Respectful Conversations to Build Bridges Between ‘Far Left’ and ‘Far Right’ Political Agendas

Social media is replete with recriminations from citizens on the right side of the political spectrum as to the “far left” political agenda. Not to be outdone, those on the left side of the political spectrum bemoan the “far right” political agenda.

Such recriminations only serve to eliminate the possibility of a genuine respectful conversation about disagreements because of their generality. What, exactly are the “far left” or “far right” agendas? Genuine respectful conversations about disagreements will be possible only if those on either side of the political spectrum stop talking in generalities and begin talking about specific public policy issues. In what follows, I will attempt to outline the contours of a potential respectful conversation about public policy issues that focus on the problem of poverty, being careful to introduce the voices of those who are actually experiencing severe poverty; thereby introducing the need to exercise empathy (putting yourself in the other person’s shoes) when embarking on such a conversation.

The problem of poverty in America is more complex than is acknowledged by many on both sides of the political spectrum, and I do not have the expertise to deal with that complexity. But my overarching perception is that those on both sides of the aisle will acknowledge that too many Americans are experiencing abject poverty, and where they have strong disagreements is about the causes of such poverty and the best solutions, It is also my perception that the root cause of these disagreements is differing beliefs about the role of individual initiatives to thrive in our capitalistic free-market economy and the possible role, if any, of governmental assistance programs for those who have difficulty competing in a free-market economy.

Any conversation about poverty in America should include voices from the “far left” and “far right” that give differing responses to the following Leading Questions.


  • What are the root causes of poverty and what are the best solutions?
  • Are there any appropriate restraints (regulations) that should be placed on our free-market economy that will help those who do not thrive in that economy to avoid poverty?
  • Is there an optimum system of taxation for combatting poverty?
  • Are there systemic problems in America, such as racism, that contribute to high levels of poverty, and, if so, what is the best way to address such problems?


Given my call for respectful conversations about contentious issues, like the causes and solutions for poverty. the question remains as to the best venues for such respectful conversation initiatives and the best cohort of conversation partners for each venue. I will respond to this question with two proposals; one intended for local non-political organizations and one intended for legislative bodies at the local, state or national level.

My first proposal is for consideration by local organizations, like local churches, that are experiencing strong disagreements about a local contentious issue, like the causes and solutions for local poverty. In my forthcoming book Let’s Talk, I make the following concrete recommendations for churches and other local organizations to navigate such troubled waters (based on my own experience of what has worked well and what has been disastrous in my own local attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations about contentious issues).

** Recruit a small, balanced cohort of conversation partners (possibly eight to twelve in number) who will collectively present a good balance of contrasting beliefs about the issue at hand.

** This cohort should include scholars who can bring  perspectives that are deeply informed by theoretical reflections and the results of empirical research relative to the issue being discussed. For example, for the issue of poverty, scholars need to report on reflections from academicians on the existence, or not, of systemic racism that may prevent persons of color from thriving in our free-market economy.

** Most importantly, this cohort should include persons for whom the issue at hand is not an abstraction to be only considered by scholars, but is an integral part of their “life stories” that may cause existential pain. For example, for the issue of poverty, the conversation partners need to hear from someone who has lost his or her job in the restaurant industry and is wondering where the next meal is coming from or when an eviction notice will be arriving,

** Before the conversation starts, each conversation partner must agree to a set of “Guidelines for Respectful Conversation” that includes a willingness to give expression to the rare combination of “commitment” to one’s own beliefs (sufficient to express those beliefs with clarity and deep conviction) and “openness” to listening carefully to the contrary beliefs of others (sufficient to re-examine one’s own beliefs).

** Before embarking on the presentation and discussion of contrary beliefs, the conversation    partners should build the mutual understanding and trust that is needed before laying bare and then talking respectfully talking about strong disagreements by “getting to know one another”; which includes listening to the personal stories of the other partners that deeply inform their beliefs about the issue being discussed.

Thus ends my outline of a proposal for respectful conversations about contentious issues, like poverty, for local non-political organizations, like churches. Will numerous local organizations be willing to embark on such highly structured conversations. From my experience, I doubt it. In our highly polarized culture, the idea of actually listening to and talking respectfully about disagreements is anathema; preference being given to remaining in our echo chambers where we only hear the voices of those who already agree with us.

So, the reader of this Musing may conclude that my first proposal only proves that I am living in an imaginary totally unrealistic “la-la land.” But I am just getting warmed up; for my next proposal for dealing with contentious issues. like poverty, within the political realm (legislative bodies at the local, state or national level) may lead you to conclude that I have taken the concept of “utopian lack of realism” to a previously unheard level of foolishness.

Here is my ideal scenario for how any legislative body (local, state or national) should seek to pass legislation regarding any contentious public policy issue such as poverty.

First, the legislative body should appoint a “gang of eight” (or thereabouts) to begin consideration of the issue. Members of this gang should include members of the legislative body who have proven interest and a reasonable level of expertise relative to the issue and who have reputations for being willing to engage in respectful conversations with other members of the legislative body with whom they have had significant disagreements. It is important to choose a cohort of gang members who will likely present a good balance of perspectives from both sides of the political aisle.

The gang should host hearings in which their invited conversation partners include scholars who can report on theoretical reflections and the results of empirical research relative to the issue and selected citizens who can give voice, from their life stories, to the existential pain they have experienced related to the issue being considered.

Based on the results of these hearings. The gang should deliberate until they can uncover sufficient common ground to formulate a proposal for a legislative bill to be sent to the entire legislative body for action.

Of course, as the pervasive legislative deadlock in Washington amply demonstrates, getting such legislation passed by the entire legislative body is a daunting task, to put it mildly. But there are some signs of hope. A success in the first step of this process occurred in 2013, although the second step failed. I refer to a comprehensive immigration bill that a gang of eight in the U. S, Senate agreed to, which called for BOTH a pathway to citizenship for those who had entered the country illegally or who had over-extended their visas AND appropriate punishments (therefore, not amnesty) for those who had violated the law. Alas, this bill died in the House Representatives.

But a more recent example of the success of both steps occurred when a small bipartisan gang forged a bill for Covid relief, costing about $890 billion, that passed in both the Senate and House,

But I urge you to NOT reach a conclusion as to the viability, or lack thereof, of my proposal for the political realm by pointing to instances of success, or, more likely, failure in our highly polarized society. That is because the desire to be successful is not my primary motivation for my second proposal (as well as my first proposal).

As I elaborate in my forthcoming book, and reiterate every chance I get, I am totally inner-directed (Drawing here on the distinction that sociologist David Reisman made between being other-directed and being inner-directed in his 1950s classic The Lonely Crowd). What I decide to do at any time is motivated by my understanding of what us the “right thing to do.” And I always aspire to decide on the “right thing to do” based on my present understanding of Christian values, the foremost of which is “love.”

I am dismayed at the extent to which evangelical Christians have uncritically embraced the agendas of the Democratic or Republican parties, ranging from the “Far Left” to the “Far Right without “digging deep down to a consideration of whether these agendas comport with Christian values.

On the basis of my attempt to start with my understanding of the Christian value of “love,” the foundational premise that has informed all my respectful conversation initiatives is that to give someone a safe and welcoming space to express disagreement with me and then to talk respectfully about that disagreement is a deep expression of love.

I have experienced some successes and some monumental failures as I have sought to live out this foundational premise. But I am not driven by a quest for success. Rather, drawing on the parable of the mustard seed taught by Jesus, as recorded in in Matthew 13:31-32, I understand my calling as a follower of Jesus as planting “tiny seeds of redemption,” entrusting the harvest to God.