On one end is the effortless absolution we offer those we love — forgiving what your toddler spills or your partner forgets, the featherweight lapses that barely test grace. Somewhere in the middle are the minor lifts of mercy needed to let go of grievances against friends and colleagues. At the far end is the crushing challenge of forgiving the hateful stranger; Pope John Paul II forgiving his would-be assassin, the families and victims of the Charleston church massacre forgiving Dylann Roof. What muscles does that grace require, to turn the other cheek when both are burning?
This musculature lies beneath the skin of our daily interactions; practice makes us stronger, while we know the deadening weight of holding a grudge. But how do the mechanics of forgiveness apply to this polarized moment in our political life? It is hard to forgive our opponents for anything — but what about our friends? Why do so many Republicans forgive President Trump his every trespass, while Democrats forgive none by those from their own team? As they survey an ever growing array of aspirants, it seems that the more choices Democrats have, the less charitable their judgments. Elizabeth Warren cracked open a beer? How contrived. Joe Biden? Too fond of compromise. Plus, Anita Hill. John Hickenlooper’s take on the Green New Deal? Too yellow. Prosecutor Kamala D. Harris? Didn’t authorize gender reassignment surgery for transgender prisoners, though she says she fought for their rights privately. As critics of the left have often observed, a party that exalts tolerance can be mighty intolerant.
The right, meanwhile, aspires to righteousness, which its critics call self-righteousness. No-new-taxes pledges, pro-life purity tests, a moral rigidity that fits cartoon conservatism, which we saw in abundance in the Alabama abortion debate: “When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb,” one Alabama state legislator declared, “it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life.”
But . . . Trump. Republicans generally and evangelical Christians especially have accepted the allegations of serial adultery and devout corruption on the part of Trump, an Olympic sinner whose boast that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes sounds less metaphorical by the day.
Is this the easy forgiveness of those we love? Something about Trump, with his winsome delight in tormenting elites, so endears him to his base that they can forgive his most flamboyant faults. Maybe the GOP business wing can get past his odd idolatry of tariffs so long as he hates regulation even more. Or maybe the party is just more forgiving than it gets credit for?
The inevitable retort is that no, the GOP is just more cynical, that power trumps principle and the Republican absolution of all Trump’s sins is attached to no value beyond Dow 26,000 and Brett M. Kavanaugh. That this is not forgiveness; it’s enabling. And that Democrats’ devolution into purity politics is not intolerance but a reflection of core values that should define the party and inspire the country. Yet each party’s approach to forgiveness — whether too willing or too reluctant — carries some risk.
What price will Democrats pay if they are too litigious of past faults, when the crisis of the present is so much graver? Politicians of the past — and Biden is certainly one, as was Hillary Clinton — are never perfect, and the party’s priorities have evolved to the point that new standard-bearers may better reflect its vision for the future. But at what point does self-improvement risk self-destruction? The energies of the party’s base are better spent persuading voters of the merits of their views than vilifying those who don’t share them. The last successful Democratic president ran on hope and change, not slash and burn.
And what price will Republicans pay when they need to find some principles to live by, having shredded the small-c conservative values that honor constitutional precedent, separation of powers and the rule of law? Forgiveness is no virtue when it functions mainly as a means to an end, especially if that end is maintenance of power. True forgiveness reflects an element of humility; we are all fallen. And that points to the final test.
It’s so essentially human and self-protective to assume the best of ourselves and the worst of our opponents. Thus my judgments are about merit, while yours are mercenary; I’m principled, while you’re judgmental. Back and forth this goes, which is not to say that both sides of this ferocious partisan war are equally ruthless, only that they are equally inflamed.
This brings us to the hard forgiveness, the hard-even-to-imagine kind, which we will face once this era passes, whenever and however that happens. Can we forgive each other? Restore the benefit of the doubt, retreat from contempt, let go of the thrill of feeling superior, in favor of rebuilding a complex community. There will be people around the periphery who earn too much money or get too much satisfaction from the fight that they will never lay down arms. But most of us, I believe, and polls affirm, miss a time when we talked about the values we shared even when we failed to live up to them, and honored people for how they play, regardless of what team they’re on.
Our leaders haven’t been perfect, and to the extent we get the ones we deserve, neither have we. And while we could spend until the end of days deploring each other’s sins, there will be no peace until we remember we are capable of so much more than that.