Is it possible for democratic citizens to get along? Modern democracy seems tormented by difference. We not only find little to agree on about human sexuality, immigration, race and policing, or other hot button issues of the day, but we also distrust the institutions that are supposed to help us forge a life in common. The irony is that we widely share that institutional skepticism but can’t agree on the reasons. Electoral integrity? Judicial bias? A failure of law and order? Money in politics? There are plenty of reasons to join the chorus of distrust.

In a sense these are not unexpected patterns in our politics (even if their recent intensity can be surprising). We might argue they’re baked into democracy itself. The tension between diversity and solidarity has always been a key challenge of modern democratic life. We cannot establish a measure of common ground – the promise of democracy – without a willingness to engage others across the lines of our differences. Yet those differences, and the social environments that shape those differences, matter to our sense of meaning, purpose, and community. When a democracy asks its citizens to set aside or reimagine differences and seek common purposes, it pushes against deep social inheritances that are often fundamental to identity itself.

A classically liberal democratic answer to this tension is a thin framework of process and rights rooted in tolerance. Tolerance is a straightforward rational calculation: I will put up with those ideas and persons I find objectionable if others extend the same restraint to me. For scholars from John Locke to John Inazu, this “modest unity” – to use Inazu’s phrase – around tolerance not only reflects some basic assumptions about human freedom and action, but is also worth embracing for the simple reason that both liberal citizens and liberal democracies appear to resort to violence less often than alternative systems.

Still, a pulse-check of liberal democracies across the globe raises the question of whether tolerance is enough. Political distrust, deep-seated polarization, and populism have besieged liberal democracies across North America, Europe, and elsewhere. Citizens are wondering about the health of long-standing public institutions. One could argue those trends are evidence of the need for reinvigorated tolerance, an openness to peaceful co-existence. But perhaps tolerance is part of the problem. After all, the easiest way to tolerate is to avoid what we find objectionable and sort ourselves into networks of sameness. Self-segregation is no pathway to realizing common ground.

We want to introduce a virtue beyond tolerance. Let’s call it “civic hospitality.” We often associate hospitality with the intimacy of family and friends and of spaces such as the home. But what if we extended the idea of hospitality outside these groups – even to strangers – and into the broader public square? The difference this makes is profound.

Unlike the merely tolerant, hospitable citizens do not give in to the temptation of self-segregation. As Matthew Kaemingk shows us in his work on Christian-Muslim relations, hospitable citizens cultivate habits of patience and generosity, especially toward the stranger or otherwise disadvantaged, with a goal of actively creating public space to engage each other in our differences. Christians might unexpectedly recognize the fruit of the Spirit in the concept. What if we cultivated a civic peace, forbearance, kindness, gentleness, self-control – even a civic love and joy?

That’s a grand vision, but is it even possible in political cultures that so often reward selfishness and factionalism? We’re convinced that it is, but clearly the road is not easy. Civic hospitality is a habit and a disposition that we form, not merely a belief that we hold. Here the formative power of institutions is crucial, including schools. That’s one of the reasons for this site: To expand the familiar focus of schools on knowledge (“How many branches of government?”) or skills (“How should a citizen prepare to vote?”) and move us toward the dispositions that citizens need to take part fully in public life. The key question becomes: how can we learn to be the kind of people who can sustain hospitality towards those who differ from us?