EDITOR’S NOTE: We grow up. We grow old. We grow stronger and wiser. And sometimes we grow weary. In certain moments we grow closer. Other times we grow apart. 

How we thrive or falter depends on how we grow. At its roots is the idea of an abundant life for individuals, but also for communities and nations.

Today, the Deseret News introduces Growing, an ongoing series. In this series we’ll examine what it takes to flourish. What do kids need to know to become prosperous? What do adults need to know to grow old gracefully? We’ll explores the lessons we teach each other as we grow and how to build bridges in a world that seems to be coming apart.

SALT LAKE CITY — Flipping through a newspaper or watching CNN or Fox News might lead to the impression Americans can’t stand each other.

It’s not just an impression: Social scientists and data say the country is growing apart, with partisan divides, decreased civility and shrinking involvement with institutions like faith communities and civic clubs.

In “Love Your Enemies,” Arthur Brooks warns of a culture of contempt pervading interactions and devaluing relationships.

U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, in his bestseller “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” suggests Americans’ networks and connections have grown thin and sad compared to more robust relationships of old. In terms of social capital, he writes, America is going broke.

When Princeton academic Nolan McCarty discussed his book “Polarization” for an American Enterprise Institute panel recently, he called polarization a growth industry that’s great for hungry young scholars, but bad for the nation.

All of which leads to the question: Are Americans growing apart?

The evidence indicates we are divided on several fronts.

Politics seems to be the widest chasm, with sharp disagreements on everything from same-sex marriage to immigration reform and the looming 2020 presidential election. McCarty wryly noted a survey showing Americans as uncomfortable with the idea of a child marrying into a family with other-party political views as they were in the 1960s with interracial marriage.

Do these people behave unethically | Pew Research Center

The distinctions are forged in both belief and personal experience. In an analysis by Pew Research Center, Republicans have more faith than Democrats that military leaders handle resources responsibly, but less faith in journalistic fairness. Regardless of politics, blacks and Hispanics are more skeptical than whites about police treating people equally.

Even education creates wedges. Pew says a third of all registered voters graduated college and nearly 6 in 10 college grads lean Democrat, while just 36% lean Republican. Age may drive the difference as millennials and Generation Z are more likely to attend college than older generations. Younger adults are also more racially and ethnically diverse and more liberal than older generations, according to Pew’s Generation Gap in American Politics report.

Even neighborhoods create division. A Pew social trends report confirmed what other studies have long shown: City dwellers align more often with the Democratic Party than with the GOP, while rural adults are the opposite. But the disconnection extends beyond politics.

The report says urban and rural residents both feel looked down on by those living in other types of communities and two-thirds say you have to live where they do to understand their challenges. Residents in each believe their type of community is better and see differences in key values. Experts say resources and opportunities differ, too. People in cities earn on average (using 2016 data) $49,515, which is more than people in suburbs at $46,081, which is significantly higher than people in rural communities at $35,171.

The Pew analysis calls “empathy, openness, integrity and accountability” building blocks of trust. But is it happening?

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In our opinion: America’s partisan wounds are curable

Americans don’t even agree on the right way to protest; surveys suggesting most young adults approve of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to oppose racial injustice, while baby boomers and the silent generation do not approve of the protest.

Most do agree on this, though: Hyperpartisan politics and exaggerated distrust can prevent leaders from getting anything done.

The Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, executive director of Parity, a New York-based nonprofit that focuses on faith issues in LGBTQ communities, says Americans should quit being afraid of divisive issues and engage each other warmly, not necessarily to change minds, but to create understanding.

With all this division, who’s building bridges?

What bridges do

A bridge is a safe path across a gap, whether it’s a raging river or an ideological divide.

Americans feel divided because they increasingly turn their attention from what they can control — more local, human, interactive aspects of their lives — to focus on things they can’t, said Timothy P. Carney,  an American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar and author of “Alienated America.”

Instead of engaging in their communities — faith communities, neighborhoods, organizations — they use time and energy on things they don’t influence well such as national politics and then get frustrated.

Making national politics less divisive is the wrong goal, he told the Deseret News. Instead, people should keep it in perspective compared to what’s happening in their daily lives.

Communities are weaker when people lose focus on them, working with neighbors less often. It’s harder to raise families in weak communities. Additionally, when your thoughts are dominated by disagreements about national politics, there’s a fair amount of hair-pulling and Facebook or Twitter fights with your old college roommate’s wife, he said. What that accomplishes is questionable. 

In July, a FactTank report found the American public thinks distrust makes it harder to solve problems. Three-fourths said we have less trust in the federal government and nearly two-thirds said we don’t trust each other. But the vast majority, 84%, think distrust can be reversed. Suggestions include political reform and more government transparency. While 7 in 10 said low trust in each other curtails problem-solving, even more, 86%, said that trust can be restored, too. 

While Democrats and Republicans think differently about trust, both want more of it.

The cost of division is clear, Carney said. People lose their sense of charity and their ability to move past not getting their own way. The very habits developed by routinely solving problems erode because they’re not used and problems don’t get solved. Meanwhile, children don’t have role models for cooperation and don’t get a sense they’re part of the bigger family that is neighborhood, then community, then nation.

Community matters to Carney, who said one benefit of belonging to something is the sense of purpose it provides. But Americans don’t belong to as many groups as they used to — and he’s not talking about national movements or Facebook groups or political parties, but those that exist on a human level where you get together regularly with others who belong. Such communities encourage people to interact with people “who might be different in all sorts of ways, who might believe different things, look different,” but have the group in common, he said, adding such diversity is good. 

The more connections one has with others who are different, the more able one will be to bridge areas that could otherwise tear you apart.

Jaime Settle of The College of William and Mary warned during the panel discussion that polarization grows and, unchecked, people could start judging each other on characteristics that have nothing to do with what first divided them.

Bridges and divides

As political and social divides seem to widen and Americans grow farther apart, building bridges is gaining attention. 

“It’s not about compromising your tightly held beliefs,” the Rev. Edmonds-Allen said. “It’s about understanding each other and finding similarities.”

The Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, pictured in this July 16, 2015, file photo as she was named executive director with the Utah Pride Center. The Rev. Edmonds-Allen is now executive director of Parity, a New York-based nonprofit that focuses on faith issues in LGBTQ communities. | Deseret News archives

She teamed up with Derek Monson of the Salt Lake-based think tank The Sutherland Institute to write about bridging divides. Originally published in The Hill, the article lauds relationships based on finding common ground, which is very different from seeking sameness.

They extolled “friendships blessed by difference.”

“When we build friendships blessed by difference within our own community, unexpected and beautiful things happen that can transform both us and things around us, including our politics,” they wrote. “This happens because we learn that we are more similar than we are different: We all want fewer youth suicides, legal protections for everyone’s basic human rights and practical solutions for problems in our community.”

Just as an engineer would never design a bridge without first figuring out what it should span, bridging America’s divides means at least trying to see the other guy’s viewpoint.

Economist Arnold Kling’s “Three Languages of Politics” holds that Americans each see the world through their idealogical filter: Progressives see victims who need help and oppressors who should be punished. Conservatives filter issues as civilization vs. barbarians. For Libertarians, it comes down to freedom vs. coercion. Each group feels morally superior.

But across groups, there is common ground. The intersection for the Rev. Edmonds-Allen and Monson is faith, offering a framework for collaboration. They are different religions, but faith is “an easy bridge.”

Still, what lights one up can burn another down, warned Carney, who also uses faith as an example. “So many of us find our greatest meaning and our greatest connection in church and so many other people think that it’s really an undermining, destructive force,” he said. Some tell him leaving the Catholic Church as an adult was a good decision. He’s happy he joined it as an adult.

The Rev. David Anderson, senior pastor of Bridgeway Community Church in Washington, D.C., said polarization can stifle empathy and may add to the shrinkage organized religion is experiencing. He believes racially or ethnically diverse people leave some congregations because church leaders don’t take their experience into account when they address — or ignore — current events. “Sometimes, speaking from a political or spiritual filter slashes others who share your faith,” said the Rev. Anderson, who wrote the book “Gracism: The Art of Inclusion” about extending favor to people whether they deserve it or not.

People stay silent for different reasons when they witness hurts. The Rev. Anderson leads a multicultural church. Intellectually he knows that silence may not mean people agree with things that feel harmful to him as an African American male. Yet it hurts. Maybe they’re embarrassed or ashamed, he said, but those recognizing harm should speak up. Faith, to him, means showing up on someone’s worst day. Jesus said clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger are part of following Christ, of “advocating for others in their worst life, not their best life. That’s when people need help.”

Under construction

We are less-segregated by race in terms of where we live, but more segregated by income and education than in the past. “It means people are living in totally different worlds,” Carney said. He knows people in Washington, D.C., whose spouses, parents and friends all have college degrees — and so do all their friends’ friends. But most of the country doesn’t have a degree. That segregation is one more way people are growing apart, with different customs and different norms, he said.

To build all kinds of bridges, one must know and care for all kinds of people. As Monson and the Rev. Edmonds-Allen did, successful bridge builders start with areas of agreement, like love of family or country, although they may have significant differences even in those areas.

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, recipient of the 2018 Valentine Davies Award, poses at the 2018 Writers Guild Awards at the Beverly Hilton on Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018, in Beverly Hills, Calif. | Chris Pizzello, Associated Press

Dustin Lance Black, an LGBT activist, Oscar-winning screenwriter and author of “Mama’s Boy,” said people need role models for getting along, for making amends, for arguing with decency. His mom was his example. She was very conservative, a devoted member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When he told her he was gay, she was upset, but it didn’t stop her from loving him or being his mom, from trying to understand him and building her own bridge by learning his friends’ stories.

He’d viewed the chasm between who he was and his former faith as too wide to cross, and so too seemed the distance between his life in Los Angeles and London and back home with extended family in Texas. But he decided he’d do what his mom had done, reaching across the gulfs.

One must be as willing to listen as to talk, Black told the Deseret News. He found with both groups of people that despite important differences that didn’t change, they have key things in common, like devotion to family.

Good bridge builders listen intently and feel intensely, then commit to lifting other people up, said the Rev. Anderson. They are willing to call out fouls, even those committed by their own side. Ignoring unfairness because it originates with your team is dishonest and makes those on the other side bolder, while distrust becomes entrenched.

The Rev. Edmonds-Allen said curiosity and openness come first in any bridge building, which starts with being willing to listen and open to accepting differences. Then, one can express a concern or hear someone else’s and find a starting point for a constructive conversation.

Her steps to bridging gaps are very basic: Know how you feel about something and then learn why others might feel differently. Finally, talk to each other with real respect and curiosity.

Storytelling is an important component. She said to tell a story that illustrates why you feel as you do and ask the other person for a story about why he feels differently. That helps humanize his position for you and builds a connection.

Research shows “when we tell and listen to stories, our brain waves come in tune with each other,” she said. “Maybe you’ll find you’re just dissimilar. But you’ll see you share so much in common.”

Positions might stay exactly the same, said the Rev. Edmonds-Allen. But relationships will improve.

As for the bridges Black tried to build? “ It was so much easier to reconnect and to find common ground than I ever thought it would be.”