Polarization is certainly not limited just to the United States. Political and religious leaders in India, in Poland, and in Turkey, by way of examples, have relentlessly inflamed national divisions by demonizing their opponents and curtailing democratic processes. But the United States is polarizing much faster than other democracies.

The contemporary USA is a deeply divided country. The extreme U.S. religious and political polarization leads us to ask very basic questions. What long-term effects will polarized politics and religion have on U.S. society and democracy? Is there a tipping point beyond which polarization passes a point of no return? Journalist, Tom McTague, pointedly observed in the August 8th Atlantic “Yet everywhere you turn, there is a sense that the U.S. is in some form of terminal decline; too divided, incoherent, violent, and dysfunctional to sustain its Pax Americana.” The November 2022 midterm elections will be a very significant indicator of where we are going. Some of my European friends asked me recently if the U.S. is headed for another civil war. The country is certainly much more polarized than at the time of the nineteenth century Civil War (April 12, 1861 – April 9, 1865).

There is no need for me today to repeat accounts of religious and political polarization. It is in the news everyday. Reactions to the August 8th FBI investigative raid on the former US president’s Mar-a-Lago residence is a good example. As an older Catholic, I am still thinking about the Jesuit middle school in Worcester, Massachusetts, that had its Catholic status revoked by the local bishop who was angry that the school defied his order to stop flying flags supporting LGBTQ pride and Black Lives Matter. Stop flying flags that support discriminated people?

What is missing in so much of today’s polarized religious and political rhetoric is a focus on basic moral values: Treating each other with civility and respect. Listening to the other side. Telling the truth. Being honest. Loving neighbors as ourselves. Welcoming the worn out, the lonely, and the downtrodden. And recognizing that all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, have innate dignity and deserve to be treated with kindness, affirmation, and respect. 

A big problem is what social scientists call “affective polarization.” We see it when people have strong FEELINGS about people based on political, ideological, racial, religious, or gender issues. They don’t just disagree but detest, distrust, and strive to eliminate them. Often with hatred and violence. They find support in contemporary mass media which is better at stimulating feelings than passing-on objective facts. The emotional language used to galvanize one side directly antagonizes the other. 

In far-right political propaganda today, what really matters is spin. Not facts or history or justice. Interestingly Ezra Klein, the young U.S. journalist and political analyst, observed that the introduction of Fox News appears roughly consistent with the acceleration of the growth in affective polarization during the 1990s. (Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized, was published by Simon & Schuster in January 2020. His perspective is that over the past fifty years in the United States, partisan identities have merged with racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities. These merged identities are tearing apart the bonds that hold the country together.)

History shows that highly charged affective polarization not only divides societies but leads to social chaos. Today the “I’m right, you’re wrong and evil” thinking is pervasive. When partisanship becomes equated with patriotism, and destroying the other side becomes the ultimate goal, democracies fall apart. 

Authoritarian “leaders” take advantage of social chaos and respond to it by taking control to re-establish  “good order.” But the authoritarian institution or government maintains good order by demanding strict discipline and unquestioned submission and obedience. Authoritarian regimes require, as well, a beguiling leader who has absolute authority. This is the concept of the Führerprinzip, “the leadership principle” in German. There are ample contemporary examples of such beguiling leaders in religions and civil society. The leaders insist of course that it is disloyal to criticize the leader. People who refuse to submit to authoritarian leaders are ostracized or simply eliminated. Usually some form of physical violence is necessary to suppress anyone who stands outside the approved and obedient group.

So what do we do?

Here are my brief suggestions for combating polarization. You may have your own suggestions.

  • Being good listeners.
  • Most people do not listen well. They only passively listen while thinking about something unrelated. Or they listen only long enough to plan what they want to say. But we need to truly listen to understand a person’s reasons for thinking other than we do. We need to ask non-judgmental and open-ended questions. Understanding breeds empathy and even respect. It may not always be easy. But we have to work at building bridges.
  • Not using denigrating language.
  • This becomes especially important, for example, when telling jokes. Many jokes use violent or dehumanizing rhetoric by suggesting that certain people are stupid or inferior. Denigrating people is not funny. The dumb blond jokes? The Jewish jokes? The Polish Jokes? Or the Stupid Republican jokes? Or the Subversive Democrat jokes?
  • Examine and question feelings of superiority over other people.
  • This can happen in parish or neighborhood discussion groups. A U.S. Catholic priest friend, by way of example, set up a Lenten discussion program for his parish titled “Listening to the Other.” He had a different presenter each week. Among those whom he invited were:  a Lutheran minister, a Catholic woman priest, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, and a representative from DignityUSA the Catholic organization that works for respect and justice for LGBTQ people. The final “Listening to the Other” event was a prayer service in which all of the presenters had key roles. 
  • Decide to be part of the solution.
  • We really do have to decide to be part of the solution. When questioned, we can explain why we think the way we do and respectfully ask others why they think the way they do. We need to be open-minded and admit that we too can be wrong or mistaken. Sometimes we may have to agree to disagree. But one can disagree respectfully without bashing the other. We do have an obligation to collaborate and build bridges for the common good. The destructive consequences of polarization are too great.
  • Using social media wisely.
  • Considering the contemporary revolution in communication technology, social media may have done more to promote taking sides than seeing the world through the eyes of another. If we use social media, we can work to promote a kinder and more honest social media. We can  encourage Facebook friends, for example, to remove inaccurate information or denigrating or hateful images. Just “unfollowing” or “unfriending” someone is no solution. We need to discuss our objections and then decide how to deal with them in a constructive way. 
  • Focus on facts not feelings.
  • Polarization is often more emotional than factual. Feelings are a poor source for factual information. For example, the ramifications of the historic megadrought happening in the U.S. right now are getting increasingly serious. Research published in the February 14, 2022 issue of the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that the past two decades in the U.S. Southwest have been the driest period in 1,200 years. And France today is experiencing its most severe drought in its recorded history. Nevertheless, too many people still FEEL that climate change is just a temporary phenomenon and that global warming is a leftist hoax. Polarized people tend to have distorted feelings as well about who makes up the other party or the other religious group. They support and believe untruthful stereotypes about “the other.” Are all Republicans stupid? All Democrats dangerous leftists? All Mexicans drug dealers? All Catholic priests pedophiles? 
  • Check perspectives and judgmental thinking about others.
  • Helping people to look at a disliked person or group in an empathetic way can reduce malicious beliefs about them. Perspective is important. Jesus of Nazareth, for example, was not a white European but a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Hebrew. His disciples were young men AND  women most probably under the age of eighteen. Jesus said nothing about someone being gay. I remember a fellow, who was strongly anti-gay and said at a parish council meeting that gays who “came out” should not receive communion and should not be welcomed in the parish. He said “Gays are immoral and unclean. We don’t want them!” Well, a couple weeks after he had said that, his eighteen-year-old son told him that he was gay. The father came to me, teary-eyed and said “He used to be such a fine young man.” I said “Your son still is a fine young man. Don’t you love your son?” He said “Of course!” Then I said “Tell him you love him. Be supportive. Gay people are not defective. Some people are gay. Some people are straight. They all deserve love and respect. Human sexuality is complex.”
  • Be truth seekers.
  • It is absolutely essential to remember that no one has all the truth. No political party. No church. No theological group. No particular religion. Not even the Catholic Church. No particular country or nation. We are all truth seekers. We need to listen to the other. We need to be collaborative learners. We have to search along with “the other” as we build bridges across religious, ideological, and political divisions.


The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901 – 1978) was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. She explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. A  broken femur that has healed, Mead said, is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.

May we be civilized in our polarized world. We don’t tear-down the house. We renovate. We  renew. If necessary we rebuild. Together we make constructive change happen.

  • Jack

21 thoughts on “Conflict and Polarization

  1. Thank you for this timely essay. Yes, it is time to stop tearing each other apart and to heal. You have provided us with vital admonitions.

  2. Thanks for this interesting article Jack, and for the practical tips to combat polarization. I was wondering if you have any comment on the recent Lambeth conference within the Anglican church, and the increasing polarization being seen there? Archbishop Welby seems keen to promote listening, not denigrate, disagree respectfully, build bridges … but the result seems to be that both “sides” (relating to LGBT+ concerns) seem to be feeling let-down by him, and the gulf between the two (which to simplify, seems to focus on the authority given to certain OT verses) seems wider than ever. Any thoughts?

    1. Thanks Denzil.
      Well I think Archbishop Welby has favored unity of the institution ahead of doing the right thing. His reaffirming the Anglican Church’s long-held positions that gay marriage is wrong, and that same-sex relationships defy scripture are simply wrong.

      1. Well I agree with you Jack, but where does this sit with your suggestion to build bridges? By sitting on the fence he has already alienated many of Africa’s anti-LGBT bishops. If he were to go further and say gay marriage in the Anglican church is OK, that would blow the bridge wide open.

      2. Yes that is the big contemporary problem in the Anglican Communion but also within the Roman Catholic Church. The theological divisions are great. Maybe they cannot be bridged and other bridges need to be built. Can there be a bridge of mutual respect and a willingness to travel together? It is a very big problem for sure.

        In the RCC I see a number of historical and theological problems arising very soon. As people become better educated and start thinking, all kinds of questions will come up. For example: (1) The RCC will not ordain women because “Jesus chose only men.” That RCC teaching is pure nonsense. Jesus had men and women as disciples. He did not ordain anyone. He probably had no idea about ordination. And men AND women presided at Eucharist in the early church. (2) Monday, August 15, we have the feast of Mary’s Assumption “body and soul” up to heaven. More nonsense. Medieval pious religious fantasy imposed on Catholics by Pope Pius XII in 1950. (3) Was Jesus conceived without his parents having sexual intercourse? I don’t know any contemporary theologian who would hold that. Is the moon made of blue cheese😇.

        Well enough for now.

        Warmest (no pun intended) regards
        Well one can make quite a list😇.

      3. I attended a blue cheese church once. I was told I was a son of Satan for believing in evolution! Nice to meet you Jack, I’ll catch up with some older posts of yours soon.

  3. Sometimes, Dr. Jack, how you regard the context of our struggle to be human takes my breath away; today is a fine example, a gift for much contemplation, prayer, metanoia and kenosis, and it isn’t even Advent or Lent yet! Thank you. Two observations, from my own experience:

    1) Your last paragraph about renovation, renewal and rebuilding, touches on how I have lived much of my life, so far, as a “forty-sixer:” as a fixer of the broken, often using discarded bricolage to restore for use again what had been, or was about to be trashed or replaced. For decades it was my business to repair, rebuild, or reconstruct pipe organs so the instrument could breathe with, support and transport the music of church congregations in song. Often the first impulse of a church committee, lacking historical understanding, is to remove and eliminate the old in favor of the novel, latest and up-to-date brand-name gadget of a trendy corporation. Conversation within the “organ committee” sometimes involved the clergy, and I am grateful for the “collaborative learning” of those who discovered the ethical and aesthetic value of a 1,200-year old cultural heritage bequeathed to them, allowing me to restore or rebuild, for another generation or two, instruments of song.
    Only atoms, it seems, are eternal and infinite (LeMaitre’s “first atom” notwithstanding!), so my abilities at restoration merely extended the life of historical instruments for a few more singing generations before entering the void of some landfill. One does what one can.
    COVID has now gutted many small churches of their corporeal congregations, but the tenuous survival of brick-and-mortar congregations is another matter. The singing voice with which each of us is born is a gift that, taken in context of a full-blooded singing congregation, is overwhelmingly spiritual, “pneuma” and “Ruach” at work, the open-ended expression of souls in communion with one another, and yes, listening to each other too, harmonizing. Zoom services don’t cut it. Phenomenal is the integration of music and lyrics from prayer deep within, bridging the centuries, sung altogether.

    2) Your line, “Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts” could be a quote from Camus. Bravo, you! It is the end-point of his “La Peste,” The Plague, published 1947. His is a still-timely parable of how working shoulder to shoulder, between ideological differences, matters most in this old world, and for the world. The lesson is not lost, I think, on Francis, the current pope.

    1. Thanks, Dan. I loved reading about your restoration of the organ. While I love the idea of restoring old and beautiful objects with all their history and significance, I have not thought much about the care, patience, and sometimes wrangling with the committee that is behind the scenes of restoration. I find it an apt comparison — that as we strive to move forward in the world we take the care, the patience, and the wrangling sometimes required to preserve what is significant, beautiful, life-giving to our church and world. That’s a lot of work to be done!

  4. Jack – as I do my own reflecting each week I cannot help but be reminded of those old Catholic days of black and white, absolute truth, definitive answers. And once that was gone, so many people were so liberated and began to expand their thinking, their emotional attitudes. But, on the other extreme, in both church and society we still have the absolutists, the ones with the correct answers, the ones with the guarantee of heaven for carefully jumping constantly through those hoops. It is obvious that 60 years later the educational/emotional approach toward change in religious observance was not taught and supported in the best possible fashion. My remedy: we are constantly called to go back, to pick up the stragglers, to encourage the alienated, the uncomfortable, always recognizing that the quest for the absolute is a quest that will never be satisfied.

  5. Dear Jack,

    Again you have touched both the profound and the simple: how to change the cosmic reality in a basic human way. I have been terribly disturbed and discouraged by the rapid disintegration of our society because of loud, unbridled, and disrespectful treatment of one for another. What seems so obvious to me as reprehensible behavior is commonly accepted by many who purport to be intelligent, wise, and powerful. That terrible words can be so rapidly disseminated and uncritically accepted by so many is alarming. Even the notion that we must use facts instead of emotion seems alien to many in society. What has helped me negotiate this minefield of hostility is similar to your friend who discovered that his son was gay. Many of our longtime friends and family are uber conservative and have supported candidates whom I consider to be awful human beings let alone unworthy political leaders. Discussion of “policy” is pointless and unlikely to change anyone’s mind. We simply focus on the goodness and kindness of our loved ones. They see the same things we see but have a different perception. They are no less good, caring, and loving than ever. We choose not to let their skewed (in our minds) point of view lessen our love for them. I cannot change the national discourse but I can choose love as my way to change minds in personal relationships. It isn’t always easy but it makes for positive connections with those with whom I interact.

    Again, Jack, you have opened our hearts and minds. Thank you!

  6. How amazing to find a community of like-minded people! I have walked away from the RC church once already – when my marriage broke down, and ‘good Catholic “friends ” and relatives’ came to see me purposely to tell me I ‘had to go back to my husband’; not one person asked how I was, was I ok, what had happened, yet these people knew I had been looking after my (abusive) mother when she suddenly lost her memory while being the major (often only) breadwinner and with a school-aged child. No-one helped to prevent my physical breakdown from the overload, only judged me when it happened. The person who did help was a fellow hiker who had had a hard life – not much more than a stranger. My parish priest literally ran away from me, and my mother’s didn’t have the decency to let me know that she was being taken Communion. I left in disgust – rules, not people, were what mattered. Not quite what Jesus taught, is it?
    I returned when I was employed to cook for several elderly priests. Their kindness, compassion and lack of judgment was an example of true Christianity in action. Unfortunately, all have fully retired, some are now dead; the care that has not been extended to them by the church they have served is disgraceful. One recently was very ill with Covid – his care was left to those of us, mostly women, who keep an eye on him. Our Bishop, though informed, has not contacted him at all – absolute silence and absence . Where, in all this, do I see “Love one another”? I, ill with Covid myself, was busy organising a welfare check on the sick priest, while our Bishop sat “in lordly state, and purple cap sublime” . This seems emblematic of contemporary Roman Catholicism. I doubt if I can, in conscience, be part of this. I just cannot accept that this is living the Good News.

    I have been searching online for evidence that I’m not alone in this, and it seems here I have found it. Married priests , women priests and deacons, contraception – these concepts / realities, are seen as the constructive, helpful, loving things I believe they are. In the true sense of the words, Thank God I found this.

  7. Maria’s story and comment tore at scars on my own heart and spiritual wounds that seem to impede progress and strain credulity. Maria, you are not alone, and as Dr. Jack says, keep in touch: there is a collective of sufferers out here, companions in pain along the way.

    A little over a month ago I began preparing music for my substitute gig as accompanist on the organ bench at a church in Geogetown. My first stop, when selecting music where I am a guest, is to read the lessons and gospel for the Sunday of my gig, and do my best to base what I play on the lectionary, or on the hymns chosen, or at least on the “tone” of the psalm appointed for the day. Sometimes the organist must soothe, sometimes shriek.

    BOOM= the first lesson for yesterday was Jeremiah 2:4-13: we are to be appalled at committing two evils, (a) forsaking the living font of living water that is the Word, and (b) for silo thinking, digging personal cisterns that crack and hold no water. Wide-eyed while considering the timely tone of these words, I read then another jeremiad, in the center of the psalm selection: “Oh that my people would listen to me/ that Israel would walk in my ways” (Ps. 81). Astride biblical metaphors and morals from Nature, the epistle from Hebrews 13 rustles up ancient anthropological memories about continuing in mutual love, hospitality even to strangers, and entertaining angels unawares [or, as once heard in Sunday school, “angels in their underwear”], and then the injunction to regard the outcome of the way of life as shown by our leaders who spoke the Word… [but who is ever too far from a millstone around the neck?] Jesus himself in Luke 14 instructs one of the leaders directly, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

    What a disruption, a whole new way of connecting, “the fruit of the lips” of Jesus himself: radical empathy breaks the mold for becoming ever more human, as fully as possible into the future and OUT of the past, here and now. It is our task, hand on the plow, turning over fresh soil. As Jesus said simply and with authority at the door of his friend’s tomb in Bethany, “Lazarus, get out of there!”

    Courage comes through, in are couple lines from the historical treasury of hymns we sang yesterday: “May the church still waiting for You keep love’s tie unbroken, Lord,” which I carry in hope for the struggle against hellish aburdity. And, believe it or not, “How firm a foundation… is laid for your faith in His excellent word!… I will not, I will not desert to its foes the soul that to Jesus hath fled for repose: that soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no never forsake.”

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