Whatever you may think about the debt ceiling compromise or the debate leading up to it (and I know most people dislike them), they are less important for the quality of our civic life than what comes next.
This fact seems to have been lost on commentators, who continue to debate the wisdom of the compromise, or the economic impact of the Standard and Poors credit rating downgrade, or what it means for the United States' place in the world. But for our civic life, what we would hope to see after compromise is some sort of reconciliation. In fact, in both religion and civic theory, it is the reconciliation--the ability to recognize changes in oneself, and to work more effectively with others in the future, that is the real benefit of compromise.
Consider this teaching from the Christian tradition:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister[b][c] will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’[d] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.
Or consider the work of truth and reconciliation commissions the world over who have helped countries emerge from periods of tyranny into something like democracy. (For an old but still moving work on these commissions read Lawrence Wechsler's A Miracle, A Universe.)
In both instances the injunction to reconcile is the basis for future relationships. That is, civic life cannot function with citizens who are unable to talk to each other, or who are trying to overlook (ignore) real gaps between them. And both instances demand that some individuals not just agree to the compromise, but reconcile with their enemies.
Now consider the way we talk about compromise in America. It is widely acknowledged that compromise is essential for democracy. It is also assumed that compromise means that both parties fail to get what they want from the agreement. This is usually true in terms of policy. Neither Democrats nor Republicans got what they wanted in the debt ceiling negotiations.
Our discussions of compromise, though, entirely overlook the need for reconciliation. In fact, all of the sides in the debt ceiling compromise told their constituents that the compromise was a short-term solution and that they would still work to reach their big goals. Or, in other words, compromise was but a short detour from winning their long-term battle.
If you know history you know that this view--compromise now until you can win enough public support to avoid compromise--has a long tradition in American politics. And traditionally it has led to some horrible compromises. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, for example, which gave birth to a mini-civil war prior to the real one.
Our civic life needs two things if it is to avoid the sort of poisonous, ineffective compromises that litter our history: First, a civic movement that is committed to reconciliation in public life, that pushes for relationships and repentance before and after compromise. (Imagine, for example, a law that requires party leaders to meet with a mediator (or play golf together) after every law that passes with a party-line vote.) Second, leaders who are publicly committed to reconciliation as a goal of their public service. It is here that the irony lies. With so many legislators who are publicly Christian, why are so few of them publicly committed to Christian behavior?