one of my friends with whom I have significant differences of opinion—one of my not-boyfriends is a Republican politician and more than a few of my college and hometown friends are politically active evangelical Christians.
I know some of you are muttering and shaking your heads right now. Hear me out.
We liberals all agree that it’s wrong to reject someone simply because their religion or ethnicity or sexual orientation is different than yours. And I think we all agree that an ideal society is one where people of different religions, politics and lifestyles mingle freely and amicably. In places where your neighbor becomes the “other,” where both groups are entrenched in their own ideologies and “separateness” and have become both literally and figuratively estranged…well, that scenario never ends well. Ask a Bosnian, an Ulsterman, or a Palestinian.
But here’s the kicker: that work of forging connections, of maintaining a stable, diverse society, happens one person at a time. Yes, politics and policy can come into play, but it’s also our responsibility to bridge the gap as individuals. Do you sit down at the table of brotherhood—as Dr. King said—with people who are not like you? And I don’t mean just with people who look different from you. I mean people who are different from you—whose religious or social ideologies conflict with yours. I’m not saying we have to spend Sunday with Rick Warren at Saddleback Church. But it might not be such a bad thing for us to have dinner with some of his congregants. We’d likely find that there’s more that unites us than divides us (e.g. caring for AIDS patients in Africa, fighting institutionalized poverty in the US, protecting our environment). When we stop being “the other” to them, and they stop being “the other” to us, we can work together for the common good and care for one another as neighbors should. It’s easy to be with like-thinking people, but there’s not much societal—or personal— benefit when you do that all the time and never look for common ground with the people who are not like you.
In my personal life, what makes my relationship with Conservative Homegirl work is a great deal of mutual respect, a sense of humor and—believe it or not—shared values. I joke with her about the issues that divide us—texting her a marriage proposal when the Maine legislature voted to allow same-sex marriage, for example—but respect her enough to know when to back off (we do not spar about abortion, for example, since feelings run high on that issue.) We are both religious, and enjoy celebrating each other’s holidays; our shared love of God unites us even though our religious institutions are radically different. As for socializing, when I’m with some of my arch-conservative friends or they’re with my feminazi liberal friends, we deliberately avoid certain topics and focus on enjoying ourselves. At the end of the day, Conservative Homegirl is one of my most loving friends—a reliable and empathetic shoulder to cry on and a delightful person to laugh with, especially when we’re able to laugh over our radically different opinions. I’m grateful that I didn’t obey my knee-jerk reaction to shun her when we first met. The same goes for my Republican not-boyfriend or my evangelical college roommate and the many others with whom I share love and friendship, but not political or religious views.
To me, one of the most distressing things about the last ten years in America has been the polarization not only of our political parties, but of our society as a whole. The culture wars are no joke. The “red state/blue state” label–and mentality–is a new and unfortunate indicator of just how estranged we have become, or think we have become. It’s a cliché to talk about “disagreeing without being disagreeable,” but it’s a cliché with a lot of merit. My mother used to say “you can get along with anyone if you try”—which, in my experience, is not always true, but with some effort, it’s true more often than you’d expect. It’s also absolutely vital to having a peaceful, prosperous society, and binding up the wounds of the past ten years. I’m all for political activism, and I will happily bash away at conservative ideology—particularly conservative religious ideology, which I loathe—but except for extreme cases, I try to avoid demonizing the people along with the ideology. One of the reasons I like President Obama so much is that he seems determined to walk the same line–he disagrees with his political opponents without disrespecting them, and his friends and advisors include many people who actively disagree with him on a whole host of issues.
Edward R. Murrow said: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.” I would add that acceptance of a loyal opposition shouldn’t be confined just to the other side of the aisle in our two-party system. If we want a truly equitable and humane society, we have to accept, and even seek out, the loyal opposition in our neighbors, our co-workers and our families. We have to make it work one-on-one in order to see the change we want in society as a whole.