Principled Disagreements

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It’s tempting to assume that America’s current election cycle has set new lows for rudeness, incivility, and slander.

Most historians, however, would suggest that our country’s darkest political hour came in the year 1800.

That’s when two of the original “founding brothers” – titans of the American Revolution who had once enjoyed a robust friendship – ran against each other for president.

John Adams already held the highest office in the land.  Thomas Jefferson aimed to make it his own.  Their supporters were absolutely convinced that America’s fate hung in the balance.  Everything good, beautiful, and hopeful would be lost if the other guy won the election.

Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale and a stanch supporter of Adams, declared that if Jefferson won, “America could well see the end of both religion and family.  We may see the Bible cast into the bonfire, and our children…chanting mockeries against God.  Our wives and daughters [will be] the victims of legal prostitution.“

Alexander Hamilton countered that Adams “was not presidential material, because of great and intrinsic defects in his character, including disgusting egotism, distempered jealousy, and an ungovernable indiscretion of temper.”

Adams responded angrily that Hamilton was “a bastard brat of a Scotch peddler, and a man devoid of every moral principle.”

This is probably not the best thing to say if you’re trying to disprove someone’s assertion that you have a temper problem.

The election was painted in starkly spiritual terms.  Jefferson was attacked by most of America’s clergy, who declared from their pulpits that the Virginian was “unmanly, a coward…a saboteur of everything sacred, the arch-priest of infidelity, a confirmed infidel, preaching insurrection against God.”

One of Adams’ opponents countered that the sitting president was “a hideous hermaphroditic character which has neither the force nor firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” 

You have to admit that even today’s politicians haven’t yet succumbed to labeling their opponents hermaphroditic. 

After months of such ugly rhetoric, open hostility, and apocalyptic predictions, the election ended in a stalemate.  Neither candidate had enough votes to declare victory according to the rules then in play.  The outcome was left up to Congress.  Deals were made.  Jefferson ultimately became America’s third president.

Overwhelmed by bitterness, Adams retreated from public life.

Many people in 1800 thought America could not possibly survive such a crisis.  But it did.

Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, points out that in our culture “there will always be deep-seated differences about moral, religious, and ethical questions.  Our arguments will continue.  They should continue.”

Principled discussions and disagreements over months and even years are, in fact, the primary way that we Americans work out our most important questions.   

But when each side becomes intolerant of the other – when we demonize our opponents and insist on their total defeat and humiliation – it becomes hard to go forward.

There’s a Jewish tradition that contrasts two ways to argue: arguing for the sake of ego vs. arguing for the sake of heaven.  According to the former, you must do everything possible to win; you have to prove yourself superior to your opponent. 

But as Prothero points out, arguing for the sake of heaven means both sides are actually trying to get closer to the truth.  This approach begins with “the awareness that neither side possesses the whole truth.  Only God has that.”  Therefore each side stands to learn something by listening to the other.

And that means that along the way, even in the midst of our strongest disagreements, we must remember that civility is not a sign of weakness.

We cannot, in the name of Jesus, wish disaster upon those with whom we disagree.  As Paul insists in Romans 12:14-18, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another… Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil…. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

So what happened to Adams and Jefferson?

Against all expectations, their friendship was rekindled after more than a decade of silence.  Then for 15 years they exchanged letters in an effort to understand and appreciate each other.  Their correspondence remains an American treasure.

On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the country they both loved, Adams lay dying in Massachusetts.  His final words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”  Ironically, Jefferson had already died that same day in Virginia: July 4, 1826.   

What’s the worst way to die?  That’s a no-brainer. 

The worst way to die is with unresolved bitterness in your heart.

Even if your soul has been bruised by hurts and disagreements that seem impossible to overcome, start building a bridge from your edge of the chasm.

Heaven and history are on your side.