Several weeks ago, a routine early morning baseball practice for a charity game became the site of an unthinkable attack. Republican members of Congress were shot by a gunman who had made clear his antipathy for their party and the president who leads it.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise suffered wounds that resulted in an “imminent risk of death,” according to hospital staff. Zach Barth, a congressional staffer, was wounded and Matt Mika, a former congressional staffer, spent days in the hospital. Two U.S. Capitol Police officers, Special Agents Crystal Griner and David Bailey, sustained injuries while saving the lives of everyone on that field. All are recovering, but they, and the nation, will bear the scars.
It was a moment that crystallized the dangers of America’s often-divisive political culture. But it also revealed the strength and endurance of the bonds that tie us together. As Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said in the wake of this horrific act: “an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “On days like today, there are no Democrats or Republicans, only Americans united in our hopes and prayers for the wounded.”
Members of the Democratic baseball team knelt in prayer when they learned their colleagues had come under gunfire. Members of Congress and their staffs joined together throughout the Capitol to pray for their colleagues and express gratitude for the heroism of the Capitol Police.
One of the most powerful images came the next day, at the congressional baseball game itself. Before the first pitch was thrown, members of both teams—Democrats and Republicans—joined together in the middle of the field to pray. This prayer prompted varied reactions across the nation, as many Americans were shocked to see Republicans and Democrats praying together. The cynical nation wondered, “how long would it last?” They ask because Congress is seen as uncivil.
In a recent mid-June poll, two-thirds of Americans said they believed the tone and level of civility in politics has gotten worse in recent years. When asked “is the tone of the current political debate encouraging violence?” nearly three quarters said ‘yes.’
This is a problem. But instead of asking how long the post-shooting unity would last, the American people should actually ask: How much stronger will it grow?
On any given day at the Capitol, you could wander around and find bipartisan conversations, Bible studies, prayer times, meals, and cooperation. You could also find division, conflict, and accusations. It just depends on where you look.
The camera lens is obviously most often focused on the places of conflict and disagreement. This is no condemnation of the media; it is a recognition that we live in a culture that deeply desires progress and cooperation for the common gain of our nation, but which also promotes the blood sport of politics and conflict. Historically, Americans have alternated between the two passions, but in which direction will they demand their leaders move today?
Unity and respect do not require watered-down policy positions and weakness. They require respect for views that are different, and understanding that the people that disagree do not want to destroy the country. Maybe they just have a different view of the world.
Americans, including many politicians, have started believing the political spin that their own party puts out about people with opposing views. Social media is consumed with people sharing “a good burn” rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue. If the national pendulum is ever going to swing, it will require role models in every community who don’t just call out for respectful opposition, but practice it.
Unity is not easy. Many families have a hard time deciding what to eat for dinner without a fight; that discussion becomes much louder when the disagreement is about deficits, economics, healthcare, national defense, environment, and education. The key is not uniform policy views; it is uniform respect for each other and the process. It is disagreement without personal attack.
Even during this heated disagreement about the future of health care and the Affordable Care Act, Americans can and should continue to display civility and unity. We all want people in the safety net to have good health care, we all want to eliminate fraud and waste, we all want to bring down health-care costs—we just differ on how to get there. This nation is not made up of monsters who hate; it is made up of people who care, but disagree.
The simple prayer before the charity baseball game was profound. It resonated with the heart of a nation that craves unity, respect, and progress over noise. A quiet bipartisan prayer before a baseball game helped us all remember that we are “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
As Americans celebrate the birth of our nation this week, they and their elected representatives in Washington all have the chance to recommit to civility and unity, even while they disagree.