Arthur Brooks (1964- )
“America’s Crisis of Contempt”
Arthur C. Brooks keynote address at the February 6, 2020 National Prayer Breakfast, Washington, D. C.
Reprinted from the Washington Post
Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, Mrs. Pence, Speaker Pelosi, heads of state, members of Congress and honored guests: Thank you for inviting me here today. I am deeply honored and grateful to address the National Prayer Breakfast.
As you have heard, I am not a priest or minister. I am a social scientist and a university professor. But most importantly, I am a follower of Jesus, who taught each of us to love God and to love each other.
I am here today to talk about what I believe is the biggest crisis facing our nation — and many other nations — today. This is the crisis of contempt — the polarization that is tearing our society apart. But if I do my job in the next few minutes, I promise I won’t depress you. On the contrary, I will show you why I believe that within this crisis resides the best opportunity we have ever had, as people of faith, to lift our nations up and bring them together.
As leaders, you all know that when there is an old problem, the solution never comes from thinking harder in the old ways; we have to think differently — we need an epiphany. This is true with societal problems and private problems.
Here’s an example of the latter: I have three kids, and two are still teenagers. (Pray for me.) Two years ago, when my middle son, Carlos, was a senior in high school, my wife, Ester, and I were having a rough parent-teacher conference. It was his grades. This was an old problem which we had tried everything to solve, but we were getting nowhere. We left the conference in grim silence and got in the car. Ester finally broke the silence.
“We need to see this problem in a whole new way,” she said.
“I’m all ears, sweetheart,” I answered, “because I’m at the end of my rope.”
“At least we know he’s not cheating,” she said.
See, that’s thinking differently! And that’s the spirit in which I want to address the problem of political contempt. (By the way, in case you’re wondering what happened to Carlos: Currently he’s in Parris Island, SC, at boot camp for the U. S, Marine Corps. We couldn’t be prouder of him.)
To start us on a path of new thinking to our cultural crisis, I want to turn to the words of the ultimate original thinker, history’s greatest social entrepreneur, and as a Catholic, my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus. Here’s what he said, as recorded in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, chapter 5, verse 43-45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
Love your enemies! Now that is thinking differently. It changed the world starting 2,000 years ago, and it is as subversive counter-intuitive today as it was then. But the devil’s in the details. How do we do it in a country and world roiled by political hatred and differences that we can’t seem to bridge? First, we need to make it personal. I remember when it became personal for me.
I give about 150 speeches a year and talk to all kinds of audiences: conservative, progressive, believers, atheists, and everything in between. I was speaking one afternoon some years ago to a large group of politically conservative activists. Arriving early to the event, I looked at the program and realized I was the only non-politician on the program.
At first I thought, “This is a mistake.” But then I remembered that there are no mistakes — only opportunities — and started thinking about what I could say that would be completely different than the politicians. The crowd was really fired up; the politicians were getting huge amounts of applause. When it was my turn to speak, in the middle of my speech, here’s more or less what I said:
“My friends, you’ve heard a lot today that you’ve agreed with — and well you should. You’ve also heard a lot about the other side — political liberals — and how they are wrong. But I want to ask you to remember something: Political liberals are not stupid, and they’re not evil. They are simply Americans who disagree with you about public policy. And if you want to persuade them — which should be your goal — remember that no one has ever been insulted into agreement. You can only persuade with love.” It was not an applause line.
After the speech, a woman in the audience came up to me, and she was clearly none too happy with my comments. “You’re wrong,” she told me. “Liberals are stupid and evil.”
At that moment, my thoughts went to … Seattle. That’s my hometown. While my own politics are conservative, Seattle is arguably the most politically liberal place in the United States. My father was a college professor; my mother was an artist. Professors and artists in Seattle …what do you think their politics were?
That lady after my speech wasn’t trying to hurt me. But when she said that liberals are stupid and evil, she was talking about my parents. I may have disagreed with my parents politically, but I can tell you they were neither stupid nor evil. They were good, Christian people, who raised me to follow Jesus. They also taught me to think for myself — which I did, at great inconvenience to them.
Political polarization was personal for me that day, and I want to be personal to you, too. So let me ask you a question: How many of you love someone with whom you disagree politically? Are you comfortable hearing someone on your own side insult that person?
This reminds me of a lesson my father taught me, about moral courage. In a free society where you don’t fear being locked up for our opinions, true moral courage isn’t standing up to the people with whom you disagree. It’s standing up to the people with whom you agree— on behalf of those with whom you disagree. Are you strong enough to do that? That, I believe, is one way we can live up to Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies. (continued…)