Divided States Of America | Review & Reflections

PBS Frontline. Divided States of America. 2017.

Synopsis: FRONTLINE investigates the partisanship that gridlocked Washington in the Obama era, and the polarized America that Donald Trump inherits as president.



In good Frontline fashion, this two-part documentary is a measured journalistic journey that charts through the history of the development of recent politics that have culminated in our current reality. Far from mere partisan antagonism, Frontline suggests that there were a host of factors, including calculated missteps by President Obama that set the tone for division. In addition, the racial tensions (and tragedies) in our country, coupled with the mere fact of the President’s body was a political wedge that posed a “lose/lose” situation for Obama. They also expose some of the personality traits that factor into the equation, and the ever pervasive role of the fragility of the ego. I’m sure there are a host of others factors, things that simply could not be featured in a 4-hour producion, however, at the very least, identifying the ones portrayed in Divided States is a good starting point.

I commend this to you if you are, well, a citizen.


Let me begin with the hopeful optimism that I’ve been attempting to voice when in conversation about our current socio-political reality. I believe that our democracy is a robust system. I feel confident that the strength of our Constitutional Values and the power of those Values to govern us will ultimately take care of us.

The Electoral College (EC) system was intended to ensure that all citizens were incorporated into the Union with a voice. That happened. In other words, the EC did exactly what it was supposed to do. It is the responsibility of politicians to pay careful attention to how their platform considers the margins of our citizenry, and this election appears to have exposed the failures of our parties (Republicans and Democrats) to attend carefully to those margins. In addition, the marches that are happening now (as of January 21, 2017) all over the world–which may be historically the largest demonstration in our nation’s history–is a right in the Constitution, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Many hope politicians are listening, because they may be out of a job in two years.

In other words, our system is behaving the way it is supposed to behave. Checks and balances, the freedom of grass-roots movements and marches, the ability to leverage our voice for political influence, the power to impeach … these and many more aspects of American politics grounds me in hope, not just for our future, but even for our current state of affairs. As long as we continue to pursue and practice these values without violence, we will continue to progress.


If you have not watched the Frontline production, I encourage you to do so, as our political system is contingent upon an informed and educated citizenry. Frontline, in that regard, is doing a phenomenal patriotic service, and has been doing award-winning work for years.

As I watched, here are the key elements that emerged for me, lessons that are not unfamiliar, but are perhaps growing more weighty with each passing day.

As with everything in life, I opine that we cannot and should not scapegoat, demonize or deify anyone or any group, even and especially now, in this particular moment in history.

I’m not sure if this will ever be realized in our public discourse, because even in private conversation, this impulse is so strong it feels impossible to navigate our way through without any name-calling, blame-shifting, or a far worse act of de-humanization. But if it could be realized, we will have reached a level of human consciousness that would also be historical, and one that I opine, would be better for our existence.

In addition to your opponent not being your enemy, your candidate is also not your savior. We must revere the ground in which we are rooted, not the fruit of which we eat. In other words, the democracy by which we all operate should be revered above and beyond the persons or parties that are voted in by the democracy.

If we leave the ground of our Constitutional Values, we end up being tossed around by the winds of anger and fear. Neuro-biologically, this means we can no longer deploy rational thinking, social-awareness, or executive functioning to get to solutions. Yes, I understand that psychologically, to know ourselves, we must know what we are not, and we do that primarily through contrasting our values as “good/right,” and the “the other’s” values as “bad/evil.” But we must depersonalize the enemy, seeing partisanship, not parties, as the enemy, hatred and fear, not the ones who may embody that fear, as the enemy. For only in doing that, can we humanize the other, which has the profound potential of creating a “humanizing feedback loop.”

If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

There were several ironic turning points in the film that showed this principle at play. Obama’s apparent dismissal of Republican Congressmen may have played a part in the obstructionism that emerged later on. The Republican party’s choosing of Sarah Palin persisted the hostile takeover by the Tea Party. Each of these factors, by the way, is subtle, and perhaps not very well understood at the time of action. It should humble us, and cause us to consider carefully how we treat one another, how we behave, how we posture our attitudes, for you truly “die by the sword” which we wield in our living.

Fear, once again, is powerful fuel. Anger is natural gas. Love can be a hearth.

What I simply mean by this is that anger is a type of fear, just like natural gas is a type of fuel. And just like regular fuel, it doesn’t take but a spark to ignite concentrated doses.

Rooted in our evolutionary biology, fear is self-preservation, a “fight or flight” impulse that lives in all of us driven by our limbic system to keep us from getting eaten. In other words, fear is not going away any time soon. Fear will also continue to squelch our intellectual, rational parts of our brains, and it will persist in feeding the darkest parts of our humanity. This leads to a complete misunderstanding of the people and world around us, and it even gets crazy people elected to powerful offices of government. The antidote? Love. While this sounds “Hallmarky” and “sentimental,” the reality is, loving the other, neurologically, squelches fear, increases empathy, and even lowers blood pressure. Love increases our capacity to connect with another human, leading to understanding, shared interests, and a more rational and peaceful resolution to the challenges and problems that are common to our populace. If we could become more afraid of what fear does to our human soul than afraid of the “other humans” around us, love can be the place where that kind of fear can warm us, rather than burn.

Race is.

I was both surprised and not surprised how much race played a part in the Obama Administration’s legacy and reputation. No further comment needed here as there are plenty of excellent books and films on the subject.

If anyone has anything against you, GO TO THEM.

One of the amazing dramatic elements that, I suppose we’ll never really know, is whether or not the 2011 White House Correspondent’s Dinner played a determining role in Donald Trump’s decision to run for president. When they (Trump and Obama) met at the White House after the elections in November (2016), Trump mentioned, “We had never met each other.” The question emerges then, What other possible outcome could have been realized had President Obama invited Trump to meet, find commonality, play a little golf, and discuss in person the birther issue? We will of course never know, but the theologian/psychologist in me wonders. Perhaps we could all learn to “leave our gift at the altar” to first “go reconcile.” (Matthew 5:24)

Does your personality match your value?

One of the elements in the documentary that really hit me was the observation, that while Obama believed and valued bipartisanship, his personality did not lend to initiating informal connections with others. This was a barbed awareness for me, as I believe I suffer from the same dilemma, and am aware of how my temperament/personality has failed to exemplify my inner values and convictions.


The following reflections are not directly related to the Frontline production, but rather items which have emerged from watching the news for the past two days.

Our government is secular, which is a deeply held religious conviction. Let’s keep it that way.

I know it is not popular to say, or even broadly understood, but the virtue that makes our politics work is the religious (Judeo-Christian) principle of keeping government secular. This grows out of the Bible’s affirmation of separate offices for separate duties (Prophets, Priests, and Kings), and the struggle against both “power” and “collusion with the powers” that be (Sadducees, Herodians, Hellenists, et.al.) Yes, we have religious roots to our history, and yes, it is codified in our founding documents, (e.g. “Endowed by our Creator…”). But these speak to the religious foundations and convictions of a secular government, not the imposition of a religious creed upon its citizens.

The complicated mix of religion and politics in this recent season has been a point of stark contention. While many are clamoring to assure their flocks of God’s divine blessing or sanctioning upon this new administration, I would caution those who do so with such fervor. They may find themselves unable to cohere their rhetoric with past and future elections. Keeping government secular is one way to ensure that we are living by American values and virtues, not just your version of your faith’s values. This can still be done, I argue, while invoking religious principles and symbols, such as placing your hands on the Bible, or acknowledging “The Creator,” for in those principles we find the rationale for a secular government.

Clergy can be political. Clergy must never be partisan.

I was discussing with colleagues of mine who are also bound by the IRS and not-for-profit laws, (which are good, IMHO), that we may have confused not being political with not being partisan. As I wrote on November 10, we are bound by IRS laws, to not make endorsements. However, this season has caused me to consider again what the real prohibitions are and how to live in them, especially given the tension of “politics” having much to do with “religious principles,” (again, referring to my post on November 10). I have decided, or at least come to a greater sense of confidence in the idea that we, clergy, actually must be political, because everything we live, teach, and exhort has political implications. And we can do so without being partisan, which is a sacrifice of core religious values for a particular expression of politics that is more about power than about conviction. Any endorsement or a candidate or party is and should continue to be expressly forbidden by the laws of the land, and the proprietary nature of ministry. However, this does not mean we, clergy, cannot speak up about, and advocate for, social and national issues that emerge from our religious convictions.

The decline of the American Church is good news for the Way of Jesus.

There are a variety of religious voices out there that are not just protesting this current election, but the religious institutions they were once a part of that supported the outcomes of this election. They are leaving “Church,” forsaking “Evangelicalism,” redefining their identities, and excommunicating their friends (well, on Facebook at least). In other words, “Christianity/Evangelicalism” is facing a moderate crisis, perhaps even a tipping point as a result of this election.

And this is good news.

Why? Every vaguely defined faith-based organization needs a swift clarifying kick in the butt every now and then that exposes the core values of the organization. Are the values truly committed to the religion’s founder or to some perverted rendition thereof which, up to this point, could not be clearly seen because of the familiarity of the religious terms and practices of its leaders. The voices in this election have made certain that that ambiguity can no longer exist.

Thus, this election has been a defining moment for many, which causes people to revisit and redefine their personal faith beliefs. This is good. I believe those of the Evangelical community that are truly committed to Jesus will have had their convictions clarified by the wayward behaviors of their contemporaries. As mentioned above, the stark contrast helps us know who we truly are.

And from that morass emerges a teacher who says, “Come, follow me.” And believe it or not, many did. And do.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: The Power Worshippers | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

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