The program culminated with a “deep dive into the criminal justice system — we met corrections officers, visited prisons and went to the Michigan State Capitol,” Alexis Lewis, who graduated from Spring Arbor this spring and participated in the program, told me. She said that the discussions “could sometimes get uncomfortable” but that she was surprised by the honesty and mutual understanding participants expressed. “I think we dehumanize each other when we have different opinions, but in Bridging the Gap we started with telling our stories, and that made you care about the other person,” she said. “It wasn’t about trying to change someone’s views but realizing that the truth you have might not be the whole truth.”
Join Michael Barbaro and “The Daily” team as they celebrate the students and teachers finishing a year like no other with a special live event. Catch up with students from Odessa High School, which was the subject of a Times audio documentary series. We will even get loud with a performance by the drum line of Odessa’s award-winning marching band, and a special celebrity commencement speech.
I’m convinced (well, I’m trying to convince myself) that most Americans are like Ms. Lewis. They are tired of the culture wars; they want to understand and get along with people different from themselves. It’s true that a zealous few turn political ideas into inerrant dogmas because they seek the sense of community once offered by traditional religion and because they crave ideological surrogates for the doctrines of original sin, predestination and divine justice — that perverse blend of control and victimhood that tempts humans when the prospect of taking real responsibility becomes too frightening.
But a much larger proportion of Americans want their sense of free will back. They belong to what More in Common, the organization I mentioned earlier, calls “the exhausted majority.” The consistent theme in my conversations with young religious believers on the left and the right is their yearning for the freedom to escape political tribes. Their refusal to be bound by the habits and fears of their parents’ generation echoes the special role that young Americans played in the détente between Catholics and Protestants two generations ago — and maybe the history of interfaith conflict has something to teach us about rebuilding working relationships between Republicans and Democrats.
When today’s hatreds seem ineradicable, it’s heartening to remember how far Americans have come since, say, 1960, when John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign prompted evangelical Protestants to organize a media blitz warning voters that a Catholic president would be a pawn of the Vatican, that fecund Catholic families were taking over the country and that patriotic Protestants shouldn’t let charges of anti-Catholic bigotry keep them from sounding the alarm. “Are we moving into an era of Roman Catholic domination in America?” Harold Ockenga, a prominent evangelical pastor, asked in a rousing speech several weeks before the election. “Will there be a denial of rights, freedom and privileges for non-Roman Catholics?”
Although a casual anti-Catholic prejudice persists in some circles today, many Americans greeted the Catholic faith of our 46th president with a collective shrug. Over the decades, a complex series of socioeconomic, cultural and ideological shifts smoothed the way for Protestants and Catholics to recognize one another as fellow humans capable of cooperating in the democratic process and even merging their families. Young lay believers contributed at least as much to interfaith understanding as bishops and theologians did. Protestants and Catholics funded by the G.I. Bill sat next to each other in college classrooms after World War II; they marched side by side in the civil rights movement; they worshiped together in the charismatic renewal movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when Pentecostal-style revivals swept all Christian denominations and made a special impact on college campuses.
It’s crucial to see that young Catholics and Protestants were not merely emissaries of inevitable generational change. In the interfaith friendships they made, the spouses they chose despite their “ethnic” last names — in the innumerable small, compassionate interactions that distinguish a thriving civilization from a crumbling one — they made deliberate decisions to reject the prejudices and assumptions of older generations.
“I think a lot has changed with my peers,” Aberdeen Livingstone, a rising junior at the King’s College, a Christian liberal arts school in New York City, told me. “There’s this rise in wanting to be engaged politically but also a rising awareness of the dangers of tribalism. A lot of my friends are trying to get back to something that defines their values other than politics.”