In 1861, Abraham Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address to a nation that was breaking apart. Seven southern states had already succeeded, forming the Confederate States of America, and as he assumed office for his first term, Lincoln fashioned his speech as a call to reconciliation and unity addressed primarily to them. His closing words admonished them to remember that:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
In 2016, this country experienced perhaps the most divisive election in its history. In the years since, political discourse at every level, from the halls of power in Washington D.C., to neighborhoods in every American town, to our own college campus, has become increasingly polarized and vituperative. Recognizing these growing divisions, a group of concerned citizens seized on the hopeful tone of Lincoln’s address to form a grassroots initiative originally entitled “Better Angels,” the goal of which was to de-polarize civil discourse in American politics, rebuild community across party lines, and strive to restore the nation as “a house united.”
As we all know only too well, this work is ongoing and increasingly fraught. After meeting the founders of Better Angels at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum at Augsburg University in Minneapolis in Fall 2017, the Center for Ethics and Public Engagement (CEPE) became involved with the group, utilizing its dialogue methods to foster political conversations across the College and within the local Decorah community. The CEPE hosted training sessions in how to engage in productive dialogue with political opponents; Red-Blue Workshops, in which those with politically opposite viewpoints seek to understand what motivates their colleagues on the other side; and Fishbowl exercises, where one political group silently listens in on a discussion among members of the other group. Each event demonstrated to us the power of open dialogue, and the possibilities that still exist to forge respectful, civil discourse on even the most difficult topics.
But in recent months, these efforts have become yet more difficult to bring to fruition, even on our own campus. One example of this is the fact that the Luther College Republicans group disbanded, a victim of internal tensions in the wake of the 2016 election. We are not alone in witnessing these challenges. The founders of Better Angels also recognize the impediments to dialogue in this particular political moment. They renamed their group “Braver Angels,” to acknowledge the difficulties inherent in engaging those with strong and opposed positions. They also launched a new initiative, centered on the 2020 election and on dialogue efforts on college campuses, in civic groups, and in religious communities. Again inspired by Lincoln’s words, they named this initiative “With Malice Toward None” (WMTN).
Over the summer, President Ward committed Luther College to participate in the WMTN initiative, promising that we would work as a community to address the tensions raised by the upcoming election and prepare for the strong and mixed reactions that will surely follow on all sides. The CEPE is in the process of planning a series of events during the month of October, intended to prepare the way for ongoing discussion in the tense days after the election results are announced. In November, the CEPE will host meetings separately for those “delighted” and those “distressed” by the election results, before bringing both sides together for a joint meeting later in the month. No matter which group we find ourselves in, it will take a certain amount of bravery and openness to build the bridges this initiative seeks to foster.
Can you imagine your own emotional reaction to the election, depending on which way the result goes? Might you also benefit from the opportunity to gather with others who feel as you do? And might we not all benefit from learning how to come together in our jubilance, victory, or pain? Braver Angels is motivated by one overarching goal: to help Americans learn how to speak to one another, even about their most profound conflicts. The aim is not to bring agreement, but rather, to teach us how to disagree well, how to foster a spirit of inclusivity in our political discourse, and how to remain united in our hopes, if not in our methods of improving this nation.
In the coming weeks and months, the CEPE invites all students, faculty, staff, and community members who see the benefit in this kind of bravery to join us in this effort. Together, we will seek to embrace Lincoln’s declaration that “We are not enemies, but friends.” We will use that belief to fulfill the Luther College mission to be “enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas . . . ,” even if (perhaps especially when) those are ideas with which we disagree.