When George W. Bush coined the term “compassionate conservatism,” it sounded like an oxymoron to many of us who had lived through the harsh and unforgiving conservatism of the ’80s and ’90s. It sounded disingenuous. Ideas like compassion, forgiveness and redemption were more typically associated with progressives and liberals. Their rhetoric was very much influenced and informed by the faithful inspiration of the civil rights movement, and these ideas were abundant.
Interestingly, one of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s political challenges was to marry the love or compassion expressed by many Christian civil rights supporters to the necessary political action and power required to actually advance civil rights legislation. He said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
But some time over the last 30 years, love began to disappear from the progressive narrative, rhetoric and language — maybe even its worldview. In the professional progressive ecosystem today, you will hear about building power, but you will scarcely, if ever, hear about the power of love.
Maybe it’s because we have been lured into an economic narrative of scarcity and austerity, and when there is too little to go around, the generosity love inspires goes underground.
Maybe it is because social change itself became increasingly professionalized, along with the philanthropy that supports it. The currency shifted to goals and metrics, and qualitative ideals like love have been misinterpreted as softer.
Maybe it is because progressive movements have become increasingly secular, and so the theological love that infused them in the past has faded from that political space.
Maybe it is because conservatives have taken over issues like family, faith and country, and somewhere in their occupation of the things that matter most to most of us, they have gained a monopoly on love — ironic as that may seem to some.
Love is a crucial element in conservative thought and identity today, and any social movement that wants to carry the day will need to lay claim to it. It is tempting to simply call out the contradictions in the conservative invocation of love, but what is more fruitful is to see where it lives in conservative America and understand then how it might be a foundational element for building a common good politics that reignites this core value in America.
I met Cameron a few years back in a discussion group outside of Columbus, Ohio.
When asked who thinks, “Discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as against blacks and other minorities,” Cameron raised his hand.In response, one might have been tempted to say, “You’re a racist,” and that is all we would ever know about Cameron. But I asked Cameron, “What makes you say that?” And Cameron responded by saying,“One thing you should know is that my wife is black.”
Again, I might have been tempted to shut down the conversation by saying something like, “You don’t get it — this is about structural issues,” but I simply asked,“Is that right?” and he continued, “Well, you should hear the shit our friends give us for being an interracial couple.”
“I imagine that is hard on both of you. Is that the only place this kind of thing shows up?” I responded.
“I work security at Target, and my managers told me to follow colored customers around because they are the ones who steal, but I wouldn’t do it.”
“Good for you. What do you or your colleagues make of that?”
“Well, here’s the thing: I got promoted and had to start doing the hiring, and the higher-ups told me to hire coloreds for security because it makes you look better. Seems wrong to me too.”
“Is that right?” I asked, trying not to react to the repeated use of the word “colored.”
“Yeah,” he concluded, “but like I say, we all bleed the same color, and at the end of the day, it’s just gotta be about love.”
Clearly, Cameron’s story gets more complicated as you continue to listen, but whatever you think about Cameron’s experience and the meaning he makes of it, you can’t help but be moved by his closing line. Not that everyone out there is a Cameron, but his grounding in love got me thinking.
I have found myself spending time in other parts of the Midwest over the last few years, and I got to know Caleb, a conservative Christian union member. I got to know him in the context of a program we ran to connect conservative Michiganders with liberal New Yorkers to see what we might learn about the “other” in American political life. Through this program, Caleb got to know a New Yorker named Martha. She is an accomplished academic, a leader in her synagogue, and a lesbian. Caleb, who converted to Catholicism because he thought it was more accurate in its understanding of the sacred texts, and Martha were teamed up.
When we went to Michigan, Martha stayed with Caleb, and he was an unbelievable host. Caleb moved his daughters into his bed with his wife, and he slept on the couch so Martha could have her own room. Martha was touched by this hospitality. But as we got ready to leave Michigan, Martha said, “I really built a bond with Caleb, but I’ve kind of held back on who I am. I don’t think he totally knows that I’m gay.”
So we didn’t know what would happen when the conservative group from Michigan came back to New York. I called Caleb and asked if he was alright with the plans for coming to New York, and he said, “Well, I’m really excited. I’m looking forward to staying with Martha and meeting her partner.” So it seemed pretty straightforward. Then on Saturday night, we had one of our “hot-button” discussions. It was part of our practice during the exchange to pick an issue that was really challenging and have a careful, thoughtful conversation about it, and that evening we turned to the subject of gay or equal marriage. Caleb, through a really anguished look on his face and with great thoughtfulness and fear, said, “Well, by my reading of theology,it’s a sin.”
Martha told us later that she could barely breathe when he said it. And then one of the congregants stepped in and said, “Caleb, but what about Martha and your relationship?” And he said, “Well, when you think someone’s sinning, all you can do is love them.”
You may not like Caleb’s position, and you might reject his theology, but regardless, there is a power in his kindness to Martha and in the love that underpins it—alove we would be wise to tap into.
Two weeks after the white nationalist terrorist killed Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue, a group of conservative corrections officers from the Michigan Corrections Organization came to congregation B’nai Jeshurun (with whom they had done the exchange) to read a letter they crafted in a gesture of solidarity after the anti-Semitic mass shooting. The letter was a conservative take on what happened and an effort to stand in solidarity with a Jewish community they had come to know. Strikingly, the theme of love found its way prominently into their words. As they read during services:
“…We do take law and order seriously, and we know that the tone set amongst our national leaders has an impact on the climate we and our children live in.We are calling for a national repentance, and call on leaders to step forward who pledge to demonstrate reasonableness and tolerance for diverse people, traditions and political views on all sides. While we don’t have to always agree, hopefully we can agree on this: We need more unifying love, not divisive hate. We need fair dialogue, not labels and insults. We need more honest conversation, not dishonest rhetoric or spin. We need to find common ground, not isolate ourselves into corners of hostility. Political polarization and extremist ideology is on the rise in America. This letter is not written to propose a detailed strategy or solution to this problem. However, it is meant to posit the notion of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in stating that ‘darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.’”
Some readers will be frustrated that conservatives feel comfortable invoking Dr. King, but rather than reject it, we should see the power that his message of love still has in America today.
These are three separate instances in which conservative positions are supported by a deep grounding in love. It is easy to get lost in the issues of race, LGBTQ equality and white nationalism, and those are important issues for America to address. But on another level, as progressives have focused more and more on issues, conservatives have wrestled love away. In response, progressives may have doubled down on building power, which is needed, but we gave away love — and with it curiosity, forgiveness and redemption.
It is easy to dismiss this rhetoric and say, “But look at Trump — the last thing he stands for is love.” And that is true. But rather than write it off because it is contradictory, maybe there is a calling here that needs to be heard.
Love really matters because beyond our political crisis, we are living in a spiritual crisis, and love might be the motivator that gets us through it. I recently heard a conservative break ranks on immigration, and it is love that’s at the core of it. A white conservative attending an event addressing a politically diverse group explains, “If I was living in a war-torn or deeply troubled nation, there is no doubt in my mind I would put my daughter on my back and swim across rivers, climb mountains, cross a desert — whatever it took to get her to safety.” He has enormous compassion for the immigrants coming into the country right now at the Southern border. To him, as a Christian, his moral compass leads him to this sense of love and loyalty.
It isn’t that love doesn’t exist in progressive circles; it’s just that we have evolved away from it. But there are seeds of it, even today, that we can build on. Among the moments when President Barack Obama was at his best, in my opinion, was in Charleston after the terror attack on the African American church, singing “Amazing Grace.” Or when he was shedding a tear at the mass school shooting in Newtown. It was his abiding love that was able to shine through and make him such a special leader for our country and show the strength of love, with conviction and purpose.
There are other exceptions on the progressive side today, leaders like Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative. When he speaks about “proximity,”I believe he is calling us once again to love people whom we might have made feel invisible, ignored or written off — to love their humanity and see it close-up.
So it isn’t that progressives can’t be about love, but far too often that language and spirit have been lost. At the same time, conservatives have developed a comfort with it. One way we can forge a new politics, with our fellow conservative Americans, is to recommit to that spirit of love. Love has a power that is hard to resist. Love leads to a spirit of humility and forgiveness that invites us to learn and grow with others toward something new, and it is a force that can bring us together.