Years ago, I heard Arthur Brooks, then President of the American Enterprise Institute, give a cautionary talk on political polarization. Brooks is a conservative economist raised by two liberal college professors. He described an evening where he joined them for dinner, only to find his mother oddly quiet and subdued. Concerned, he asked if everything was okay. “Arthur, your father and I have been talking,” she sighed. “Well, I’m just going to come out and ask, are…are you voting for Republicans?”
If the stakes of political division are that high in a loving family, said Brooks, how much worse for our larger society? He's right. A decade of surveys bear witness to the increasingly dysfunctional political landscape unfolding before us. And we feel it. Fifty years ago, it was not unusual to have a conservative Democrat or a progressive Republican. However, today’s parties have hardened to the point of vigilant intolerance for the opposition—patterning the division and dysfunction of America’s Gilded Age or Antebellum Period.
In their 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks—authors Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein describe an unprecedented instance where conservative congressional leaders voted against the very bill they co-sponsored. Why? Because Barack Obama liked it, and its approval could have advanced him politically.
A decade later, political camps have only widened, moving from disagreement to what Brooks calls “a pandemic of contempt.” In a poll last June, nearly a third of Americans listed “political division” as one of the top challenges facing the country. This is not just disagreement, write authors Geoff Skelley and Holly Fuong. It is “hatred.” It is little surprise that 40% of Americans think a Civil War is “at least somewhat likely” in the coming decade.
Throughout our country’s history, unity has been an abstract aspiration. We repeat mottos like “United We Stand” or e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”), extol equality of opportunity and social mobility, and pledge allegiance to a flag representing “liberty and justice for all.”
But while unity may be an aspiration, disunity has been the reality of American political life. This is the point made by legal scholar John Inazu in his book Confident Pluralism. If the goal of America’s liberal democracy is political harmony, it will fall short. Such an aim is akin to utopia—literally a “no place.” The very design of our legal and political structure presupposes disagreement, described by one group as “democracy’s oxygen.” As legal scholar Alan Dershowitz writes, “Compromise has been the essence of the American experience.” Absolute unity was never the aim. Nor, in a rigid culture of purified political identity is it achievable.
Thus, Inazu argues for “modest unity”—minimal agreement about society amidst deep difference. Existing with those we regard as damned requires a less grandiose conception of “we the people” and recognizes the on-the-ground realities of social and political pluralism. “Instead of the elusive goal of e pluribus unum,” writes Inazu, “[I suggest] a more modest possibility—that we can live together in our many-ness.”
If modest unity is a more realistic aspiration for America, what about Christianity?
“The American Evangelical church is in crisis,” says Russell Moore, citing Christian faith that often mirrors the discord of American politics. For decades Americans have been engaged in a process of selecting into ideologically homogeneous enclaves, segregating ourselves from those who do not share our views, values, and lifestyle. But Christians are engaged in a similar pattern of ideological migration, what Ed Stetzer calls “the great sort.” Church congregants have been re-shuffling themselves across different faith communities—a phenomenon that, according to Stetzer, accelerated during Covid. “People want what they hear on Sunday for one hour,” he says, “to align with what they hear on cable news for 30 hours.”
A market approach to church selection is hardly new. Individuals and households evaluate places of worship that align with their tastes (preaching, worship, family ministries, etc.). In economic lingo, they select into faith communities that best match their “preference bundle.” More recently, in addition to theological, stylistic, or practical considerations, preferences are increasingly characterized by a church’s political posture.
This is not the only example of Christian segmentation along political lines. Consider, for example, the word “evangelical.” In the mid-20th Century, historian George Marsden described an evangelical as “someone who likes Billy Graham.” Pretty simple. Today the term has been cleaved and carved to account for all manner of categories, divisions, and factions among believers.
Take, for example, Darren Guerra’s description of various “fault lines” in evangelicalism—making distinctions among Jacksonian Evangelicals, Tocquevillian Evangelicals, and Elite Evangelicals. Related, Michael Graham and Skyler Flowers designate Neo-Fundamentalist Evangelicals, Mainstream Evangelicals, Neo-Evangelicals, Post-Evangelicals, and Ex-vangelicals. Or perhaps Christians might identify as Old Guard Evangelicals, Institutional Evangelicals, Entrepreneurial Evangelicals, or Arm’s Length Evangelicals. The list goes on.
Here's the point. These terms reflect typologies that have emerged from a fractured and fragmented evangelical landscape. The titles do not simply signal nuance—they reflect disagreement. John Stott famously suggested that evangelicalism tends toward “lumpers” and “splitters”—the latter of which focuses on distinctions among Christian groups. But, warned Stott, “Some Christians go on everlastingly splitting until they find themselves no longer a church but a sect.”
Far from simply being “someone who likes Billy Graham”—contemporary evangelicalism is divided over a range of issues, many of which fall along the contours of well-worn political grooves. This risks politics interpreting our faith; not the faith interpreting our politics.
If contemporary Christianity mirrors a fractured American political landscape, should it, too, aim for a more modest form of unity? As opposed to being “in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2), should Christ-followers lower their standards to reflect the practical realities of our embattled political atmosphere?
That might seem like the right answer. But here is the problem. In the Christian faith tradition, unity is not an aspiration. It is an expectation. Scripture describes early believers who “were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). Similarly, in his letters, Paul recounts Christians working toward “unity in the faith” (Ephesians 4). Believers, he writes, should be “perfectly united in mind and thought” (I Cor. 1:10). And, of course, in Galatians 3:28 he famously describes Christian identity that transcends otherwise determinant social and political categorizations (Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female)—existing as “one in Christ Jesus.”
This expectation is made especially clear by Christ himself. In John 17, Jesus prays for unity (not uniformity)—“That they may be one as you and I are one.” Not once. Five times Jesus prays this.
If unity amongst believers is an expectation, how do we achieve it? More specifically, how do we realize John 17 unity in such a difficult moment?
A Unifying Aim
John Lennon famously “imagined” a world emptied of religion, territorial boundaries, and ownership. Once we set aside our differences and distinctions, so the thinking goes, we can live at peace and “be as one.” This is one of the more popular appeals to unity—paying attention to our commonality while de-emphasizing the beliefs, identities, and possessions that separate us. In practical terms, this includes exercising toleration and kindness while respecting differences.
These are, you might say, liberal democratic values. And many of these values overlap with the Christian faith. For example, kindness should mark our Christianity. It is a Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). To say that Christians should be kind people is like saying “The car you are purchasing comes with a steering wheel.” It is just expected. Related, Christians should be tolerant and respectful people. Making room at the table. Demonstrating empathy. Deliberately finding the good in another. Exercising charity.
Yet while important, liberal democratic values alone are often insufficient to realize civic harmony. Respecting one another’s differences is a noble aim, but to Lennon’s point, those differences core to self-understanding (beliefs, nationality, economic class, etc.) often function to advance out-group hostility. If social harmony cannot materialize from these values, they will certainly not be enough to realize the unity Christ prayed for in John 17.
Another approach to unity is shared service. Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort, describes a mid-20th Century study that found when opposing groups work together, their shoulder-to-shoulder labor minimized out-group conflict.
Serving alongside one another affords the power of proximity. Indeed, as contact theory argues, relational sensibilities of understanding and tolerance are heightened, and tribalistic fear and distrust are lessened—when meaningful intergroup contact occurs. This is because substantive social interaction with others elevates our awareness of their humanity—better allowing us to separate someone’s personhood from their beliefs and values.
On my own campus at Asbury University, a quote from one of our more famous alumni, E Stanley Jones, is muraled on a wall to remind us of the importance of service. “Here we enter a fellowship,” it reads. “Sometimes we will agree to differ, always we will resolve to love and unite to serve.” Unite to serve. Locking arms in a joint commitment to serve is a beautiful sentiment.
But as valuable as collective service is, and as effective as it may be to fold diverging interests into a singular aim, it is not enough to realize John 17 unity. As biblical commentators remind us, Jesus was not simply describing visible uniformity or overlapping interest. Christ is praying for something different. Something more. The unity desired for Christians is meant to pattern the unity between Christ and God the Father. This is more than intersecting aims between disparate individuals and groups.
If our shared service is insufficient to realize Christ’s vision, perhaps our shared doctrine is key to a unified people. In my own experience growing up in the church, doctrinal uniformity was the standard to determine who was in and who was out. Real Christians believed the right things. Indeed, for a period of my life, I thought the world was neatly divided into Calvinists and Wesleyan-Arminians. But as I matured in my faith, I discovered greater complexity and nuance among Christ-followers as well as the unbelievers they evangelized to.
To be clear, doctrine is very important. There are epistemic commitments in the Christian faith that constitute our starting point for understanding the world around us and how we faithfully act within it. Doctrine is integral to ordination in ministry. Faith communities continue to benefit from the theological texts passed down through the centuries. Christian institutions hire people based upon doctrinal commitments—and rightly so. Doctrine matters.
But doctrine may only reflect what we believe in our mind and utter with our mouth—truth propositions that we mentally ascent to but may have little to no bearing on rightly-ordered affection and faithful action. In other words, doctrine risks being isolated to faculties above our neck.
Recall the story of Simon the Magician in Acts 8. He believed. He was baptized. He was proximately present with Philp and later with Peter and John. But after asking to purchase God’s power, the story ends with Peter’s rebuke: “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money!You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God” (Italics mine).
And herein lies the issue. Peter’s rebuke provides insight into how we might realize the scriptural expectation of unity. The unity Jesus prays for is not simply respecting differences, serving alongside one another, or intellectually assenting to the shared tenets of the faith—as important as these things may be. Christ envisions one-ness—the same communion he shared with God the Father. Unity of heart; unity of spirit.
How do we achieve John 17 unity? I think the answer is as profound as it is prosaic. Unity will be found in the mutual expression of hungry hearts “right before God” and desirous to “seek the things that are above” (Col. 1:3). This hunger supersedes political commitments, prestige, health, self, and the satisfaction of our idiosyncratic preferences.
In a chapel talk several years ago, Tish Harrison Warren remarked that our religious fervor has been inordinately transferred to politics and political ideology—but “the doorway to the Kingdom of Heaven,” she said, “is cruciform in shape.” The imagery is powerful. Approaching a cross-shaped door is reminiscent of Aragorn approaching the frightful Dimholt door in Tolkien’s The Return of the King, where “what lies beyond no man knows”—including the prospect of death. A cruciform doorway is voluntary death to self—purging our worldly inclinations and moderating our rights for the sake of Christ and others. But, counterintuitively, the spiritual self-sacrifice of a cruciform life is an invitation to new, abundant reality: “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” says Christ (Matt. 16:25).
In one of his most famous sermons on Christian Unity, John Wesley references 2 Kings 10:15: “If your heart is as my heart—take my hand.” In the sermon, Wesley speaks to our human penchant to worship; we are desiring, “doxological” beings. But what, asks Wesley, do we desire? Do we embrace Christ as divine? Does our desire for him supersede other desires? Are we committed to the self-emptying pursuit of a God-filled life? Are we passionate for love of God and love of neighbor?
Christ’s prayer, hope, and expectation in John 17 is also Christ’s invitation. “If this is your heart, take my hand.”
A More Excellent Way
In February of this year, a routine chapel at Asbury University grew to a non-stop sixteen-day service (For national coverage, see this, this, this and this). What we have called “The Outpouring” ended with fifty-thousand hungry hearted guests flocking to our two-stoplight town.
Amidst the dozens upon dozens of stories that will forever mark my memory of those days, there is one that I am particularly moved by. During our second week of services, we were led into a time of confessional prayer. The leader invited us into a posture of repentance, and I found myself on my face, inches apart from those prostrate around me.
After several minutes of prayer, something powerful and unexpected happened. “God, forgive us for our disunity as a church,” grieved the leader. He continued, “Forgive us for dividing over masks. Forgive us for dividing over Covid policies.” Immediately after the prayer was uttered, a cry of lament swelled from the 1500 people in the room. This was not performative; it was a mournful recognition that we had “forsaken our first love” (Rev. 2:4). Whether it was Covid policies, politics, or any other commitment dividing those who claim Christian identity, there was a collective realization that our hearts “were not right.”
As tears dripped from my eyes to the floor, I sensed a room—a room, mind you, filled with all manner of Covid-related views—far more committed to a right relationship with God and a right relationship with each other than anything else. The response was as authentic as it was uniform. Forgive us.
Christian unity is an expectation. “There is no Christian hermeneutic that lets a Christian community dispense with unity” writes historian Chris Gehrz. But in our present moment, unity is something more than an expectation.
“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?...And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?” asks Christ in his most famous sermon. “Are not even the tax collectors doing that?...Do not even pagans do that?”
The parallel is clear. If we return hostility for hostility, begrudge those with different views, reducing them to what Alan Jacobs describes as the “repugnant cultural other,” and exhibit predictable (re)actions because they pattern the scripts of well-worn political channels—doesn’t everyone else do that? Are we not different? In addition to realizing Christ’s prayer in John 17, a unified people desirous of mimicking and reflecting Christ’s virtues and values is an opportunity to rehearse a different narrative, presenting an alternative to a politically exhausted world.
Unity is hard. Our country aspires to it, but we have not realized it. In patterning the unified purpose, spirit, and heart of God the Father and Christ the Son—may Christ-followers be as one. It is a biblical expectation, yes. But it is also an opportunity to stand apart and demonstrate “a more excellent way.”