I can’t remember if his name came up on the radio or in a conversation between Noel and I, but what I do remember is Ellen’s reaction.
“Trump! I hate him! He’s mean to girls!!” Instinctively, my heart swelled with pride at my budding feminist and I thought “attagirl!” But that was quickly followed by a surge of guilt that my daughter was proclaiming hatred for another person, and knowing that this was an opinion she was parroting from me. Something she’d picked up from my ranting in the kitchen when I didn’t even know she was listening.
Four years ago, I was working as an English teacher in a middle school in a conservative mountain town. This was during the 2016 election. Politics regularly came up unsolicited in my classroom. These twelve and thirteen-year-olds would spout off strong opinions, emphatically declaring how Trump would “Make America Great Again” and how Hillary should be locked up. Support for Hillary was more rare, but one of my best students, who happened to be Latino, would sometimes tentatively defend her. The fervor of my students concerned me and not just because of my loathing for Trump. I had read these students’ papers. They were terrible at forming opinions and then adequately defending them. When they talked about Trump in my classroom, I knew they weren’t expressing well researched thoughts, but simply repeating what they’d heard at home.
Middle school is typically the low point for most of us. Our prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed and we’re at, for lack of a better description, our dumbest. There’s one incident from working in that middle school that still gives me chills when I think of it. A few of the students started chanting “Build that wall!” while my Latino student stared quietly at his desk. I have no idea if there were personal reasons for it, but he was clearly uncomfortable. The chanters were totally oblivious to how their words might be hurtful to someone else. I quickly shut it down, but my heart ached. Not just for the student that was quietly uncomfortable, but for all of the students who were naively and blindly embracing animosity without really knowing what it was.
When I heard Ellen say she hated Trump, I thought about my time in that mountain classroom and I vowed to do better. I don’t want to teach my children anger and hatred, especially for something they don’t understand. Now, I’m incapable of being one of those parents that simply doesn’t talk about politics or other tough topics in front of my children. I wear my emotions on my sleeve and am terrible at hiding what I think. It is both a strength and a weakness. It would have literally been impossible for me to hide my deep dislike for President Trump these last four years without abandoning my family. So, instead I’m trying to have more of a dialogue with the kids about current events. We talk about why Noel and I dislike certain policies or why specifically a current event upset us. More importantly though, we let them know that there are other opinions. That actual people who we know and love hold different opinions than ours. Some of these people are our neighbors, our friends, the people we go to church with, and even our family. We tell them that having different opinions doesn’t make them bad people. We are trying to teach kindness and seeing things from a different perspective and then Noel and I are trying to do the more difficult task of practicing what we preach.
I read an article recently about politics tearing apart families and friendships. Jocelyn Kiley, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, said “political polarization is more intense now than at any point in modern history. Nearly 80% of Americans now have “just a few” or no friends at all across the aisle.” I run in a unique circle. Noel and I sometimes joke that we are too liberal for our church friends and too conservative for our other friends. Now, that’s not 100% accurate. I have conservative friends that are not members of my church and also have some very good church friends who are more liberal. But overall, I have almost an equal number of friends that agree with my political opinions as disagree. While it is true that my small circle of best friends are people that align closely with my core values, I am lucky to have some absolutely outstanding friends who have very different opinions than me, even on some of my trigger subjects like guns, vaccines, or school funding. And these aren’t just people in my life that I tolerate. They’re people I’ve been in book clubs with and people I call when I need help. They come to my exercise classes and are invited to my annual cheesecake parties. We’ve watched each others children, helped each through grief, and celebrated each others successes. I genuinely like spending time with these individuals and having them in my life makes me a better person. Especially, having them in my life right now, during an insanely contentious election, is making me a better person.
Now, I don’t hide my opinions from these people and I think that is one of the things that makes these friendships so great. They know I have different opinions than them, but they choose to be my friend anyway. I reached out to a friend the other day and expressed thanks to her for being my friend even though I know we don’t always agree on things and she said, “Of course! I like you and I usually learn something from you!” I was struggling with another relationship where a difference of opinion wasn’t going so well, so I really appreciated her response and friendship.
Another friend recently expressed that sharing our political opinions only creates offense and division and that as Christians we need to be higher than politics. These words, made me pause and consider if being outspoken about what I believe politically was in fact wrong. But, then I kept thinking of a sermon given by Joy D Jones where she quotes the prophet of my church encouraging women to “[t]ake your rightful and needful place in your home, in your community, and in the kingdom of God—more than you ever have before.” God obviously is above politics and we should learn from that, but as mortals living in imperfect communities we shouldn’t politely stay quiet when we believe something immoral, unethical, or unchristlike is happening. I also pointed out to this friend, that I associate with a lot of people who are on the liberal side in today’s political climate and so it’s very important to me that they see you can be a Christian and still believe in science (or whatever other incorrect stereotype they may believe). My church may be non-partisan, but what that means to me is that none of the political affiliations get everything right and that people with a diversity of opinions are welcome in our congregations. It’s our job to love each other despite our differences.
In an address at a religious freedom conference, Ulisses Soares, an Apostle in my church, talked about how his home country of Brazil handled a dynamic religious shift over the years and how “tension has been managed through dialogue between the various religious communities.” I would like to emphasize that he said the tension was managed through dialogue, not through people quietly suppressing their opinions or from people immediately shutting down anyone that disagrees with them. Soares encouraged people to “not feel so threatened by a difference of opinion.” Then he added, “Something as simple as speech and words can have a decisive effect on the health of civilization. We need to learn to both not give offense and not take offense.” I try to choose my words carefully, especially the ones that are in print, but I know I will at times fail and unintentionally offend someone. If I have done that to you recently, I apologize. I get the desire to only talk about nice things – and let’s absolutely do that sometimes – but sometimes we need to talk about hard things too. Going back to the article I mentioned about politics ruining relationships, the experts interviewed said, “it’s more conversation — not less — that’s needed, if the nation is to heal its blistering divide. But it has to be healthy, productive conversation.”
I realize that in person conversations are less prone to misunderstanding, but in a global pandemic more and more of my conversations are taking place over text and social media – it is what it is. I appreciate every person who has stayed friends with me virtually or in person these last four years, especially those of you who disagree with me on some things. And I have resisted the urge to unfollow some of you because I knew it was the wrong thing to do. (I give myself a pass for unfollowing everyone from Facebook, that was something else entirely.) No matter who wins the election (and you know I’m hoping and praying Joe Biden does), I hope we can still be friends.