It's clear that what America is doing to heal itself is not working. We are more divided than in recent memory despite good faith efforts at all levels of government; despite billions of charity grant dollars.
We are more convinced than ever that WhatWentWrong? is meeting this moment in America's history, as much as a collection of essays can claim to do so.
So what went wrong?
1. Our "Bridge Building Class" is not Counting the Cost
Two incredible essays by Ben Marcus & Hannah Santos and Justin Giboney make the important point that well-meaning leaders are not counting the cost of actually bridging our divides. Whether it's white baptist pastors making notional concessions for "diversity initiatives," or progressives who express difficulty being in the same room as the conservatives that offend them, Americans on both sides appear unwilling to sign on the dotted line for real change.
Nevertheless, what we did learn is that we need better leaders, or stronger incentives for individual leaders to actually change things.
2. Our Better Angels are not Good Enough
Humans are tribal; for some reason we cherish the things that make us different from others. Asma Uddin points out that even the best people tend to capitulate to their tribes. Behaving like a "bridgebuilder" in one space does not mean we are not doing the opposite in others.
Similarly, Kevin McIntosh and Larry Lin point out that humans tend to rotely make harmful judgements about strangers. In short, our brains are working against us and our increasingly digital society is tilting the scales towards dangerous polarization.
We need to shift norms within tribes, and we need to spend less time with our own tribes. We at NF will admit that we have no idea how to do this at scale and fast. We also aren’t convinced that others do either.
3. Ordinary Americans Don't Care
Every charity in this space claims it is a "movement." We do too. Yet, we should recognize we aren't actually reaching most Americans. As Ken Chitwood said in his essay: "People Just Don't Care."
This is even true of those young people who, more than others, we assume will care. The IDEALS study of 3,486 students across 116 university institutions between 2015 and 2019, Mayhew and Rockenbach found that while 70% of fourth-year students expressed a high commitment to bridging religious divides, only 14% took part in on-campus interreligious dialogue initiatives or events. Furthermore, fewer than 50% spent time even trying to learn about other traditions.
Khaled Beydoun points out how Americans tend to care about what is popular without regard for proximity or relative importance. Ukrainian flags are everywhere, but most Americans don't care about the divisions in their backyards.
At NF, we believe bridge-building organizations need to become more specific: we need to identify our target audiences, build programs that they find compelling, and be satisfied with scaling up programs in our verticals.
For example, NF reaches Evangelical youth because they are more civically engaged and eager to lead across faiths than their peers. Everything we do is for them, so that ordinary Evangelicals will sign on, not just those with a predisposition to healing America's divides. We are satisfied with scaling in this vertical, despite our limited prospects for attracting national attention.
For those claiming nationwide “movements” under their leadership: is this true? Is it aspirational? Is it a fundraising mechanism?
There are Reasons for Optimism
We (Chris & Kevin) have been surprised by the quality of analysis we have received from our authors. It is clear that leaders in our "space" are engaging more critically (yes, critical of ourselves and our methods) than ever before. We all know that our "machine" for fixing America is broken. And, without prompts, we received a surprising level of specificity as to what is broken. Here's some samples:
Neuroscience to the rescue: multiple essays engage research on what is wrong with our brains that we can't help but be divided
Friendships First: authors recognize that "systems" approaches (however compelling) to fixing America isn't cutting it at the grassroots.
Telling New Stories: multiple essays focused on how telling new stories is a simple way to shift norms.
Healthy Cynicism: we're pleased to see that, while most of the people we asked to write make some or all of their living building bridges, they all could say more or less that this field is full of unknowns. (Or that's how we interpret them).
Given the above, we're quite optimistic for our field. We at NF often joke that we'd cherish the day we can quit our jobs healing America's divides for lack of need. Here's three things that are keeping us optimistic that our field is moving in a healthy direction:
1. America's Healing Heavyweight is Just Waking up
Despite our collective exasperation at the results of our efforts to heal America, we at NF are hopeful that we have yet to send in our heavy hitters: America's faith communities.
Faith communities are just now joining the fight for a more welcoming society. Faith undergirds the majority of Americans’ lives and animates their values. Most of our "better angels" work for churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples. We've written a lot about this, and why America's faith leaders are bridging divides at the grassroots. If this trend continues, the sky's the limit.
2. There is More Innovation Today than in Years Past
This is by far the most encouraging trend we've observed. In just a few years, we've gone from an industry of "experts" with all the answers to a table of "learners" who are trying out new approaches and gathering new research that is up to task for this moment. One great examples are PACE Funders' project on Faith in/and Democracy Project, and the New Pluralists. Both projects are convening experts and funding experimental projects that develop new approaches that bring Americans together. Both are meeting this moment by recognizing the deep role faith plays in the lives of Americans, and its potential to heal divides.
3. Our Field is Getting Younger and more Diverse
Almost a decade ago, when we (Chris and Kevin) entered this field, we were disappointed to see young adults and minorities underrepresented. Most were hired to low-paid and high-turnover roles that chased them out of the field. This is changing.
Without naming names, we've noticed a new crowd of young, energetic, and racially diverse leaders entering our field and staying. Many are moving onto influential roles in significant organizations, and even foundations. This trend, we believe, is for the better.
Questions that Remain
For our field, some questions remain that we plan to address with future essays:
Why aren’t NGOs with the explicit purpose of fighting polarization making more progress?
Why is it so easy to name twenty organizations convening different kinds of progressives to “bridge-build” and almost none operating across the conservative-liberal divide?
Why isn’t faith given more priority in efforts to bring Americans together?
Our essayists have confirmed that America is deeply divided and this division is not adequately addressed by the government and NPO sector. In order to bring healing, we need new approaches. We hope that WhatWentWrong can be a part of resourcing a clear-eyed movement towards change that actually unites Americans across faith, racial, and political divides.
Explore related essays and insights at WhatWentWrong.us
Chris Stackaruk and Kevin Signer are co-directors of Neighborly Faith. Chris holds a PhD from the University of Toronto; Kevin is head of Media and Public Relations for Springtide Research Institute.