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.
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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.