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We hear a lot these days about tribalism. Both sides of the political divide decry our divisions, urging civility and reconciliation instead. As a clergy person, I feel acutely sensitive about being tribal because it reminds me that I should try harder to be a reconciler and peacemaker, even though my heart balks at some of the compromises that would require. Maybe one of these days I will have shed enough of my own very personal convictions to listen unemotionally to the tribe on the right; maybe then I’ll see compromises that wouldn’t make me feel like I’m selling out.


But I’m not there yet, and I’ll explain why.


Last week I heard Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, plugging his new book entitled Them. It’s subtitled, Why we hate each other and how to heal.  Sen.  Sasse was persuasive and I can’t argue with most of what he said. I bought the book and find it positive and thought provoking. He’s an intelligent and thoughtful man.  But the “fixes” he prescribes don’t address my core problem. That’s because most of the big issues that we wrestle with politically are at their heart moral issues, and I don’t believe in compromising on moral issues.


Take, for example, how we talk about and treat immigrants from Latin America.  Jewish and Christian teaching is clear about how we are to treat “the alien in our midst.” We are to be gracious and welcoming. We are to show hospitality which is the opposite of hostility. Demonizing isn’t OK. Separating families isn’t OK. And it isn’t OK to cheer for those who do those things. This is core moral teaching.


Now that doesn’t mean our borders have to be porous. We can control who enters the country. Sensible immigration legislation is needed. But there is no place in the discussion for lies and demonization. And that, I am sorry to say, is what one party is doing to whip up the vote of people who are anti-immigrant. (see my blog on The Caravan) It is hard for me and, I am sure, for others to reach across the metaphorical aisle and embrace anyone engaged in such behavior. How can one look the other way and not call that out? Are we to compromise our most fundamental moral teachings and by not speaking up allow one group to demonize another?


There’s another issue in the news right now that involves Saudi Arabia. Because the Saudis are rich, hate Iran, and buy millions of dollars worth of weapons from the US, we are willing to support their war on Yemen. I’ve already written about Yemen and our complicity in possible war crimes there. Is it being tribal to oppose the mass slaughter and starvation of civilians? Do people who have accepted the teachings of Jesus or Gandhi or King have to put those teachings on the back burner to avoid being perceived as tribal.  I don’t know how I can find common ground with someone who could actively support what the Saudis are doing in Yemen. In what moral universe is it OK to bomb into submission a country full of indigent people in the name of a geopolitical power game? So when it comes to Saudi Arabia, it’s difficult for me to be the non-tribal man that Sen. Sasse wants me to be.


Another major obstacle making it difficult for me to play the reconciler in matters like these is the lies. In high school, I would have been expelled for lying. Expelled, not suspended. The same went for cheating or stealing. They were things we were taught not to do. Because we’d already learned these rules from our parents and from the church in most cases; it wasn’t difficult to accept. As I have grown older, my feeling that lying is wrong and sinful has not diminished. Should it have? Should I have jettisoned the notion that it is not OK to lie just so I could avoid being called tribal? Does the goal of being a compromiser extend to being morally compromising?


Perhaps the biggest moral compromise we’d have to make with the party in power is to be silent as the President and his people transform the US into an icon of climate change denial. When they dismantle the Clean Air Act to pay off the extraction industries, should we go along to get along?  Compromising on the environment is selling our descendants down the river. It is beneath contempt. And one of the two parties of our two-party system is cheering as we go down this amoral path. How can one compromise with that?


Many mature leaders feel that what we need is compromise, respect for others, and more civility in public life, and how can one argue with that? But to move in that direction we who oppose the policies and behavior of our president are expected to “tone it down.”  We are to say nothing when he denigrates Latinos and lies about “the caravan.” We are to accept the cover-up of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder for the sake of good relations with the Saudis and to keep Jared’s friendship with Mohammed bin Salman intact. We are to let a slew of lies pass and not call them out.  We are to lay low while our environmental policies make us a rogue among nations. And we must do all these difficult things in order to “bring people together.”


But we will have to sell our souls to do so. I cannot bring myself to think that that is the right path for me or anyone else who shares a similar set of values. And I firmly believe I am not a bit unique. Most Americans are not climate deniers, racists, liars, or war mongers. And if most of us share some common convictions about right and wrong, as I believe we do, we will at some point expel Trumpism from power via the ballot. But I don’t think we should do it by compromising bedrock moral values.  

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About Buck Close

Deacon Buck Close serves on the staff of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Newport, RI. He was born in South Carolina, graduated from Tulane University in 1972 with a BA in Economics and Latin American Studies.

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