Published at The Christian Review Dec. 20, 2015
I’m writing this in response to comments made over the years about friendships I’ve maintained with persons who are diametrically opposed to many of my core values. Most of these comments have the tone of disapproval, others just sound flummoxed with me.
Let me say from the start that my reason is not conversion. Such an ulterior motive would make such a friendship one of utility, not a true friendship, to use Aristotle’s hierarchy of friendship. In the Book VII of his Nicomachean Ethics, he distinguishes between friends who are bonded by shared pleasure, the lowest; those who find each other useful; and true friends who share a common vision of life.
I’m sure the diligent reader just noted that I created a huge hurdle for myself to jump, namely, how can I be friends with those, who I said above, do not share my “core values”? Doesn’t this constitute an impossibility according to Aristotle’s criteria?
Since I regard myself as someone whose mind and heart has been shaped by the tradition from Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas to Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, I take this challenge seriously. In order to answer it, I have been made to reflect upon those specific friendships, both past and present, to find, if I could, what “common vision” we may have shared.
What came immediately to mind was the acceptance and respect I shared, and still share, with these persons. Several of them, in addition to being liberal Democrats, have been homosexual, which I thought important to mention, though I didn’t want to put it in the headline.
Such was the case of my friendship — call him “W” — of over 40 years with a man whose eulogy I delivered only a few years ago. We shared a love of Flannery O’Connor, who had been a personal friend of his, as well all things literary and musical. I spent hours at his piano singing show tunes while he thundered away, magnificently. I still miss him.
When issues of faith, sexuality, or politics came up, our conversations were always direct but civil and punctuated with great guffaws of laughter, usually provoked by his puncturing of my inflated ego. But W never hinted at any disapproval of my conversion to Catholicism at age 34 — he also loved the convert, Evelyn Waugh — or the help I offered to George W. Bush — a man he didn’t love — in his campaigns and years in the White House.
Unlike many liberals nowadays, W did not look upon me as a moral inferior for being conservative, Catholic, or Republican. He did not assume I was a racist or felt disdain toward the poor. Oh, W would correct me sharply if I said or did something out of line, but I accepted the rebuke as a lesson given by a man whose judgment I respected and whose love I trusted.
What I have said of W can be applied to all my friendships with “liberals, Democrats, and pro-aborts.” There is, in fact, a “common vision” that stands behind the differences about politics, religion, and morality, and at the heart of the vision is acceptance, respect, and love, the truest love of willing the good for the other.
Another dimension to that common vision is a sharing of the greatness of the world and its culture — music, poetry, fiction, film, ideas, history, travel, and mutual friends. After all friends do not simply sit and stare at each other, quite the opposite, they look out at the world together and share in its delights.
At this point the reader might be thinking that I have ignored the looming question of how I could share a “common vision” with, say, a pro-abort. My answer is to say that not all who support abortion do so with the virulence of a pro-abortion activist. Not all who call themselves feminists despise conservative men who smoke cigars and play golf. Those friends of mine who are abortion supporters respect my view and those of other pro-lifers. They agree to disagree, but do so in way not to dismiss the subject from conversation but to admit their minds are still open on the subject.
The same can be said of liberals and Democrats: few of them are as unpleasant as the liberals on TV and radio who cannot address any difference of opinion without a mocking, scornful tone of voice. I cannot share a common vision with anyone, on the right or the left, who treats others with instant disrespect because of a label, whether of their party affiliation, religious belief, sexual orientation, or taste in music.
At the heart of liberal scorn is the belief that “all the rest of us” are their moral inferiors, which makes friendship impossible. I fear that conservatives are developing the same attitude toward liberals — that they hold a monopoly on the moral high ground. This may be the main reason I have felt less at home lately in what’s left of the conservative movement.
The gradual politicization of American culture since the resignation of President Nixon in 1974 — driven by the endless victory laps of the media — has made “across the aisle” friendships less and less likely, especially in the area I live around Washington, DC.
And since it has become a habit “to google” a person after you meet him or her, before pursuing further contact, many possible friendships never get off the ground. That person you found delightful at a concert, or a bookstore, a party, at church, or standing in line at the grocery store turns out to a wretched “Republican” or “Democrat,” or whatever label makes him or her an “untouchable.”
Friendship faces a difficult future, I fear. It’s for this reason I offer this explanation of what has appeared to some a disconnect between who I am and who I call “my friend.” Perhaps the “common vision” that grounds a friendship is larger, and more nuanced, than we think.