Mystic Chords and Better Angels: Building Zion When We Disagree

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”–Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

Times have been worse in America. Much worse. After Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency in 1860, the Southern states resolved to secede. They were dead serious about their #notmypresident hashtag, and we know how that worked out.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln made one last, desperate plea for unity. He told the South that they had registered no oath in heaven to destroy the Union, while he had taken a sacred oath to defend it. He told them that they would have war only if they wanted war. He appealed to everybody to stand down and consider the things that bound them together rather than the things that drove them apart. It was his last pitch for the Union, and though it was not successful, his words still matter.

We are nowhere near where the country was in 1861, but the recent election has made a lot of people upset. I know because I am one of them. While nowhere near the most contentious election in our history (I would rate it around 6th or 7th), it has been divisive and will likely continue to be so for the foreseeable future. It has been hard on families. On communities. On Churches. For a lot of Latter-day Saints, that whole “one heart and one mind” thing is taking a beating.

I have often found that, when major divisions appear within a community, our tribal human natures take over and push us onto the horns of a decidedly false dichotomy: either we 1) consolidate into ideological tribes and push out anyone who disagrees (once this involved secession; now it mainly involves unfriending people on Facebook); or 2) we decide, for the sake of the larger tribe, to suppress our disagreements and fall into line. Both of these options are disastrous, both politically and spiritually.

Like all false dichotomies, however, this is generally presented as a true dichotomy, and anyone arguing against one end is assumed to be promoting the other end. This works in both directions. Those who say, “we need to protest and argue for our position” are met with cries of, “Why can’t you accept the results of the election and stop trying to keep the nation divided?” On the other hand, those who say, “let’s try to treat each other more kindly” are told, “How dare you ask me to give up all of my principles and move on?”

But in between Tribalism A and Tribalism B is a third way that I call “Vigorously Arguing Your Position Without Being a Hateful Jerk.” It is completely possible to argue directly, persuasively, and relentlessly for a position without treating the people you are arguing with like enemies, or like morally and intellectually deficient sub-human beings unworthy of your contempt.

This is actually pretty hard because it goes against several important components of human nature. It is much easier to assume that everybody who disagrees with me is crazy, stupid, or evil—and to tell them so with anger and sarcasm. It is also much easier to avoid conflict altogether so we don’t have to feel anxiety. Both positions are completely natural: we call one “fight” and the other one “flight,” and human beings are wired to meet every conflict with one of these two options. So are squirrels.

Several years ago (right after the 2012 election, actually), I worked out a few basic characteristics of what I then called “arguing as friends.” I have since also suggested that they might be considered characteristics of “Zion people,” who are the only kind of people who can actually build Zion. [1] Just in case you missed them, here they are again:

  • They understand that people disagree with each other because we all see the world through different filters and assumptions and not because they are crazy, stupid, or evil. Most people are remarkably bad at this. Our own opinions seem so right to us that we cannot imagine another person not seeing things our way unless they are either misinformed or fundamentally flawed. In the abstract, we acknowledge that human diversity is a good thing, but with the concrete issues that we care about the most, we rarely see diversity as a strength.
  • They care more about human relationship than about winning arguments: Most people don’t mind being disagreed with, at least in theory, but we resent being belittled, insulted, and trivialized. Unfortunately, however, we are wired to perceive any challenge to our beliefs as a challenge to our legitimacy as human beings. The only way around this is to very clearly communicate respect when disagreeing with other people.
  • They try to understand actual points of disagreement: Most people do most of their arguing with themselves, which is to say that we create a mental image of another person’s position and spend our time responding to it rather than to what the other person is actually saying. But Zion requires mutual understanding. To be Zion people, we must interact with each other as fully formed children of God and not as shallow caricatures of a human perspective. Here is a rule for disagreeing with people that, in my experience, never leads to the loss of a friend: never disagree with somebody’s position until you can paraphrase that position back to the person who holds it in such a way that they say, “yes, that is exactly what I meant.”
  • They recognize their own biases. We all have them. We are all situated in a context, we all have interests, and we all have biases that affect how we structure arguments and admit evidence. We can’t ever become unbiased (there is no not having a perspective), but we can try to recognize what our biases are and compensate for them when we are talking to other people whose biases may be very different.
  • They forgive. Nobody ever gets these things right all the time. We are very attached to our opinions, and we often get carried away defending our beliefs. We will overreact. We will say things that we don’t mean. We will take things personally. We will say things to hurt people. And people will do the same to us. Zion doesn’t happen when we learn how to interact with each other perfectly; it happens when we learn how to forgive.

These, I think, are the ground rules of the kind of political and religious disagreements that can actually improve the world. They allow plenty of room for vigorous disagreement, protests, public statements, holding one’s ground, and defending one’s position. They simply require that we recall the “mystic chords of memory” that tie us together as human beings. And they don’t even require that we surrender the battle; they simply require that we try very hard to make sure that the better angels of our nature always show up to the fight.


[1] I have adapted this list of traits of positive disagreement from my article, “How to Argue with a Friend,” first published on the Internet Voter Network web site on 12/11/13. They appear in my contribution to this awesome book edited by fellow BCC bloggers Tracy McKay-Lamb and Emily W.Jensen.


  1. Thank you so much for this, I find it incredibly helpful.

  2. I agree 100%. I’ve learned that if I can’t understand what it is that people find appealing about a given opinion that I disagree with, I need to try harder and listen more. It doesn’t mean I have to agree, but I do need to understand.

  3. Mike, bless you but I’m not there yet.

  4. Steve, if you want to be me, be me, and if you want to be you, be you. ‘Cause there’s a million things to do;
    you know that there are

  5. I’m sorry, but no. I can’t. I won’t. One’s politics do a good job of informing you about their character. There are certainly subjects within politics that reasonable people can disagree on, but when we get into the social areas of politics lines are drawn. I won’t act kindly towards people who deny my existence, toward people who participate in rape culture, toward people who are so selfish that they think Trump was a good enough idea. Maybe that’s a personality flaw for me, but I would rather explain to God why I did not accept this type of behavior from my fellow human beings than why I did.

  6. Last night my dear friend told me that she received a message that her friend was assaulted by four young white men at a bus stop. They told her they were ” going to grab her p**** and they did. A young bi-racial man I know was beaten for taking part in a PEACEFUL demonstration. This is much closer than six degrees of separation. What am I hearing from “conservatives”? Crickets. What am I hearing from Mitch McConnell? Crickets. Paul Ryan? Crickets. Donald Trump…

  7. I always enjoy your posts, Michael, but I’m not sure about this one. Arguing about politics in a civil and generous fashion in the abstract is fine until people start to get hurt in serious, irreparable ways. You and I–as white, professional, men–we’ll do just fine in Trump America, so we can reach across the aisle as gentleman in lovely conversations with those who were frustrated or scared enough to vote for President Trump. And in four years, who knows, perhaps the political winds will change.

    But this wasn’t really an ordinary election, and Trump is not an ordinary politician. If President Trump does what he says he will do (and I don’t put much faith in a Republica Congress to restrain him), in 2017 20 million people will lose their health insurance, he will start deporting hundreds of thousands of people, the DACA program will be rescinded, climate change treaties will be abrogated, Muslims will face legalized discrimination, and Iran will have restarted its nuclear weapons program. The harm that candidate Trump promised to unleash is real and substantive, and it will directly affect many of the people that I care deeply about, in ways that can’t be fixed, and for which an “I’m sorry, I just got confused in 2016” won’t do. Those who failed to see or didn’t care about the human consequences of voting for Donald Trump are either morally obtuse or mentally challenged. (It’s not like it was hard to take the measure of the man’s character or qualifications.) We should be kind and compassionate to these people, many of whom are our brothers and sisters in Christ, who may legitimate grievances against the government and the cultural elites, who have real fears for the future, and who are basically decent folks, but that doesn’t change the fact that casting a vote for Trump made them complicit with a repugnant demagogue. And they should have known better. They will bear a lot of responsiblity for the millions of lives that they are about to ruin.

  8. I’m playing a role in a community theater version of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” (written by Steve Martin, so it’s a comedy, naturally) for the next two weekends, and there’s a scene towards the end of the play where my character is taking a photo but can’t get everyone to smile at the same time (the joke is that this is the moment where the convention of saying “cheese” for photographs is created) and so I muse aloud as to what a good word for making everyone smile together might be, and I swear to you, someone in the audience last night shouted out the phrase “grab her by the pussy” as a suggestion.

    I truly feel we’ve entered an alternate universe as of Tuesday night where anything goes now.

  9. First, as always, kudos to Michael for his reasoned, thoughtful, and ecumenical post. It would indeed be outstanding if we could live up to the aspirations he so eloquently expressed.

    I would be remiss, however, if I did not respond to James (6:39pm).

    As a scholar of U.S. political history, I would suggest that your concerns about the election results and what they mean for a variety of domestic political issues are to a large extent misplaced. Trump made numerous policy statements during the past year, but it is easy to make promises during a presidential race. What Trump will discover after noon on January 20, 2017 is that governing is exponentially more challenging and the scope of his ability to enact his will quantumly more difficult than crafting rhetoric during a political campaign. Not only will he (or any president) be constrained by the political realities of his office (e.g. the existing bureaucracy that puts the brakes on any significant changes), but GOP control of the House and Senate does not mean the complete and unopposed ratification of Trump’s agenda. There was a significant amount of opposition to his candidacy within the party, and Trump’s unpopularity will undoubtedly limit the degree of support he will receive from many in Congress. To be sure, the president can act unilaterally on some issues via executive order–as we have seen over the past several decades–but constraints both political and legislative exist that will limit the scope of any such orders.

    I would also suggest that calling anyone who supported Trump–and I am not included in that cohort–“morally obtuse or mentally challenged” does not contribute to a productive dialogue. Making such blanket statements is little better than criticisms based on one’s immigration status, religion, or sexual orientation.

    Trump’s election and the resulting outrage are both troubling on many levels. But I think that Hillary Clinton’s plea to give the new administration a chance is one that we should take to heart. If I have learned nothing in the past three decades as an academic, it is that all history is contingent; nothing is inevitable. While I have serious doubts about the next four years, there are a number of possible outcomes to a Trump administration that range from a complete and utter dumpster fire to a fairly regular (if Republican-themed) presidency. Let’s hope that the better angels of his, Congress’s, and our nature prevail.

  10. These suggestions seem reasonable to me. Thank you Michael Austin. I see, however, that building Zion is not foremost in everyone’s thoughts right now.

  11. In normal political discourse, politicians follow standards that restrain their language. For example, in the U.S. Senate, there are explicit rules of decorum that prohibit members from personally insulting each other. That’s why, if you listen to Senate debates, you’ll hear bitter political enemies consistently refer to each other as “friends.” Everyone knows they’re not friends, but they follow this norm in order to avoid fistfights on the Senate floor—a thing that has actually happened. Presidential candidates don’t have explicit rules, but they follow well-established norms of decorum. Following those norms is one way for candidates to signal that they are serious, and not kooks from the fringe. Everyone agrees that this is a good idea; setting violent language out of bounds signals that open violence is unacceptable.

    A populist candidate like Trump upsets that order of things by deliberately violating those norms. That’s one way for Trump to signal that he is not an insider. In this campaign Trump has given us open racism, speeches that could have been cribbed from Mussolini, wink-wink suggestions that he wouldn’t mind some violence against his opponents, and an endless stream of idiotic tweets. He hasn’t even tried to appear qualified for the presidency—at least not in the traditional way. He did all of these things because he knows that this is the way to appeal to his base of support.

    Unfortunately, this kind of behavior also signals that violence is no longer out of bounds. That’s what people find so frightening about Trump’s election. We have reason now to fear violence against individuals and violence against the rule of law, more than in any election that I can remember. And that is why I don’t blame people for using especially strident language in their reaction to this election.

    However, we are never off the hook for the consequences of what we say. I’ve been quite active in commenting on BCC this week, and I’ve thought a lot about the tone of my comments. I’m trying for Michael’s middle way, but I really have no idea how well I’m succeeding. It’s virtually impossible to gauge the personal effect my comments have on readers in this forum. I want to call out the hidden assumptions and hypocrisies that I see, because I think that this is a pivotal time in our history and we need to be as clear as possible about what is happening. I feel an urgency to leave nothing unsaid that might make a difference right now. I do this ultimately because I care about the people who read these comments. If you are reading this, I think that you matter and that you can do some good.

  12. Donald Trumps ‘Grab’ comment was horrible. So was Bill Clinton’s oval office behavior. In the 1990s, Cigars became the joke and oral sex was no longer sex. As well, violent language or behavior coming from a Trump supporter is outrageous and should be dealt with by the law if laws are broken. The same should be true for Clinton supporters. There will never be room for peace or disagreements among friends as long as there are so many who continue to justify terrible behavior on their side while castigating the same behavior on the other. It is difficult not to be truly disgusted with both sides. And as an independent thinker, its really hard not to roll my eyes when someone vehemently calls out bad behavior in a political foe, and justifies that behavior in a political friend. I’m afraid will not be anywhere near ready to build Zion until we are ready to stop justifying outrageous behavior regardless of where it comes from.

  13. DJ, I fear you underestimate the ability of someone who doesn’t know how to play by the rules. Throughout this interminable campaign, we have seen how Trump has simply gotten away with anything and has reshaped the Republican Party in his image. We are now in uncharted waters. We have elected a man who campaigned as a fascist. And don’t accuse me of name-calling. This is not like “Little Marco” or “Lyin’ Ted” or “Crooked Hillary.” Fascist is a descriptive term that best sums up the political category of Trump’s portrayal of himself. Whether he governs as a fascist remains to be seen. If he does, then the institutional barricades you cite will be insufficient to restrain him. My best hope right now is that time will prove that his campaign promises, like nearly everything else he said, were merely convenient lies to persuade enough people to vote for him. But some not so subtle hints from his inner circle suggest we have much to fear. Regardless, the hatred he has already unleashed is sufficient cause to oppose him. I am reluctant to make the analogy, but the parallels I am seeing between Germany of the 1930s and the US of 2016 are unsettling, even down to the propaganda apparatus that used misinformation so effectively. And yes, I am referring to Fox News and its little sisters. And need I mention how many Mormons were supporters of Adolf Hitler? Am I exaggerating? I certainly hope so, but time will tell.

  14. Stephen Miller says:

    People vote their wallets and that’s it. No amount of reasoning will make it anything other than the political reality that it is.

  15. Wes,
    I agree that there is some sort of phenomenon wherein people excuse away the flaws in their own candidates, while accusing the other side. This phenomenon created a massive false equivalency between a consensual affair (Bill) and sexual assault/predation (Trump). Not equivalent!

    I suspect that Alma 39 (sin next to murder) as it is falsely interpreted by most saints, creates in the LDS mind an equivalency or absolutism for all forms of sexual acts (consensual, predatory, victimized, niaive or more intentional). Tragically, the difference between consensual and non-consensual fades away in the nearly fathomless scale of the “sin next to murder”. Does it matter if she/he was raped or a victim of sexual assault or voyeurism? In most saint’s minds, and in evidently most American’s minds, evidently not. Bill, Hillary and Trump are “equally corrupt”.

    We have fought this battle of late in BYU’s honor code for raped/assaulted women and everyone can tell stories of Bishops who put sexual victims through the repentance process (disfellowshipment/excommunication). Not acceptable! Likewise the false equivalency that Bill’s (note-Bill’s not Hillary’s) consensual affair was in any way equivalent to Trump’s “grab them by the p—–“, using power to lurk in teenage beauty queen’s dressing rooms, Cosby-like pending lawsuits of assault, etc.

    Unacceptable, irrational, completely perplexing.

  16. It is one thing not to “play by the rules” during a campaign, where the only real limitations on a candidate’s actions and rhetoric are self-imposed or forced upon him/her by the need to win. But the entire U.S. government structure was specifically created to provide the kinds of checks and balances on power and interests required in a situation like this. Moreover, Trump will now have to deal with the constraints of office and congressional & bureaucratic obstacles that I mentioned–these are not inconsiderable.

    The reality is that any time a president has tried to push his agenda beyond a certain threshold or taken actions too far out of line with conventional politics, Congress, the courts, and public opinion has stepped in to rein him in and restore the traditional balance (e.g. FDR’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court, the GOP informing Nixon that it was time to resign, the judicial system putting the brakes on some of Obama’s executive orders). For Trump to even approach the kind of Hitler-esque (and, frankly, Godwin’s Law comes to mind here) figure that many fear, the entire political system, civil society, and the discipline of the military would have to break down….something I do not see happening.

    I actually think there is a semi-decent (OK, maybe 2%) chance that Trump will realize that he does not want to be constrained by the realities of the presidency–we see this even now with his desire to split time between the White House and Trump Tower–and will resign. He did not expect to win, and the weight of the presidency might be more than he wants to accept in the long term (no pun intended). But even if he does not take that unlikely path, I would argue that his ability to cause mischief is going to be limited. He may be more rhetorically inflammatory than most presidents, but implementing rhetoric is difficult under the best of circumstances in the U.S. political context….and this is certainly not the best of circumstances.

  17. Mortimer,
    I did not intend to equate consensual and nonconsensual sex. (Though there are some who accuse Clinton of nonconsensual behavior). My intention was to point out the justification that so many on both sides employ for their political party. In other words, if Trump behaved exactly as Clinton did with an intern and a cigar, and lied under oath about it, would your reaction towards Trump be the same as it was towards Clinton? If so…wonderful. if not….justification. My own justifications were pointed out years ago by a wonderfully loving and patient professor from Africa. She is the most honest and selfless person I’ve ever met. Since that eye opening class on world civics, I see justification almost everywhere I look, including here. I’m not judging it…we are all human. I’m only pointing out that we can build Zion while justifying ungodly behavior in our political friends.

  18. Sorry…I meant we cannot build Zion while justifying ungodly behavior.

  19. EnglishTeacher says:


  20. I used to wonder why the warring groups in the Book of Mormon kept fighting and picking sides even when their entire destruction was the foreseeable result. From the prophetic perspective of the text, both sides had valid grievances, and they were both eventually destroyed. I agree with Michael that there is another approach to resolving deep-seated conflict that is more aligned with the gospel of Christ and the establishment of Zion than the traditional win-lose dichotomy.

    A few months ago, I came across the ideas of Marshall Rosenberg and Non-violent Communication (there are books and also YouTube lectures). His message was very similar to the points Michael made in the post. Dr. Rosenberg used these ideas to help resolve inner city conflicts between gangs and police, between warring tribes in Africa, and even between groups involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As I have tried implementing them to resolve my own personal conflicts, I have found they work, and are more effective at changing hearts and minds than anything I have ever seen, but they do involve me being willing to check my judgment of others at the door.

    Thank you for this post.

  21. Bless you, Michael. Bless you.

  22. Very apt and timely post Michael. I’m tearing off my “2016 We’re Screwed” bumper today and I’m going to try to implement these ideas to try and understand from people who voted for these candidates why they did so.

  23. *bumper sticker*

  24. Exactly what is needed.
    Do we really desire Zion? Are we willing to build it in our hearts, our homes, our wards, our towns?
    I personally believe Donald Trump suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you want to understand how best to deal with people so afflicted, you might read up at As someone who spent many years in singles wards, where the Church’s mentally ill often end up, may I assure you, we can learn to moderate our responses while still holding people accountable. Our calmness helps them regain control. If I am correct, that is going to be our best path in the years ahead.

  25. Back when President Benson led the Church, he asked us to read the Book of Mormon and pay particular attention to the chapters prior to Christ’s visit. How did some people come to stand at the temple in Bountiful and see the risen Lord?
    As I read searching for the answer, one verse stood out for me. Some people refused to return railing for railing but became firmer and firmer in their humility.
    So how do we measure up in these contentious times? Are we willing to submit? How exactly does one become firmer and firmer in humility?

  26. Let us remember that charity is a spiritual gift, not something we can produce in ourselves, no matter how hard we try. Moroni taught us to pray to God for Him to bestow it on us. There is no time like the present to bring Zion into our lives.