Why we should believe the best of our political opponents
Character is often revealed in conflict. And if the political and social conflict of recent months has revealed anything about the character of our nation, it is this: Americans—at least many of those with the loudest voices—assume the worst of people who disagree with them. Sadly, American Christians are no exception.
If you voted for President Trump, then you obviously condone racist bigotry and sexual assault. If you voted for Mrs. Clinton, then you obviously condone treason and the mass murder of the unborn through abortion. If you say that Black Lives Matter, then you must not believe that all lives matter. If you say that All Lives Matter, then you are insensitive to systemic racism. If you are for open borders, then you are blind to the threat of domestic terrorism. If you are against open borders, then you are deaf to the cries of innocent immigrants escaping from the terrors of war and genocide. If the media gives too much coverage to a story, then they are biased and irresponsible; not enough coverage, then they are apathetic and irresponsible.
Our stubborn unwillingness to believe anything but the worst of those with whom we disagree would be understandable, though still lamentable, if it were an effective strategy for changing people’s hearts and actions. But it is not. As every good teacher, coach, and business leader knows, believing the worst in others is a decidedly ineffective strategy for bringing about positive change. If people believe the worst about you without giving you a chance to prove them wrong, what do you have to lose by being at your worst? Look for the worst in others and you’ll likely find it.
Fortunately, there is a better way—the way of love. If we want to bring out the best in others, we must follow Jesus's command to love them as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39). Part of loving our neighbors as ourselves is believing the best of them. In his book, Works of Love, the 19th-century Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argues that the best way to help others become more loving is to “presuppose” love in them. Taking his cue from the biblical teaching that love “builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1), he argues that it is God who lays the foundation of love in our hearts. Since every building must be built up from its foundation, if we want to build others up in love we must begin by actively looking for evidence of God’s love in them, expecting to find it, even when it is hardest to see—“even in the misguided, even in the corrupted, even in the most hateful.”
Yet, presupposing love in our political opponents does not come naturally to us, and sometimes for good reason. How can we see God’s love in people who treat others with blatant disrespect, or who support policies that would threaten the safety, or health, or even the lives of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable? While this is psychologically difficult, it is not impossible. In fact, this is how we already love our families and closest friends. When one of my children does something that offends or disappoints someone, I find myself wishing that the offended party would see the love in my child's heart as I do, rather than seeing my precious one through the ungenerous and judgmental eyes of disappointment, anger, or hatred. We are all in need of grace and forgiveness after all.
Kierkegaard suggests that when others—even our enemies—recognize that we view them with the generous vision of love and believe the best of them, they will be encouraged to rise to the level of our belief. He asks, “Have you not experienced this yourself, my listener? If anyone has ever spoken to you in such a way or treated you in such a way that you really felt built up, this was because you very vividly perceived how he presupposed love to be in you.”
How many of us have been spurred on in our moral and spiritual growth by the generous, undeserved encouragement of another? How many of us have experienced the increase of grateful love in our hearts when someone believes the best of us, especially when we have done something to disappoint or offend? Quick and full forgiveness strengthens a repentant heart. And a generous presumption of love often functions like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The presumption, even against the evidence, helps to draw out the love in which it believes. In keeping with this insight, recent psychological research reveals that when we publicly attribute virtues to people, and thus indicate to them and others that we think they are virtuous, they are more likely to perform actions consistent with those virtues than are people who we simply exhort to be more virtuous (Mark Alfano discusses this research at length in his book, Character as Moral Fiction [Cambridge, 2013]).
But if we try to see others as better than the evidence suggests they are, don’t we disregard the truth? How willing we are to disregard truth in order to condemn, but never to praise! Fortunately, we do not have to disregard the truth in order to believe the best of others. We simply have to choose to interpret the available evidence in the most generous way possible. We have to choose to see others as we wish to be seen—in the best possible light, the light of love. As Kierkegaard observes, “If mistrust can actually see something as less than it is, then love also can see something as greater than it is.”
This is not to say that we should stop criticizing our leaders and fellow citizens when they treat others disrespectfully. Nor should we stop protesting unjust laws and policies. Nor should we make ourselves vulnerable to the mistreatment of others. Believing the best does not preclude preparing for the worst. But as we protest and fight for justice we must not give in to the temptation to believe the worst of those whose actions and policies we oppose. If we really want to inspire positive change in the hearts of others instead of fomenting hate, we must presuppose love. By lovingly believing the best of others, including our political opponents, we just might help them become more loving. And even if we do not help them become more loving, we will become more loving ourselves.
I love Jesus, my family, basketball, and music. I teach philosophy and I think and write about ethics, emotions, virtues, and Christian thought. In a culture that encourages us to jump to conclusions and form firm opinions with little reflection, I invite you to think slowly and carefully with me about how to live well in our complex world.