In our polarized nation, an “us versus them” scenario naturally arises. We are not supposed to frame the debate in this way. “Us” should refer to all Americans. “Them” is a term that is better not used at all. This is the central message of Sen. Ben Sasse’s new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal. Ideally, we need to come together and talk civilly to settle our differences and celebrate our great nation.
However, it is not that easy.
No doubt, framing an “us vs. them” debate can be a gross oversimplification. However, to say there is no “us” or “them” in the present culture war climate is also an oversimplification. Indeed, it is hard to say there is no “them” when people are firing at us. At the same time, it makes sense for “us” to gather in the trenches to survive the present crisis and fire back.
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In all fairness to Senator Sasse, the American situation is complex. It is not always cut and dry. It is often difficult to discern who is who in this mess. We live in a time of technological and moral disruption that adds to the confusion. Most can agree that the present climate of vitriol and name-calling is not the kind of America we want. We should deplore incivility and indiscriminate them-ing. That’s why we need to know what is going on in our “us versus them” America.
Cutting through the confusion, the Nebraska senator gets the “us” part right. He knows what we as Americans all hold (or used to hold) dear and in common. He describes who we are in a folksy and accessible manner with many personal anecdotes and much wit.
More than just a political union, Senator Sasse subscribes to the notion that America is also made up of a set of ideas—a creed. He claims the two indispensable components of this creed are that “every individual is created with dignity and therefore government, because it is not the source of our rights, is just a tool.”
From this foundation, he develops the need for ordered liberty and highlights the essential social links of family, community, and faith. His rich almost nostalgic description of rural America illustrates the beauty of this life. He seeks to return meaning and purpose, “vocation” and “calling” back into the lives of the countless individuals floundering in postmodern America.
What Ails “Us”
Senator Sasse also proves helpful in identifying what ails “us.” We live in a highly disruptive time in history in which new technologies and ideologies are turning the social order upside down. Thus, we can agree that “the local, human relationships that anchor political talk have shriveled up.” Also, we have been “uprooted from places we can call home.”
We see the results of this upheaval everywhere: Loneliness is now the “number one health crisis in America.” A decline in family life has “coincided with a broader erosion of trust in nearly every American institution.” Social media are replacing face-to-face relationships.
All these problems are well described by the author who draws from a rich treasury of stories that help him make his point of an America in crisis.
Arriving at the Wrong Conclusions
His statement of the problem prepares the way for a discussion of the causes of our discord. However, the senator blames our polarization on our isolation. His message is that lonely souls generate anger, resentment and contempt on all sides. He believes that “we fall into anti-tribes defined by what we’re against rather than what we’re for.”
Lonely souls crave shallow debate, and get caught up in finger pointing and fake news—claims that have some merit. There are those who are only too willing to fan this anger to favor their agendas … and pocketbooks. We cannot allow that “our loneliness, our fears and our anxieties swallow up the better angels of our nature.”
Getting “Them” Wrong
And this is where Senator Sasse gets things wrong. He thinks that the issues that divide us are policy fights which are “important, but not nearly as important as agreeing about our fundamental civic principles.”
For him, there is no “them” but only mixed-up angry Americans who are isolated and unable to reunite around fundamental principles.
His solution is to return to these civic principles as the platform upon which the heated policy debates can continue. He assumes that everyone will jump on board with enough coaxing. What he does not realize is that the real disagreement is about these fundamentals, not the policies.
These are the real issues that divide America today: Americans cannot unite around the universal dignity of every human person because many deny what it means to be a person (as is the case with abortion). Human nature is now defined as what each determines it to be. Human dignity is becoming the right to engage in the most degrading and sinful behaviors.
The problem is the denial that human fundamentals are unchangeable. They are inherent in our human nature. We need to get them right, or nothing will work. When people challenge these non-negotiable values, as they are now doing, they create the screeching incompatibilities that are raging across the land. The challengers separate themselves from the fundamentals that have always defined “us,” and proudly proclaim themselves as “them.”
Like it or not, the “us versus them” debate is not of our choosing. It is thrust upon us. And it is brutal.
In the battle between objective pronouns, two pronouns are missing from the narrative. This exclusion is a big problem with many of the thoughtful solutions that have been proffered.
We treat these important battles as if they are only human squabbles. We must remember that this is not a loneliness struggle, an anger-fest, or a bout of resentful pouting. This is above all a moral battle.
We cannot talk about a moral solution in purely human terms. If this battle is to be won, we must include another pronoun—“Him.” God needs to be involved in this battle. His law must be respected if our actions are to be blessed with success. We must have recourse to God as the only power capable of reuniting “us” again as a people. However, religious faith no longer unites America.
At the same time, as Catholics who believe in Fatima, we must also have recourse to “Her.” Our Lady appeared at Fatima in 1917 to warn sinful humanity of the consequence of abandoning fundamentals and embracing sin. Our Lady put the battle in “us versus them” terms and promised “us” a triumph if we confide in “Her.”
(Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia)