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A theologian’s lessons for post-election healing

A Donald Trump supporter watches a campaign rally in Panama City, Fla., on Oct. 11, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mike Segar *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FRANKLIN-OPED, originally transmitted on Oct. 12, 2016.
Supporter of Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump looks at a campaign rally in Panama City, Florida, on October 11, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mike Segar *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FRANKLIN-OPED, originally transmitted on October 12, 2016.

A Donald Trump supporter watches a campaign rally in Panama City, Fla., on Oct. 11, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mike Segar *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FRANKLIN-OPED, originally transmitted on Oct. 12, 2016.

(RNS) This semester I’m teaching a course called “Faith and Politics” at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. It’s been a fascinating class for me and I’m blessed to have very bright students who are required to volunteer for an actual political campaign and keep a journal of their experience.

Their final assignment is to write a paper proposing strategies for healing our divided nation. Our assumption is that all of the major faith traditions have important resources to bring to conflict transformation and reconciling opponents.

There are a few lessons from my class that might be useful for politicians and for the entire nation as we move toward the election.

First, moderation is an ancient virtue with modern applications.

We have read Aristotle, who focuses on character and virtue as key elements for effective citizenship and leadership. He explicitly warns against allowing our personality traits and behaviors to become extreme, rather urging us to pursue the moderate middle or what he calls the “golden mean.”

Aristotle also teaches that citizenship is a form of friendship in which we should become friends of the city and its common good.

Second, interrogate every truth claim and campaign promise.

We read cognitive psychologist George Lakoff, who popularized the idea of mental “frames” or word pictures and phrases that grab people emotionally and intellectually and offer them a simple story of the good society and of human possibility.

Remember Ronald Reagan’s phrase “It’s morning in America”? I think this is what Donald Trump is aiming for as he speaks of “making America great again,” and similarly, it’s the aim of Hillary Clinton’s vision slogan, “better together.”

But the art of persuasion can be just that, an art, a performance, and something that can be faked. That’s why our class has talked about the importance of raising critical questions and demanding evidence for every claim made by solicitous politicians.

Aristotle also had much to say about rhetoric as the art of persuading others to embrace your arguments. Fear and emotional manipulation through campaign rhetoric are not worthy of intelligent citizens who bear the heavy responsibility of deciding how to “promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” to quote the wonderful language in the Preamble of the Constitution

And third, effective leadership combines managerial competence and bold, exciting vision.

We have learned from Martin Luther King Jr. the importance of occasionally being what he called “transformed nonconformists.” These are women and men who love their nation and love truth and justice so much they are willing to risk their well-being and violate conventional norms of acceptable behavior to advance the common good.

But visionary leadership must also be balanced by competent management.

I have used a wonderful workbook, “Learning to Lead” by experts Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith, to talk about key competencies every leader must master. These include building trust through integrity, mastering the context, knowing yourself, developing a powerful vision and communicating with meaning. Few leaders have all of these qualities in perfect balance, but they are certainly worthy goals for which to strive.

The course has included an evening lecture series that has been open to the public. We have heard from scholars, public intellectuals and government leaders as they reflect on the role of values and religious beliefs in our national political life.

As Robert Putnam of Harvard University observes, America is a remarkably devoted, religiously diverse and relatively tolerant nation, despite serious departures from the ideal throughout history.

As for my students, they are already thinking about the post-election national mood and direction. Ultimately, our divided nation must heal. And many of us believe that America’s religious traditions can help accelerate the healing process.

One of our lecturers, ethicist Timothy Jackson of Candler, urged us to look back to the time of Abraham Lincoln for clues about how to move forward, especially in relation to difficult issues like healing the racial divide and creating a strong economy that benefits all Americans.

Lincoln also helps us to remember that we share the blessing of citizenship in one United States of America. Lots of brave men and women sacrificed their lives to pass this legacy and gift to us.

Consequently, we should be willing to forgive our former opponents. And, we must be willing to commit to strenuous but uplifting common purposes like educating the next generation and eliminating poverty. Authentic faith also reminds us of the importance of humility and not assuming that one party or one tradition possesses all truth.

Finally, faith must strive to achieve inclusive community where all people are welcome and safe, including the nonconformists.

There is no need to refer to people as “deplorable.” Rather, let’s figure out how we find common ground to establish a foundation for empathy and cooperation. And, it is never acceptable to impose special tests or burdens on one segment of the American population, like Muslims, as some politicians suggest.

I hope that the next president will take a page from Lincoln’s second inaugural address and channel the spirit, maybe even borrow his phrase, “with malice toward none and charity toward all … ”

That’s our best chance for healing and moving forward together.

(Robert M. Franklin is the Laney Professor in Moral Leadership at Emory University)

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

17 Comments

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  • Re “First, moderation is an ancient virtue with modern applications.”:

    I often marvel at the contemporary embrace of extremism in practically all aspects of life. It reminds me of addiction — feels great, is temporary, nourishes nothing, makes abstention feel abnormal, makes increased use seem desirable, and ultimately destroys. I hope it’s a fad.

  • I love it when theologians in their ivory towers sit on the sidelines and tell us “what we must do!” We are a seriously divided nation before this election and we will remain a seriously divided nation after the inauguration. The divisions are based on principles that neither side can compromise, and that’s as it should be.

    The conservatives are for limited government, national defense, free markets and free enterprise to maintain a healthy economy and pay down or pay off the national debt. Liberals believe that there’s a government fix for every human problem, and that government should take away all unpleasantness and underwrite everyone’s happiness. They tell us this will be paid for by “taxing the rich” but that never seems to happen because the leadership of their movement are rich liberals who use the same tax dodges as conservatives–indeed, both sides collaborated to create them in the first place! So the money keeps rolling in from China, who are smiling as they count the days until they can foreclose the mortgage on the US and take possession.

    Truth is the first casualty of politics; either side must bend the facts to fit their respective “narrative,” and these two narratives will co-exist until the Chinese complete the foreclosure. Then these same theologians will sit in their ivory towers and curry favor with the new landlords by putting forth a fresh narrative, that it’s all “God’s will,” as Marxism for America was God’s plan for us all along.

    I truly wish I could buy into the liberal narrative: it’s so pleasant, positive and reassuring!

  • I don’t think you understand what modern liberalism is. We certainly don’t claim to have the answers; we just realize those who pretend there are some are either delusional or lying. You say conservatives are for “limited government,” but they gave us the Patriot Act and support oppressive policing practices, which are the epitome of big government. You say conservatives favor free markets, but it is conservatives whining about NAFTA and GATT, seeking to overregulate women’s healthcare providers out of business, and engage in phony morality plays like The War on Drugs, or on Pornography. It is the employment of such rhetoric which leads to despoiling the environment, payday lenders, and what amounts to debtors’ prisons by jailing poor folks who fail to pay parking tickets. National defense does not include phony wars for oil. In short, like other embittered folks, you accuse others of doing what your side does. That last sentence however says a whole lot more about you than it does about liberalism. It suggests the reactionary viewpoint is informed by unpleasantness, negativity, and a lack of reassurance, which certainly seems to capture the essence of modern reaction from Goldwaterism to Trumpism. It is in short a refuge for sad, scared people separated from reality imagining somehow they are better than those whom they hate.

  • That’s actually profound. The whiny white male liberation movement is in all respects comparative to addiction and attracts its adherents for the same reasons: emotions trump self-interest resulting in chaos. So it is with every devotion to strongmen with rhetorical gifts to make the powerless feel better than the poor son-of-a- — who’s even more powerless than them.

  • It sounds like a very good, interesting, thoughtful and challenging class. It would be fun to participate.

    I agree with the point that it’s important to consider how reconciliation among Americans can happen and develop plans to bring that about. We are not the enemies of those we disagree with and we must remember that.

  • My Dear Kangaroo-person. I believe I have modern liberals pretty well pegged. You may not claim to have the answers, but you’re pretty darn sure they all involve “Opium”–other people’s money, and blaming conservatives to start with. Whatever the issue, redistribution of wealth seems to be your best answer! The answer usually comes from the dynamic tension between liberal ideas and conservative ideas. Both sides get some of what they want, and in the end, much more than if they had clung stubbornly to their original demands.

    You had no response for my contention that liberals will not tax their own fat-cats because they’re the same fat-cats who created the loopholes for themselves along with their conservative counterparts. You had no counter to the default, which is China picking up the tab and collecting chits to cash in later when they can take greatest advantage of our increasing weakness.

    There are just too many untruths here to answer individually, but notably the Patriot Act you mention was a bi-partisan bill that couldn’t have failed during it’s space and time.

    I’m no defender of payday lenders, but what has your side put forth, other than more wealth distribution? Financial ignorance is at the bottom of most family financial management failures, and the solution is not to plead poverty and throw more of other people’s money at the situation. I have long been an advocate of financial literacy at all levels. I’ve noted that conservative families are more likely to emphasize financial responsibility. Those, and immigrant families who live on so little but are so grateful for the opportunities afforded them here.

    My last sentence is indeed telling: whatever is pleasant to consider, usually leaves out lots of unpleasant facts. The liberal narrative leaves out A LOT!

  • So when those poor, emotionally-driven individuals (women) wake up to their own dependence on government finally wake up to their delusions and start to take personal responsibility for their own situation, That’s usually sometime during the first year after the divorce!

    You’re reaching ‘way back to dredge up the male liberation movement, which never really got off the ground. It lacked one of your strongmen (straw men?!) to step into the leadership role!

  • Healing is something God gives. Not Aristotle, not even Abe Lincoln, bless his soul. Just God.

    Robert Franklin says some good things, but the fact is that we don’t even HAVE “common ground” anymore, because (to varying degrees) we are operating from diametrically opposed worldviews and pre-suppositions in the first place. So we’ve heard those “good things” before, and they are indeed good, but they’re NOT enough.

    Remember 2008? Remember how Mr. “Hopey-Changey” Obama was finally going to unify us all, heal our divisions, get us to common ground, get us a “Post-Racial” America, heal the economy, fix the jobs situation, and even get us out of Afghanistan? Didn’t work. The narrative wasn’t true.

    In the past 8 years, there have been countless public and media-broadcast attempts to bring us together, “community discussions”, “townhall meetings”, “panel discussions”, “university forums”, “church forums”, where religious and secular people and leaders and media of all flavors have all tried to bridge all kinds of gaps and divisions. NONE OF THEM have healed our divisions and troubles and violence, though certainly such discussions ere of value.

    So America can’t heal itself. No political party can save us. We are in deep trouble right NOW. When America repents and seriously turns back to God already, THEN you’ll see some healing.

  • Sounds wonderful as a policy statement, but policy statements rarely attain to reality. There are deep forces at work in our society and they are in direct opposition to one another. For the metaphysically minded, which constitutes some measure of the people who comment here, the opposition I refer to relates to the conflict between God and His nemesis, Satan, and we are the chess pieces in play between them. I don’t expect or count on all of my fellow citizens to agree with me on what constitutes good policy, but I will endeavor to be civil and thoughtful as a particular rule…and may God have mercy on me when I fail at that, and that in some measure is an application of the principles outlined above.

  • Spoken like a dedicated plutocrat, which is all so-called conservatism is. The notion some assets belong to some while others lack is utter bullshit; their control of same is mere piracy and easily corrected by more malefactors like Koches and Adelsons swinging from lampposts.

  • Nah. Male liberation is a thing now and it’s driving much of the deadbeat dads behind Trump. Look up Milo Yiannopoulous and Return of Kings, or to see a view of a critic of theirs, try We Hunted the Mammoth.

  • No, my hopity friend, we don’t have plutocrats anymore, after the Carnegy’s we only find plutocrats in the old Monopoly games! So you don’t like anything having to do with conservatism. Fine. So we can create a more pleasant pairing: there’s Marxism where to state owns everything and everyone is a ward of the state, then–not to rile your fine sensabilities–there’s “anti-Marxism” where individuals of differing talents, drive, passion and financial acumen, take risks to create things which didn’t exist previously, so it’s fair to say they are the OWNERS!

    Itis apparent that you line up with the 2008 Barak Obama, who told us entrepreneurs “it’s not yours–you didn’t build that!” He told Joe the Plumber, “You need to give up on your dreams for expanding to the next level, and instead, get up earlier and work harder to benefit those slackers who sleep late!”

    Bullshit is too positive a term. At least when you spread that green, gooey stuff around, it has the capacity to fertilize fallow ground and make it productive!

  • Whatevs. As long as the Koch Brothers and other plutocrat scum are unhappy I am happy. Enjoy your worship of the ghost of Lemuel Boulware. May thy chain tug lightly as you lick the hand that feeds thee and may posterity ever forget that ye were our countryman.

  • I don’t lick anybody’s hand, not the US goverment’s nor the Koch Brothers. But since you brought it up, they are an exemplary American company. Their business model is like that of many other successful companies you don’t like. They strive to create quality goods and services at a fair price, and they pay plenty of taxes that support causes they don’t agree with. They are happy to provide jobs for thousands of hard-working Americans of all backgrounds. They share the profits of their success with their employees. How many people do you provide jobs for, (well I mean, besides those your tax dollars support in overpaid make-work government work?!

    Your problem with them is, they just don’t support the same political causes that you support. If they did, you would overlook their misdeeds like you do with other “plutocrats” like George Soros and Tom Steyer. Their greed and excesses are forgiven because the finance your pet causes. Apparently all “plutocrats” are not created equal!

  • I wish I hadn’t seen some of these comment threads; they certainly don’t inspire much hope for the healing Franklin speaks to. My question is this: Are the lectures from the evening series he describes available for viewing online?

  • Amen…The healing has to start with our own hearts (along with divine intervention)…I think a good dose of the “Golden Rule” for everyone is needed, as well as what my dear departed momma used to say, “your rights end where mine begin”…In an effort to not offend, we’ve become a bunch of phonies, and as such may be hurting others more.

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