The 2020 political season is heating up and the divisive rhetoric from both ends of the political spectrum is wreaking havoc on the psyche of the American public and whipsawing an already weary nation. Listening to campaign speeches or perusing the headlines could cause one to conclude that the American experiment is in peril. Experts and elites, academics and party acolytes, pundits and politicos all seem to agree on just one thing — the American people are divided.

They have it all wrong. 

Not only is the country not nearly as divided as some say, America is actually very united on what will further unite the nation.

As noted in Scott Rasmussen’s poll and column this week, 93% of American voters believe it is important for our leaders to focus on things that bring people together. The nation is looking to leaders to create an elevated conversation and vision for citizens to rally around.

Rasmussen pointed out that, “73% of voters believe that America’s founding ideals of freedom, equality and self-governance are a good foundation for bringing people together and unifying the nation.”

So, the American people actually believe that the founding ideals, many of which have been under attack from the very partisans and elites who keep telling us we are too divided, will heal and reconnect the country.

Is America too polarized? What more than 90% of Americans really want their leaders to do

Elder Quentin L. Cook, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spoke Monday to Brigham Young University faculty and staff. In his address, Elder Cook laid out how individuals, organizations and institutions can respond to criticism; how divisive rhetoric can lead to “cancel culture” and inaccurate history; and how such an approach prevents elevated conversations, deeper dialogue and real progress in society. He then viewed the principles through the lens of Christian understanding and respect while applying them to issues such race, religion and America’s founding ideals.

Elder Cook provided extraordinary insight into the various ways harsh, and even untrue, criticism can be handled. “Just because the Church or BYU administrators do not respond, never assume that the criticism is justified,” he began. “As I have indicated many criticisms are not worthy of a response. And in many cases, the Christian thing to do is not respond and to turn the other cheek.”

Citing a specific example of such patience in the face of ridicule, Elder Cook said, “I have a difficult time explaining to friends and even colleagues in different faiths why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints handles criticism the way it does. We are certainly among the least aggressive in defending ourselves against obviously untrue and/or unfair criticism. 

“I offer as exhibit A our decision or lack of decision to react to the ‘Book of Mormon’ musical. One leader of another faith pointed out to me that there is not another religion that would not have responded with a hailstorm of righteous indignation at the crude, vicious, and reprehensible portrayal of our faith and our missionaries. Rather than organize a major protest or boycott, the church bought ads in the Playbill that simply said, ‘You’ve seen the play … Now read the book’ with a picture of the Book of Mormon.” 

How one responds to criticism says more about the receiver than those making the criticism. A Twitter rant or counterattack on those who criticize may feel good, but it rarely leads to positive places. In many instances it only adds fuel to the rhetorical dumpster fire. 

One of the great challenges of 2020 is a renewed willingness by many to “cancel” or condemn individuals, institutions and even ideals based on out-of-context criticism or inappropriate societal comparisons across time and history.

Elder Cook cautioned about the way in which we treat history by quoting the managing director of church history, Matt Grow: “Be careful about sources of information that just seek to tear people down. Look instead for sources of information that are based on the records left by the people themselves and that seek to be fair to them. It is really easy to play ‘gotcha’ with the past, to pull a quotation or incident out of context and make it look alarming.” 

Continuing to quote Grow: “As a historian, I try to follow the advice of a British novelist. He said, ‘The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.’ That means when we visit the past, we don’t want to be an ‘ugly tourist.’ We want to try to understand people within their own context and their own culture. We want to be patient with what we perceive as their faults. We want to be humble about the limits of our own knowledge. And we want to have a spirit of charity about the past.”

Elder Cook to BYU faculty: Maintain ‘laserlike focus’ on building faith in Christ, church

That spirit of charity is essential both in receiving criticism today and also criticizing, especially those who have gone before us.

Elder Cook went on to address racism, equality and justice. He quoted a prominent European Jewish leader, Daniel Schwammenthal, who recently said, “America can’t remain the leader of the free world … if the country goes beyond acknowledging that racism and inequality persists and must be fought, and instead convinces itself that it’s inherently and irredeemably racist.” 

Schwammenthal’s quote continued, “Yes, the U.S. has not always lived up to its ideals. But to claim that the Founding’s ‘promissory note’ was never anything but a scam to maintain the system of white oppression is ahistorical revisionism that will erode the country’s foundation.”

Elder Cook concluded: “We all support peaceful efforts to overcome racial and social injustice. This needs to be accomplished. My concern is that some are also trying to undermine the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights that has blessed this country and protected people of all faiths. We need to protect religious freedom.”

“The proper perspective on history, restrained reaction to criticism and the appropriate application of founding principles to today’s problems will result in real progress for the nation on issues like race, equality, faith and freedom.”

Confronting past wrongs and the many times the country has failed to live up to America’s founding principles is part of the path to progress. However, criticism, cancel-culture and abandoning ideals will never build a better, brighter tomorrow for citizens. 

The proper perspective on history, restrained reaction to criticism and the appropriate application of founding principles to today’s problems will result in real progress for the nation on issues like race, equality, faith and freedom.

Almost unanimously the citizens of this nation recognize the need for its leaders to rally rather than rail against political opponents, and to sound the certain trumpet of timeless principles rather than continue the clamor and chaos of division.

The American people may disagree on a host of issues, but they are united in a most extraordinary and unexpected way by their belief that the founding principles are indeed the best way to heal the country, foster freedom, promote justice and erase inequality. In short, the citizens of this nation believe it through principles that we will advance toward a more perfect union.