Your congressional representatives wrangle incessantly. Put-downs pile up. Character assassinations multiply. Compromise across the political aisle isn’t tolerated. Aren’t citizens sick of partisan politics?
Take heart when congressional in-fighting makes listeners cringe. Our country has survived verbal buffoonery and snippy debate before. It’s the price we pay for governing our nation as a republic.
What often occurs when Congress grinds to a halt? Some Americans catch historical amnesia. They forget what history teaches about political conflict.
Imprinted in national folklore is a picture of colonial leaders who acted like statesmen, not politicians. We imagine colonial legislators hammered out compromises without resorting to insults. We suppose they seldom vituperatively lashed out. We envision Founding Fathers acting civil because they were soft-spoken and gracious. According to national lore, they honored scripture which chastises tongue-waggers to “bridle them,” lest they cultivate “deceptive hearts” (James 1:26).
Such historical amnesia, however, overlooks toxins during the late 1790s that poisoned national politics. Politicians detested each other. They wrote diatribes against the opposition and hid behind poison pen names taken from Roman heroes. Their language was nasty, brutish and full of vitriol.
Why do we edit the Founding Fathers’ political bickering from historical memory? We prefer sunnier memories of heroic individuals who instinctively overcame differences and practiced the politics of compromise. We’d rather bury their tart responses aimed at political adversaries.
A frustrated Thomas Jefferson wrote to Philadelphian Edward Rutledge on June 24, 1797 because political foes shunned him on the street. Vice President Jefferson lost his cool demeanor when there was political party strife. Former friends detested him.
“Men who have been intimate all their lives,” he complained, “cross the streets to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch their hats. I never was more home-sick or heart-sick. The life of this place is peculiarly hateful to me, and nothing but a sense of duty and respect to the public could keep me here a moment.”
An apt description of Washington, D.C.’s current conniving corridors of power, isn’t it?
To soothe his agitated spirit, Jefferson visited an evangelical Christian friend, physician Benjamin Rush. They conversed about important religious differences regarding Jesus’ identity. Dr. Rush worshipped Christ as God’s voice. Jefferson disagreed, believing Jesus was an eminent godly human voice.
During several evenings in 1798-1799, Jefferson’s wounded spirit found healing because of “delightful conversations with Dr. Rush. “The Christian religion was sometimes our topic,” Jefferson reminisced, which “served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring.”
Historically, colonial forbearers tended to keep talking to each other, amid shouting matches. What’s alarming today is that red states are turning a darker crimson and blue states reflect dark indigo. Current politicians represent districts which rubber stamp their leaders’ biases. Bunkered mentalities rule. Few in these dark red or deep blue congressional districts stray from their party’s agenda.
Consequently, Democrats end up talking to Democrats. Republicans speak strictly to Republicans. Few conversations bridge partisan divides. Legislative districts act like politico ghettos.
The country is split down the middle, debating a key question the Constitution leaves open for interpretation: how big and responsible do most Americans need government to be?
This query has incited debate since the nation’s birth.
In stormy times, listen to President John Adams. Late in life, he confessed showing a nasty streak when confronting political foes. He learned to behave and do better. “There must be decency and respect and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank or we are undone,” he declared. “In popular government, this is our only way.”
Adams learned from his mistakes. Will today’s politicians respect him as their mentor?
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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