At the end of the American Revolution, Gen. George Washington — still this nation’s greatest warrior for liberty — had a vital message for the fledgling country.
In a letter sent to all the states announcing his retirement from military service, he offered an “earnest prayer” that God “would incline the hearts of the Citizens to ... entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another.” Without “these things” he declared, “we can never hope to be a happy nation.” He might have said, “We could never hope to be a nation, period.”
Just a few years later, in the summer of 1787 when 55 delegates from Maine to Georgia crowded into the Pennsylvania State House for the Constitutional Convention, things were hot, humid and tense. Doors and windows remained shut to deter eavesdroppers, and men with vastly different opinions, priorities and constituencies deliberated for four to six hours each day, six days a week. Despite strenuous debate and divergent interests, flashes of incivility proved the exception rather than the rule. Benjamin Franklin praised the “great coolness & temper” he saw prevail among delegates. And Washington himself, who served as president of the convention, would later write that this “spirit of amity” and “mutual deference” were essential to producing the Constitution.*
Such a spirit remains vital to the continuing health of our country’s constitutional order. Yet, we live in contested times, rife with statistically established markers of increased partisanship and observable increases in rancor. The evidence of this hardly needs recounting. The presence of it is most alarming.
Those seeking to follow Jesus Christ should understand that reversing this contagion of political contempt begins with the two great commandments, to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40). In the scriptures, these two commandments are summarized in a single word: charity. The apostle Paul admonished, “let all your things be done with charity” (1 Corinthians 16:13). Presumably, “all your things” is encompassing enough to include even politics.
As a graduate student and later as a professor, I developed a profound appreciation for the way that Christian charity fostered a broad civic virtue that greatly influenced some of the most critical moments in the development of this country.
Civic charity stresses the public importance of the love of neighbor, and even our enemies, as inspired by a wide range of religious perspectives. This thread, which began even before the nation’s founding, and influenced Washington and the miracle in Philadelphia, also influenced key elements in the political thought of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others.
The contest for the presidency between John Adams and Jefferson was as bitter as, or worse than, any election we have seen here in modern times. To unite the divided nation, newly elected Jefferson famously declared in his first inaugural, “We are all republicans, we are all federalists.” During the campaign Jefferson was attacked for his less-than-orthodox religious views, and some New Englanders reportedly hid their Bibles for fear of confiscation under his administration. Ironically, throughout this period, including his presidency, Jefferson was assiduously studying the New Testament trying to glean moral precepts taught by Jesus that he found “more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers.” During his inaugural, Jefferson made it point to praise “religion” for inculcating throughout the Republic “honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man” (emphasis added). Following the speech, reports indicate that old friends who had long been divided over partisan differences were reunited.
More than half a century later, and only a month before his assassination, Lincoln used his second inaugural address to speak to a nation boiling with the acids of human hatred spawned by civil war. In an unmistakably biblical voice, Lincoln urged “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” as America’s bloodiest conflict neared its conclusion. By resisting the great temptation to focus on his own magnificent accomplishments as a leader, by implicating both the North and the South as contributing to God’s wrath over the injustice of more than two centuries of human slavery, and by calling for care for all the soldiers, widows and orphans across the country, Lincoln’s speech reduced many to tears and began to do just as he asked, to “bind up the nation’s wounds.” The great, black abolitionist Fredrick Douglass called it a “sacred effort.”
Importantly, during this speech Lincoln also reminds us that “charity for all” does not preclude “firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” To the extent civic charity asks us not only to love our neighbor but also to love God, we must “strive on” to cherish, honor and defend those things God tells us are good, right and true.
It was in this very spirit that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. bravely denounced and tirelessly worked to unwind the injustices of the segregated South and elsewhere but always did so through peaceful means and with a generous spirit toward those who opposed or failed to help. To borrow his own phrase, he embodied “a tough mind and a tender heart.”
God’s love for all of his children, and his invitation for us to love each other, must continue to inspire our own efforts to foster cooperation and civic charity between different groups, even — perhaps especially — when those groups have past or present points of divergence.
Such has been the aspiration of recent efforts between the NAACP and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2018, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson first met with a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in Jackson, Mississippi, where together they honored the legacy of Medgar Evers, the great civil rights martyr. They went to Evers’ home and visited the NAACP office where Evers once walked the halls. After the visit, Latter-day Saints and members of the NAACP began laboring together in a joint project to refresh and refurbish the Medgar Evers’ NAACP office.
Later that year, NAACP President Johnson and church President Russell M. Nelson took the bold step of establishing a relationship of cooperation between the two organizations. In 2021, they jointly announced that the church, working with the NAACP, would support humanitarian efforts in key cities across America, fund a significant number of academic scholarships administered by the United Negro College Fund, and organize a fellowship — named in honor of prominent civil rights leader the Rev. Amos C. Brown — for young people to travel to Ghana to learn about African history and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
This same spirit of civic charity has also guided the church in engaging with religious freedom advocates and members of the LGBTQ community to find common ground. In Utah, representatives of the LGBTQ community and leaders of the church worked to advance nondiscrimination protections for members of the LGBTQ community in employment and housing while also securing religious freedom protections. The 2015 Utah legislation has served as a model for similar collaborative efforts in other states and at the federal level. This year, the church worked with a broad coalition of religious and civic leaders to introduce similar legislation in Arizona. And, at the federal level, the church has worked alongside various LGBTQ leaders and other religious organizations to support the Fairness for All Act.
As Elder David A. Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, recently said at the National Press Club in Washington, “We are proud to stand with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. While we may not agree on everything, we surely are building a foundation of mutual respect and understanding.” We have a responsibility to be peacemakers. This does not mean a posture that is passive or weak. Quite the opposite — it takes steady courage, initiative, discipline, and prudence to foster unity in an era of so much strong disagreement. But followers of Jesus Christ are always called to a higher way — one inspired by genuine charity, the “greatest” of all the Christian virtues (1 Corinthians 13).
In the past, America has asked for the “better angels of our nature” in moments of peril. This means reaching into places where hope and social harmony sometimes feel lost. As Christ himself reminds us, no citizen is beyond the reach of love’s long arm. The times today call for nothing less.
*See the work of Derek Webb, particularly his 2012 article in the South Carolina Law Review “The Original Meaning of Civility: Democratic Deliberation at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention,” as well as the writings of retired federal Judge Thomas B. Griffith, including his 2020 Harvard Law Review article “The Degradation of Civic Charity.”
Matthew S. Holland is a General Authority Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was previously a professor of political science and the president of Utah Valley University