WASHINGTON -- Most Americans by now are simply sickened by the endless conflict of our political classes on the most divisive issues -- issues that are sure to set everyone on edge at the slightest suggestion. The carping of the radical religious class has not helped, either.
Abortion? If I hear the word mentioned in a group at a party, I'm out of that front door before the speaker can get to the second point. Gay marriage? Well, to tell you the truth, I had never even dreamed it was possible, but if it is, more power to them! (This time, I'm out the back door, quickly!)
You know the list of hot-button issues, which until now has made civility and amusing conversation mostly impossible in America today. But I have something new to report. I am beginning to see -- perhaps as a result of the nasty business with the government shutdown -- a most hopeful sign that it is the inspirational institutions that are calling for a truce.
We all know the history of the last three decades among American evangelical leaders, who, never hesitating to use the vote, repeatedly threw their support to conservative or tea party Republicans. It seemed for a long time that leaders in this conservative evangelical push could barely lose, especially under the leadership of the Southern Baptist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
But all this appears to be changing. The new leader of the Southern Baptists, Russell Moore, an attractive spokesman for the church who spends half his time in Washington, does not mince words. In a recent comprehensive article on the church in The Wall Street Journal, he made it clear that the church's fight against the sexual revolution was over. Young people were leaving the church and barely cared about abortion and gay marriage.
"Some evangelicals are comparing the moment today to the retreat that followed the 1925 Scopes 'Monkey trial' over Tennessee's effort to limit the teaching of evolution in public schools," the Journal wrote. "The trial led to a public backlash against evangelicals."
Mark Dever, a colleague of Moore's and pastor of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church, added: "Evangelicals felt a sting from the culture after the Scopes trial that they weren't used to feeling. What is happening now with evangelicals is a disabusing of any idea of a simple victory of the right in a fallen world. They realize that is not going to happen."
But if evangelicals are important in the political scheme of things in America -- and if this change is bound to shift the ideological boundaries, perhaps far into the future -- so is the Roman Catholic Church, with its influence spreading across the globe.
Until the accession to the papacy of Pope Francis from Buenos Aires, it was hardly surprising that liberal Catholics could wonder if their church would ever speak in original terms to questions of sexuality and morality. But Pope Francis, with his touch for the common man, immediately after his election began to preach and give interviews saying that these super-emotional issues, while important for the faithful, should not be placed first in the discussion.
"The church cannot focus only on abortion and gay marriage," he said at one point. "Who am I to judge gay people?"
Many of his speeches and homilies have focused on this reasonable and healing point: Modern Christian man must not focus on what divides us, but on what unites us and upon what makes us the children of God, rather than Hell's Debating Society (my words).
In many of his speeches, the pope has discounted ideology, obviously using the word in the sense that it is something that sets itself against God and against faith.
Even Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, got into the act last week. When asked what is wrong with the country, he said that Americans used to see their country based upon the same principles. "There was comity," he said. "Everyone accepted the same basic ideas." But that was no longer true, he warned.
So, finally, we have Greenspan -- a fan of Ayn Rand, the philosophical writer so tough she could be expected to be feeding her children to the lions in the zoo -- also resisting the prevailing harshness and calling for a return to (beautiful word) comity.
We never know quite why these periods of public nastiness ensue, or who will embrace them the most fervently; but this one of the last 20 to 30 years has begun to play itself out. Whatever comes next, we will at least be ready to attempt to ameliorate all our differences.
Here, too, are places where the average or individual American can play his or her role very well -- in their churches, homes and communities. If the atmosphere has changed in the country, this is a perfect time to return to the principles that sustained us for centuries. The pope and some leading churchmen have already given us signs to look for on the pathway to follow.