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America has a legacy of loving its enemies. Don’t forget that now

With political opponents vilified in cataclysmic terms, talk of love may seem naïve, even treacherous

The Lincoln Memorial is seen in this general view, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Associated Press

With millions of others, we gathered our family earlier this month for the 190th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We had an especially memorable experience listening to President Dallin H. Oaks’ talk “Love Your Enemies” and his admonition to “forgo the anger and hatred” so commonplace now in American politics.

For us, it felt like a much needed balm after months of fiery and caustic debates over racial injustice, the pandemic, climate change, the Supreme Court, and, of course, the upcoming presidential election. Just after President Oaks concluded with “amen,” our 10-year-old daughter made a very grown-up pronouncement, “It’s nice to have somebody finally tell us what’s right!”

It certainly was. Last year, before the world was engulfed in the COVID-19 pandemic, author Arthur C. Brooks’ was warning of a “pandemic of contempt” in American politics. We need not rehearse how numerous events in 2020 have now pushed that pandemic to fever pitch, infecting political dialogue, news commentary, and social media with invective and disdain at alarming levels.

In the message to “love your enemies,” President Oaks and Mr. Brooks have pointed us to a vaccine for an ailing American political discourse. As we hope and pray for the COVID-19 pandemic to come to an end, we might do likewise for the pandemic of anger and hatred saturating America’s political culture.

Loving our enemies is no easy task. And in the present climate, with political opponents vilified in cataclysmic terms, talk of love, for some, may seem naïve, even treacherous. When some imagine themselves battling a corrupt and racist regime, while others suppose the alternative is a socialist takeover and surrender of personal liberties, there is little surprise in the entrenched hostility of extremes.

Our history, however, inspires a better hope. Americans have persevered through much darker hours with faith in the virtue of loving “thy neighbor as thyself.”

Perhaps no American political leader exemplifies this virtue more than Abraham Lincoln. To avoid the terror of civil war, he appealed to the “better angels of our nature.” To heal the wounds of civil war, he sought “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” Lincoln learned to love his enemies by learning from them. Not content to read only from newspapers that shared his political views, Lincoln also read regularly from pro-slavery and secessionist publications. One of his greatest political skills was defeating his enemies by making them his friends.

Though Lincoln “hated” slavery as a “monstrous” injustice, he felt no “prejudice” against the Southern people. “They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.” Lincoln judged sin without ever condemning others as sinners, “let us judge not that we be not judged.”

Most civil wars end in terrible carnage, with the losing army treated as traitorous and its soldiers and leaders imprisoned, exiled or massacred. The Confederate States had rebelled against the results of a free election and had made slavery the “cornerstone” of their government. But rather than revile Confederate soldiers as rebels and racists during their surrender at Appomattox, Union soldiers stood at attention and saluted them. Surprised Confederates returned the gracious gesture.

Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, whose heroic bayonet charge had saved the Union from defeat at Gettysburg, knew the salute would be controversial after so much death and destruction. But he saw the Confederates not as foes to be punished but fellow countrymen to be welcomed home. He also saw something else. The North was not full of saints and the South full of sinners; all needed grace. “How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all!”

Since the 1960s, many social causes have claimed the mantle of the civil rights movement, but none have exhibited the same character of loving your enemies. When 6-year-old Ruby Bridges faced angry mobs on the way to school, she stopped and prayed for them. When asked why, she responded innocently, “Well, don’t you think they need praying for?” Her prayer was simple and echoed another’s: “Dear God, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

During the ensuing years, in the face of firehoses, barking dogs, and billy clubs, countless marchers offered prayers for their persecutors. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had set the example at the movement’s beginning during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After his home was bombed, with his wife and infant daughter inside though uninjured, King urged supporters: “We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them, love them and let them know you love them.”

The upcoming election will have significant consequences. But how we react may have more effect than whom we elect. Our great Republic was founded, and has endured, on political compromise, respect for differences and a belief that “out of many, one.” America has always met its greatest challenges with charity. It is time we do so again. As Americans, we have no enemy unworthy of the virtue of love.

Michael Erickson is an attorney in Salt Lake City. Jenet Jacob Erickson is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution and a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.