Maintaining Friendship and Civility When Politics Gets Personal

Following the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, much ink has been spilt over his friendship with those who rarely agreed with him on matters of religion, politics, and jurisprudence. Scalia’s sharply worded opinions and staunchly held beliefs not only put him at odds with some of his fellow justices, but to many critics on the outside, made him entirely unpalatable. It took many by surprise when they learned that the conservative Scalia and the liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg were, as she described, “best buddies.” Their odd couple friendship serves as a model for a nation that is too often divided by partisan politics and provides a much-needed witness, particularly during this election cycle.

Over the past two decades, there’s been an emerging consensus that something is seriously wrong with our political discourse. Disagreements over matters of politics have caused divisions among families, friends, and neighbors. A 2012 Knights of Columbus-Marist poll revealed that 8 in 10 participants surveyed agreed that they were “frustrated” with the tone of our politics. And this was four years before the current primary season, which has proven to be a spectacle like none other. A quick review of any of the recent primary debates reveals little discussion on policy specifics, but rather a staged affair of name-calling and personal mockery. It’s no wonder that many of us, particularly millennial Catholics, often feel politically homeless and want to distance ourselves from the whole process. Many of us find ourselves wondering if there’s a way out of this current gridlock.

Once, in an interview when asked how he maintained such amicable friendships with those with whom he disagreed on the Court, Scalia answered, “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas. If you can’t separate the two, you’d better get another day job.” It seems to me what Scalia understood—and what we’re lacking an appreciation for today—is that not all politics is personal, or at least it shouldn’t control the way we shape our relationships with those around us.

The model Scalia sets for us is that we must first aim to seek an understanding of the individual person rather than dismissing them for their ideas. In his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt recalls a conference he organized in 2007 trying to understand why Washington was so divided:

“The most poignant moment of the conference came when Jim Leach, a former Republican congressman from Iowa, described the changes that began in 1995. Newt Gingrich, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, encouraged the large group of incoming Republican congressmen to leave their families in their home districts rather than moving their spouses and children to Washington. Before 1995, congressmen from both parties attended many of the same social events on weekends; their spouses became friends; their children played on the same sports teams. But nowadays most congressmen fly to Washington on Monday night, huddle with their teammates and do battle for three days, and then fly home on Thursday night. Cross-party friendships are disappearing.”

Such a predicament isn’t limited to Washington. It’s seeped into our everyday lives and we as a nation are poorer for it.

Moral disagreements are, of course, inevitable. And robust intellectual disagreement is healthy—in fact, it’s been essential since our nation’s founding (Skeptics should give a listen to the cast recording of the new hit musical Hamilton where the founding debates over the national debt, the location of the capital, and much more are played out in rap and hip-hop—but seem as timely as ever). But of course our founders hoped that disagreement would also be tempered by a spirit of civility and respect.

This is why Lincoln was optimistic that a divided nation could eventually be brought together by the “better angels of our nature.” It’s also why leading conservative Robert P. George of Princeton and leading progressive Cornel West can co-teach college courses together and George can describe his professional relationship and friendship with West as “the best thing that’s happened in my academic life the past decade… It’s the best thing in the world, because you have these two cats who want to get at the truth” and why he says the best piece of advice he can give his students is “Cultivate friends you disagree with.” It’s also why recent popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all cultivated meaningful relationships with individuals of others faiths and no faith at all.

Open minds demand open hearts. It requires befriending those with whom we are naturally inclined to disagree and with those whom we might be afraid to engage. It requires leading with a spirit of genuine charity that will ultimate produce a more civil engagement—that will likely require more listening than talking.

Such is a task for the entire nation, but especially Catholics who seek to be faithful citizens. It’s one that is all the more fitting during this Year of Mercy, but ultimately, one that is imperative at all times.

Christopher White is the associate director of Catholic Voices USA.