Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, is a timely new book by Arthur C. Brooks that presents a compelling argument about how all people – left and right, pro-life and “pro-choice” – can best communicate their ideas to friends and fellow citizens about subjects on which they fundamentally disagree.
As president of the American Enterprise Institute, Brooks has had considerable experience with the belligerence and contempt routinely directed at prominent conservatives and pro-lifers like himself. Not so long ago, such incivility among people with clashing viewpoints was rare.
In an off-the-cuff speech on June 19, Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden recalled that in the 1970s, he and other Northern Senators were able to get along with their powerful, segregationist Southern colleagues and even to craft mutually acceptable compromises on some issues. “At least there was some civility,” said Biden. “We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. But today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
Long-time members of the Canadian House of Commons have also testified to a similar decline in civility among members of rival political parties.
To make matters worse, hyper-partisan bitterness is not confined to politicians. Brooks cites a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll in the United States which found that political differences over the Trump administration has become so intense that one in six members of the general public have stopped talking to a family member or close friend.
Such hostility is both pitiful and wrong. Christians should know better: “Love your enemies,” urged Jesus, “bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and abuse you.”
Instead, many – if not most – people in Canada and the United States today heed only the most strident and abusive of like-minded politicians, journalists and friends, while dismissing, with contempt, almost everyone who disagrees. The inevitable result is moral and political deadlock. Brooks points out: “Almost no one is ever insulted into agreement.”
Pro-lifers, in particular, should take note. Brooks writes: “Perhaps, you are pro-life because you believe life is a gift from God and think it’s morally wrong to throw it away. However, if you call someone who disagrees with you a baby-killer, you haven’t told the person who disagrees with you that life is a beautiful thing; you’ve called your opponent a murderer. You’ve hardened that person’s opposition and neutralized the moral content of your own argument. Plus, you are almost certainly going to stimulate the boomerang effect, making that person even more vociferously pro-choice.”
Stop listening to the hate mongers, Brooks admonishes: “We are called to find common ground where it genuinely exists, improve our own arguments, and win over persuadable Americans by answering hostility with magnanimity, understanding, good humor, and love.”
What, though, about the likes of the late Henry Morgentaler, Canada’s most notorious abortionist? Should pro-lifers treat even such hardened and persistent evil doers with magnanimity and good will?
Jim Hughes thinks so. The former president of Campaign Life Coalition had a chance encounter in a restaurant with Morgentaler who came up to him and said he did a good job on television and asked if anyone ever complimented him on it.
Hughes wryly and disarmingly responded: “Maybe, my mother.” With that, Hughes and Morgentaler kibitzed for a few moments about the state of the world and the health problems of old men. They said goodbye and as Morgentaler was heading out the door, Hughes called out: “Hey Henry, I’m still praying for you.” Morgentaler turned back, replied “Thank you,” and left.
Some might argue that while this exchange was all well and sweet and good, Morgentaler remained unrepentant. Quite so. Obviously, kindness in debate does not always win out. Still, it is the only approach that has any chance of success in getting opponents willingly to reconsider and change their mind.
Recall in this regard the amazing transformation of the late Dr. Bernard Nathanson. In the 1970s, he was the foremost abortionist in New York City and for a time, director of the world’s largest freestanding abortion clinic.
In his autobiography, The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life, Nathanson relates how he became aware in the 1970s that pro-lifers were praying for him and was particularly impressed by a massive pro-life demonstration that he witnessed in front of an abortion clinic in Manhattan: “They prayed, they supported and encouraged each other, they sang hymns of joy, and they constantly reminded each other of the absolute prohibition against violence.
“It was, I suppose, the sheer intensity of the love and prayer that astonished me,” recalled Nathanson. “They prayed for the unborn babies, for the confused and frightened pregnant women, and for the doctors and nurses in the clinic. They even prayed for the police and the media who were covering the event. They prayed for each other but never for themselves.”
Nathanson testified that the unfailing loving kindness of these stalwart pro-lifers played a key role in transforming him from an arch abortionist into one of the world’s foremost champions of the sanctity of all human life.
Currently, it sometimes feels that the perpetrators of insult are everywhere triumphant. But that is no excuse for the rest of us to misbehave.
Abraham Lincoln lived in an even more truculent era than ours, yet was the quintessence of civility. As the epigraph for Love Your Enemies, Brooks cites a passage from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address in which the embattled president pleaded with his bellicose fellow citizens in the South: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”