ImageI grew up in a family who enjoyed talking politics.  We would venture over to my grandparents house every Friday night where a random mix of my father’s eight siblings would congregate to eat and talk smart.  Chances were that between a card game of Wahoo and the latest episode of “The Dukes of Hazard” someone would get into a heated discussion about the big political issue of the day.  Voices would raise, spit would fly, and I would receive a balanced overview of the topic simply by sitting on the floor and listening to my uncles’ debate.

I learned excellent debating skills when talking politics with my family.  First, you needed to know what you were talking about.  If you didn’t have your facts straight or didn’t have a good grasp of the issue, someone was going to call you out on the carpet.  Second, you needed conviction in what you believed.  No one really wanted to talk politics with you if you didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other.  That just wasn’t fun.  Even if everyone agreed, they all needed conviction for a lively joint lecture to ensue.  Next, you needed to shut up long enough to hear the other person’s points, no matter how stupid you thought they were, in order for you to make some brilliantly valid counterpoints to demonstrate their stupidity.  Finally, you needed to be open to the possibility of being proven a dumb ass, because this happened as frequently as you proved them a dumb ass, and thank God for that because it saved you from sounding like a dumb ass again the next time you talked on the same political subject.

Even though the political discourse in my family tended toward the unrefined, everyone understood some basic rules of engagement that kept them coming back week after week to talk some more.  Relationships were not broken; they grew in different ways, some growing closer while others experiencing a time of distance as their opinions diverged on various topics.  The conversations never stopped.  Even though kids have grown up, lives have changed, and grandma and grandpa are gone, these lively conversations continue on among my family every time we gather together.

Unfortunately, constructive conversations are no longer commonplace in the US public square.  E.J. Dionne notes a progressive movement toward the extremes on both sides of the debate in his book, Our Divided Political Heart (2012), and this polarization has caused a stalemate on the US political scene.  The polarization has become so extreme it has caused political rifts within the two primary parties themselves.  Both far-left and far-right viewpoints are so absolutist there is little to no room for movement toward a compromise that can result in joint political action.

As political rhetoric has progressively moved towards the extremes I have progressively distanced myself from the world of politics.  What I hear from professional politicians and political talk show hosts on both sides is exasperating.  When Ron Paul ran for president in 2008 I would joke that he was so Republican (he’s actually a Libertarian) he had come full circle to become a Democrat.  Little did I realize my accuracy!  Dionne (2012) discusses at length how both the Democratic and Republican Parties have flip-flopped on some of the ideals for which their parties originally stood, namely the ideals of individualism and community.  Through 150 years of healthy political discourse leading to transformation, both parties now find themselves on opposite sides of the line on this topic.  It makes the current absolutist state of affairs particularly frustrating.

I am reminded of Robert K. Greenleaf’s thoughts on the difference between renewal and transformation in his essay, “A Lifeline of Ideas”.  He views renewal as superficial change in an attempt to recover historical greatness.  However transformation “connotes a new, nobler direction, not just a recovery of the past – which probably is not possible and which we would not like even if we could recover it” (p. 314).  When I first read Dionne’s (2012) observations of how the Democratic and Republican Parties have strayed from their original commitments to individualism and community respectively, my initial reaction was that they needed to go back.  They need to re-embrace those ideals from which they had wandered away.  This must be why everything is so screwed up with politics in America!  But then I read Greenleaf’s essay and understood this had happened through transformation and going back would be an act of “dangerous complacency” (Greenleaf, p. 314) for both parties.

The real answer for American politics is to head down the road of transformation again.  Both conservative and liberal extremes, and everyone in-between, would be wise to adopt Ellen Ott Marshall’s (2008) policies of love, moral ambiguity, and humility when entering the public square.  Commitment to these three principles when engaging in political discourse destroys current absolutist trends and opens the door to transformation for both parties on multiple levels.  Republicans and Democrats will discover their shared concerns for the shattered US economy and fear of further decline, and begin the compromise process that leads to solutions everyone can support.

Unconditional love, moral ambiguity, and humility are not lofty principles that only saints would have the fortitude to utilize in the public square.  They are not techniques that are too soft to be effectively used in political debate, even today.  They are principles any person who is willing to stand with others in the murky waters of modern US politics can hold.  They are commitments that my redneck uncles held, even though they didn’t know it, because they were a family who cared about each other and their country.  I have hope for positive change in America, and that change needs to begin with me.


Dionne, Jr., E. J. (2012). Our divided political heart: The battle for the american idea in an age of discontent. New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1996). A lifeline of ideas. In A. Fraker & L. Spears (Eds.), Seeker and servant: Reflections on religious leadership (pp. 311-314). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Hellwig, M. K. (2005). Public dimensions of a believer’s life: Rediscovering the cardinal virtues. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Marshall, E. O. (2008). Christians in the public square: Faith that transforms politics. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Son of citation machine. (2010). Retrieved from