Faith, Bridge-Building, and the Foundation of Goodwill

 The bitter challenges of polarization have become well known to us in American civic life. In the midst of a decline in institutional confidence and social trust, the need to unite the American people is evident for most. But what is the foundation upon which unity can be pursued when our epistemological culture resists cross-partisan narrative or any shared architecture of facts? The answer must be deeper than mere facts. We must reunite as people on the level of goodwill. And who is equipped to be stewards of transcendent goodwill in a fractured society if not our communities of faith? 

I work for an organization called Braver Angels. We are America’s largest bipartisan and grassroots group dedicated to renewing the spirit of American democracy through bridging the partisan divide 

Originally called “Better Angels, our work began shortly after the 2016 election in a barn in South Lebanon, Ohio, where Braver Angels founders David Blankenhorn, Bill Doherty, and David Lapp had gathered with roughly a dozen Clinton voters and Trump voters from this blue-collar, rust belt community. The goal was to see if through a structured process, aided by a little goodwill, these highly polarized neighbors could rediscover trust in each other’s shared humanity. 

Among the participants were Greg Smith, an evangelical Christian and former small-town sheriff, and Kouhyar Mostashfi, an Iranian immigrant, a leader of the local county Democratic Party, and a Muslim. They were utter strangers. During a guided question and answer segment in which they were paired, however, Greg began asking Kouhyar to address “four initials: I—S—I—” But before Greg could finish spelling “ISIS,” Kouhyar interrupted him with a raised hand. 

“Stop right there,” he said. “My religion has been hijacked.” This gave Greg a pause. It occurred to him that extremists had hijacked his faith as well. Perhaps ISIS revealed no more about Kouhyar as a Muslim than the KKK did about Greg as a Christian. Perhaps as God-fearing neighbors, they had more in common with each other than either had with those who would wield religion in the service of hate. 

Without prompting from the group, Greg and Kouhyar committed to learning about one another, their culture, beliefs, and values. They forged a bond that would lead Kouhyar to visit a service at Greg’s church and Greg to visit a service at Kouhyar’s mosque. The story of their friendship spread. Their testimony, so to speak, had much to do with the early popularity of “Better” Angels and the birth of many more unlikely friendships all across America.  

Religion is thought of as a force that divides us. But the substance of faith across our great religious traditions declares goodwill as the foundational value by which we acknowledge each other’s value as children of God who must be treated accordingly. (“Kind words and forgiveness are better than charity followed by injury.” Quran, Sura 2:263; “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8) 

Goodwill as a value is not the exclusive province of the religious; far from it in fact. Yet when we consider the societal need for cultural traditions and systems of thought that can allow us to transcend our differences in favor of our shared humanity, it is important to realize not merely the importance of goodwill in and of itself but the traditions that are best equipped to sustain it. A rationalist perspective on all human and social relationships may find it hard to justify an a-priori spirit of kindness towards those whose opinions are a threat to your values and political interests. A utilitarian view of the world may see gain to be had in holding contempt for those we disagree with if it allows us to intimidate them into silence or otherwise ostracize them from polite society. Goodwill can be hard to justify as a mere matter of logical deduction. But goodwill asserted as a matter of principle, as a moral power to be wielded in the service of both expressing and calling forward the best in the human spirit, is a virtue anchored deep in the heart of many religious and ethical traditions that can lead us in building bridges and progress today. 

This was true of the Nonviolent movement of the 1960s, a movement anchored in the Black Christian community, inspired by both the teachings of the gospels and spiritual principles present in the Hinduism of Mahatma Gandhi. The America of 2020s has hardly begun to marshal the forces of goodwill and the higher resources of our religious communities in the effort to restore our bonds. But this power is there to be revived. At Braver Angels and beyond, Americans are awakening to the need to do so. 

John Wood Jr. is a national leader for Braver Angels, a former nominee for congress, former Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, musical artist and a noted writer and speaker on subjects including racial and political reconciliation. 

 
 

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

To explore what American clergy are doing to support the vaccine effort, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld interviewed a series of faith leaders about their tradition's views on public health & vaccination & asked what they are doing in the vaccination effort.
His message was clear: For the future to have a chance at all, parts of the past had to be left behind, and all of us have to convene around common symbols.
A survey released by PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) found that the American public sentiment, across most religious groups, is much closer to the policies the Biden administration is proposing than those put in place by Trump.
The Conversation U.S. asked six education experts how teachers—and parents—can help young people comprehend, analyze, and process what happened on January 6.
"It was an appropriately spiritual beginning to a faith-infused day and what is shaping up to be an unapologetically religious presidential term for Biden, the second Catholic president in U.S. history."
Large majorities of today’s young adults understandably lack confidence in institutions and are inclined toward distrust of others. Yet they exhibit a knack for recasting challenges as adventures and they set out to conquer them.
My cousin and I are Christian, Cuban women imploring for conversation in an effort to present different perspectives, in order to develop our own identities in a society that only seems to value polarization and tribalism.
As a Christian who is also a minister, I live between the Great Commission (sharing the Gospel) and the Greatest Commandment (loving God and my neighbor).
Five Bridgebuilding field leaders--Rev. Jen Bailey, Kalia Abiade, Mandisa Thomas, Simran Jeet Singh, and Branden Polk--came together to discuss the decisive need for action, not empty commitments to change, and how we can impart these principles.
"This moment thus necessitates moral clarity and courage concerning the trajectory of this nation. Too many have followed the path of cynicism and opportunism away from any shared commitment to a common good."
"Both the suffering and the pursuit of justice stand true at the same time. We must hold and be responsive to both."
It is new every year. Watching my students move from multifaith to interfaith. Daring to tear down walls and build bridges to faith traditions and spiritual expressions different from their own.
It is reasonable to believe that King would support holding people accountable for crimes committed, but King also held a higher hope for at least some of those who were part of the mob.
Having recently completed a monograph on the rhetoric of divine wrath, a year ago I led an honors seminar on the way in which an angry deity is presented in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was the most successful course I’ve ever taught.
The four officially wrapped up their fellowship on Sunday (Jan. 10) with a virtual graduation where they shared the lessons they learned from one another during the tumultuous year.
...But if you follow the evidence from the very start and all throughout, President Trump has thrived in generating chaos and stirring up doubt. Was this a premeditated effort that was designed to create some larger future momentum?
A Biden transition official noted there was significant energy at the meeting created by Biden's promise to overturn President Donald Trump's travel ban, which advocates characterize as a "Muslim ban."
The presence of anti-Semitic symbols and sentiment at the Capitol riot raised alarms among Jewish Americans and experts who track discrimination and see it as part of an ongoing, disturbing trend.
And so this Administration gives me hope that we can rebuild. Or, to use the President-elect’s own transition team slogan, that we can “build back better.”
In too many cases, religious beliefs and commitments have been overshadowed, and even dominated by political and racial cleavages.
To achieve full religious diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is important for the new Presidential administration to establish more interfaith dialogue and opportunities to work together.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.