On a daily basis, cable TV reports on the protests from some Americans against mask mandates because they are a violation of “freedom.” My argument in this Musing is that not wanting to wear masks for this reason reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of freedom by equating freedom with “license,” being able to “do as you please” without giving consideration to the effect of “doing as you please” on the well-being of others.
The greatest disparity that I perceive between what is currently happening in the political realm in America and my beliefs as a person committed to the Christian faith is conflicting views as to the meaning and exercise of “power.”
It appears to me that the view of power that pervades the political realm is that power means “control.” To cite but one example, I believe that the refusal of Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, to vote for an independent commission to investigate the events of January 6 is primarily motivated by fear that the results of such an investigation will weaken their quest to regain seats in Congress in 2022. The underlying premise is that regaining these seats will help Republicans to regain “control” of legislative outcomes.
Citing this example is not to suggest that only Republicans equate “power” with “control.” It appears to me that the primary motivation of many, but not all, politicians on both sides of the political aisle is to get elected and then re-elected and they will do whatever needs to be done to maintain their positions of control.
Such a view of power as “being in control” is completely antithetical to my understanding of the teachings of the Christian faith. I start with the account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, as recorded in Matthew 4:l1-11.
… the devil took him [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you Satan! for it is written ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (vs. 8-11).
Jesus rejected an amazing offer to be in “control.” And he went on to live a life characterized by love for others; teaching all those who aspire to be his followers to love others, even our enemies (John 15:12; Matthew 5:43).
At first glance the example of Jesus appears to be the epitome of “powerlessness.” Where did this focus on loving others get Jesus? His enemies crucified him.
But another perspective is that in rejecting the exercise of “power as control,” Jesus inaugurated a movement that has given countless examples of love for others for centuries. To be sure, those who claim to follow Jesus have, as finite and fallible humans, all too often engaged in unloving activities, including those Christians in the present American political realm who have tried to gain power, in the form of control. But, despite these flaws in living out the call of Jesus for his followers to love others, the ideal is clear: Our claims to be followers of Jesus must be lived out by our loving others. This call to love others points us toward a new kind of power, the “power of love.”
But the unanswered question then looms: How do you give expression to the “power of love” in the current American political realm? Those who are readers of my website know my answer: You create a safe and welcoming space for those who disagree with you on any contentious public policy issue to express that disagreement; followed by respectful conversation about your disagreements toward the goal of finding common ground. That is my answer because providing such a safe and welcoming space is a deep expression of love (You don’t love someone who you have silenced).
How well have Republicans and Democrats exemplified this “respectful conversation” ideal? My response distinguishes between deliberations of small groups of members of Congress and deliberations within the full House or Senate.
It appears that small groups of politicians have been able to create safe and welcoming spaces for having respectful conversations about important public policy matters, with the potential for encouraging results. One example is that ten republicans and ten Democrats have agreed on the framework for a potential bipartisan bill regarding infrastructure. Although they may not use this word, these politicians were “loving” each other when they provided the safe and welcoming space for respectful conversation that enabled them to uncover some common ground.
But what will come of the results of this small group conversation when a bill reflecting their respectful conversation comes to Congress for voting? As of this writing two infrastructure bills are being considered: a bipartisan bill that focuses on “hard infrastructure” (e.g., roads, bridges, broadband); and a bill on infrastructure that provides “soft infrastructure” (e.g., addressing climate change and providing child care) that could pass in the Senate with only Democratic votes by means of the Reconciliation process. It is not presently clear whether these two bills can be passed “in tandem” or whether they need to be voted on in sequence (with hard infrastructure coming first).
But assuming that a bipartisan bill on hard infrastructure comes to Congress for consideration, the huge problem is what happens to such a bill in a larger legislative body. This problem is not new. For example, in 2013 a bipartisan “gang of eight” proposed a bill for comprehensive immigration reform that died in the House, which bore witness to the fact that in small groups, in contrast to large groups, it is possible to build a level of mutual trust and understanding that is a prerequisite for uncovering some common ground.
In other words, I believe that bills proposed by small bipartisan groups of politicians typically die when they come to the House or Senate because the procedures used in these larger legislative bodies do not measure up to the ideal of creating safe and welcoming spaces for having respectful conversations about bills proposed by the smaller groups of conversationalists. Such bills proposed by these smaller bodies regarding infrastructure (and voting rights and police reform) face huge obstacles when they come to the Senate in light of Mitch McConnell’s assertion that he will be “100% focused on stopping Biden’s administration.” And the way that McConnell has chosen to implement his focus is to not talk about disagreements. As one pundit has put it, “If Mitch McConnell doesn’t like it, then we [Republicans] won’t talk about it.” A refusal to talk about disagreements effectively silences those who disagree with you, which is a terrible thing to do. And the likelihood that such refusal by Republicans to even talk about disagreements will continue is predictable in light of the egregious recent death in the Senate of legislation that only proposed that Republicans and Democrats debate (talk about) potential voting rights legislation.
So, the voices guided by defining power in terms of “control” work against my hope for respectful conversations about disagreements. What to do? As I hint at in a previous Musing (Politeness is Not Enough …), steps must be taken to refine procedures in the House and Senate that will create safe and welcoming spaces for such respectful conversations. At a minimum, steps must be taken to restore the practice of filibustering to conform to its original intent to provide an adequate ”voice” to the minority, in sharp contrast to its present use of stifling conversation (possibly moving back to what has been called a “talking filibuster”).
Because of Mitch McConnell’s commitment to obstructionism that precludes creating safe and welcoming spaces for respectful conversations about proposed public policy bills, I propose that Democrats, in conversation with Republicans, need to take steps to refine the procedures of the House and Senate that will enable Republicans and Democrats to talk to one another, fostering the ideal for respectful conversations that I have proposed, as a deep expression of love. If they are able to do so, that achievement will testify to the “power of love.”
I can almost hear the loud moans of disbelief on the part of some, or many readers regarding my proposal that the procedures of the House and Senate need to be changed to facilitate respectful conversations; “Harold, you are living in an unreal la-la land; politics will always be about the “power of control,’ not the ‘power of love” that you embrace because of your Christian faith.”
I have two responses to such understandable criticism.
First, I advocate for political procedures that emphasize the “power of love,” in sharp contrast to the “power of control,” not because I believe my advocacy will be successful. My advocacy is based on my commitment to “doing the right thing” in light of my understanding that the “power of love” is central to my Christian faith commitment. I dare to plant this tiny seed of redemption, leaving the issue of success, or not, in God’s hands (Matthew13: 31-32).
Secondly, for those who criticize me for trying to impose my Christian beliefs on a pluralistic American culture, I dare to suggest that the focus that I place on the “power of love” is not unique to those who aspire to be followers of Jesus. I believe that all human beings, whatever their religious or secular world view commitments, are meant to love others rather than control others, I would welcome a culture-wide conversation on whether this is a central aspect of our shared humanity.
On October 30, 2020, my life was turned upside down when a doctor told me that a colonoscopy revealed that I had stage 3 rectal cancer.
My treatment for this cancer over the past seven months has been challenging, to put it mildly. It started with a combination of radiation and 24/7 chemotherapy by means of a pump strapped to my waist that proved to have disastrous side-effects: severe diarrhea and dehydration that landed me in a hospital for ten excruciating days starting two days before the start of a new year. My treatment was changed to a continuation of my 27 radiation treatments, without chemotherapy, followed by a series of twelve weekly chemo infusions.
The good news is that on May 18, my oncologist told me that a Pet-Scan revealed that I am now cancer free. Thanks be to God and a very caring, encouraging and competent oncologist, Dr. Nasser G. Abu-Erreish.
My focus now is on gaining back some of the 35 pounds that I lost during my treatment ordeal (from 175 to 140) and strengthening my severely weakened body by means of a rigorous physical therapy regimen.
I have shared the above story with cherished friends, but not with readers of my website, since at first glance reporting on this aspect of my personal life didn’t seem to fit well with the purpose of my website, which is to model respectful conversations among persons who have strong disagreements about contentious issues. At the end of this essay, I will share how I eventually concluded that this aspect of my personal story fits with the purpose of my website. But I will first share some reflections on lessons I have learned these past seven months that may be helpful to readers of my website (inspired to do so by my reading just this morning the chapter on John Donne in the splendid book Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey that I recommend all readers of this Musing move toward the top of their “to read” list).
What are some of the lessons I have learned during my cancer treatment ordeal? The first lesson is to be thankful for those blessings in your life that you have taken for granted.
I remember well what my primary care doctor said to me when I was about 80 years of age (five years ago) after my annual physical check-up: “Harold, I hope that when I am your age, I will be as healthy as you are.” Those words made my day, bringing me much joy. But there was one thing I didn’t do that day and all the days before that day, which I now deeply regret. I didn’t thank God for the lifetime of good health that I had taken for granted.
So, if you have been blessed with good things, big or small, that you have taken for granted, I encourage you to pause, even at this very moment, to thank God for these blessings.
A second lesson I have learned, a close cousin to the first lesson, is enjoy the small blessings of life. I will illustrate with an example that may seem downright trivial and even a bit strange to some readers but is precious to me.
We Norwegian Americans love our coffee and we love it strong (at least on the east coast, not so much in the mid-west). So, throughout most of my life, I enjoyed quite a few cups of strong coffee each day, not giving much thought to this practice. But as I struggled with my cancer treatments, I was told to limit my caffeine intake. So, I now drink one cup of caffeinated coffee each day – Dunkin Donuts coffee with hazelnut flavoring and a touch of milk. I drink this cup the first thing each morning as I watch cable news. I have come to cherish this small blessing. I look forward, with great anticipation, to savoring, with much enjoyment, another cup of that delicious coffee each morning. That is my personal experience of enjoying one of the small blessings of life. I hope that you may find similar enjoyment in one or more small blessings.
My third lesson learned takes the form of advice I give to all readers who are also coping with health challenges: As much as your health challenges allow, keep doing the things you love to do.
My good friend, Dr. Timothy Johnson, former Medical Editor for ABC TV News, once responded to my asking how he was doing as follows: “I’m great from the neck up, lower down not so good.” I now echo that response. I am very thankful that my mind is still sound (although some of my critics may dispute that claim). And this allows me to continue doing two things that I love to do with my mind, in collaboration with my heart: writing and dreaming up new projects.
I love to write. So, I am thankful that during my struggle with cancer these past seven months, I have been able to continue writing. First, I put the finishing touches on a book that Cascade Books will release either late this summer or in the early fall. Tentatively titled. Let’s Talk: Bridging Divisive Lines Through Inclusive Respectful Conversations, the content of this book flows from my experiences these past ten plus years, both beautiful and ugly, orchestrating, both on my website and in face-to-face small group conversations involving local residents, some respectful conversations among people who have strong disagreements.
I have also continued writing more “Musings” on my website; mostly dealing with how Christians can plant “tiny seeds of redemption” (see Matthew 13:31- 32) in our broken political system.
My being able to continue writing has been good therapy for me during my struggle with cancer.
But the big new news is that during these past few months, in the midst of my struggles with cancer, I have been planning for my next big electronic conversation (eCircle) on my website, titled “Following Jesus: Perspectives from Diverse Christian Traditions.” This ecumenical conversation is based on the premise that adherents to all Christian traditions aspire to “follow Jesus.” They just disagree on how best to do that, and can therefore learn from each other by means of respectful conversations. A huge challenge was to recruit conversation partners for the eleven Christian traditions to be included in this ecumenical conversation. But I love a challenge, even when I am hurting. And my eleven conversation partners are now in place
So, as you can see from the above my struggle with cancer has not been so deleterious as to prevent me from continuing to do some things that I love to do, for which I am very thankful.
I hope that you find the above reflections to be helpful, especially if you are presently experiencing adversity relative your health or anything else.
But why do I post these reflections about an aspect of my personal life on a website devoted to modeling respectful conversations among people who have strong disagreements about contentious issues? I have two reasons for doing so. The first is that one of the results of my struggle with cancer has been an amplification of my desire to ramp up my Respectful Conversation initiatives while I still have a sufficient degree of health to do so. I especially want my reader to understand that this is my primary motivation for embarking on a new very ambitious eCircle that seeks to create a full-orbed ecumenical understanding on what it means to follow Jesus.
My second reason is more foundational. I want to call into question the prevailing assumption that our beliefs about important contemporary issues (in my case, my beliefs about how to overcome the extreme polarization that is rampant in American culture) are independent of our personal stories.
My contrary view is that our beliefs about any contemporary issue are deeply informed by our personal stories. Since our personal stories are different, we may well come to embrace differing beliefs about the issue at hand. Therefore, persons having different personal stories need to talk respectfully with one another about the ways in which their personal stories inform their beliefs about the issue being discussed, which may be an initial step toward uncovering some common ground relative to the issue.
Therefore, it is inevitable that the initiatives I take to model respectful conversations are deeply informed by my personal story, which includes my recent struggles with cancer. So, I want my website readers to understand the way in which my struggle with cancer has informed my decision to ramp up my Respectful Conversation project by adding a new eCircle on my website that will address the important issue of how diverse Christian traditions give expression to their shared commitment to be followers of Jesus. This new eCircle, which will start on August 1, 2021, will soon be announced on my website.
In the face-to-face conversation that I hosted involving four supporters of president Trump and four non-supporters, reported on extensively below, I insisted on politeness, characterized by a willingness to listen, without interruption, to the viewpoint of a person who disagrees with you and the reasons he or she has for holding to that contrary perspective.
My eight conversation partners (CPs) did well in practicing politeness. But, as our conversation proceeded, I came away with the impression that a number of our CPs were practicing what I call “weak listening.” They were being polite, but they had no intention of re-examining their own beliefs in light of the contrary beliefs expressed by others. They were patient and polite in listening to the contrary beliefs of others, but their mindset sometimes was to “get that over with” so that they could express and advocate for their beliefs.
Being polite is necessary, but not sufficient, in any conversation that is seeking to uncover common ground. To find common ground, “strong listening” is required, which means listening with an openness to re-examining one’s own beliefs in light of what you hear the other person saying that is contrary to your present beliefs.
What are the obstacles to making “strong listening” a hallmark of contemporary political discourse in America? Two major obstacles are obvious
The major obstacle is an unwillingness to talk respectfully with those who disagree about contentious public policy issues that includes critically re-examining one’s beliefs. This unwillingness eliminates the possibility of uncovering any common ground This is the result of the rampant tribalism that pervades American culture these days, a “us-versus-them” mentality that causes “us” (our tribe) to view those “other folks” who disagree with us as not only wrong but evil.
In his splendid book Enough About Me, Richard Lui describes this unwillingness to re-examine one’s beliefs about political issues as follows, “We tend to quickly demonize political opponents, throwing around accusations and labels in the hope that they’ll stick so we don’t have to argue our points, much less examine them critically” (p. 128).
An egregious example of this unwillingness to re-examine one’s beliefs about any political issue is contained in Mitch McConnell’s recent statement that “100 percent of my focus is on stopping this administration.”
In effect, McConnell is saying that he will fight any political legislation that the Democrats propose. This stance precludes the possibility of Republicans and Democrats respectfully talking to one another about their disagreements. It precludes those on both sides of the political aisle practicing “strong listening” about the issue at hand toward the goal of uncovering some common ground.
A second major obstacle to making “strong listening” a hallmark of contemporary political discourse in America is that the current procedures for congressional deliberations work against the possibility of having respectful conversations about political disagreements that could uncover some common ground.
To take what I believe is the most egregious example, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to see how ludicrous it is that one person (Mitch McConnel) can control what proposed bills get to the floor of the Senate for deliberation (full disclosure: I once was a rocket scientist).
I do not have the expertise to propose a definitive solution to this current brokenness of congressional procedures. But three initiatives toward a solution come to mind, all of which have the common element of calling for the conversation that is needed to uncover some common ground (since not talking respectfully about political disagreements will make it impossible to uncover any common ground – No talk = no hope for uncovering any common ground).
First, the call to a return to “regular order” must be strongly supported. Such regular order must include orchestrating committee hearings on any proposed bill, leading to “markups” and then allowing for amendments from the floor, all of which calls for conversation. Members of Congress must embrace such an open process for deliberation and debate.
Secondly, consideration must be given to re-shaping the use of the filibuster. The original intent of the filibuster was, and remains laudable: To ensure that a “minority voice” is adequately heard in congressional deliberations. But it appears to me that currently the filibuster is often used to stifle the conversation between minority and majority voices that is needed to uncover common ground.
A third initiative that I propose flows from my experiences, both good and bad, these past ten or so years, of seeking to orchestrate respectful conversations among persons who disagree strongly about contentious issues: Start any congressional deliberation about any proposed bill with a relatively small bipartisan group of legislators.
My hard-earned experience suggests that attempts at orchestrating respectful conversations will be fruitless if there is a lack of mutual understanding and trust among those who have strong disagreements. And the fostering of such mutual understanding and trust is best accomplished in relatively small groups where conversation partners can get to know one another on a personal level before jumping into an attempt to sort through their disagreements in the search for common ground.
This experience of mine suggests that there is wisdom in starting congressional deliberation on a proposed bill with a relatively small group of politicians. A good recent example of the effectiveness of this starting point is found in the work of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 58 members equally divided among Republicans and Democrats, who have succeeded in forging bipartisan agreement on eleven issues for consideration by the 117th Congress.
I do not underestimate the challenge of finding any common ground when the proposals from the Problem Solvers Caucus come to the floor of the House or Senate; challenges precipitated by the fact that those outside of the Problem Solvers Caucus have not taken the initiative to get to know one another to build mutual understanding and trust.
I have no easy solutions to this challenge. Possibly a return to Regular Order can be orchestrated in a way that enables there to be a series of small group conversations that will build the mutual understanding and trust needed to uncover some common ground before the bill is brought to the full House or Senate for a vote.
A common element in all that I have proposed above creates venues for us to talk about our disagreements regarding contentious public policy issues. I am not suggesting that such a search for common ground will necessarily uncover some common ground. As I like to assert every chance I get, “one cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation.”
Therefore, as I have proposed in an earlier posting [Bipartisanship is a Process Not an End Result], a politician on either side of the political aisle is being is being bipartisan if she practices respectful conversation characterized by the rare combination of passionate commitment to her beliefs and openness to re-examining her beliefs in light of “strong listening” to the contrary beliefs of others. Therefore, “strong listening” is bipartisanship. One is practicing bipartisanship relative to a given piece of legislation if one practices “strong listening,” even if the final vote on the legislation includes no votes from those on the other side of the aisle. (Remember that one cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation).
A possible objection to all that I have said above is a rejection of the idea that the search for common ground is the essence of doing politics. Those who situate themselves at either extreme of the political spectrum may argue that it is “my way or the highway”; I will not settle for less than a “full loaf.” I believe that this argument misunderstands the nature of politics, which, more often than not requires settling for “less than a full loaf.” It also reflects a lack of balance between the two poles of the rare combination of commitment and openness that I have argued is a pre-condition for having a respectful conversation that uncovers some common ground: strong on commitment, which is to be applauded, but weak on openness. I urge those who situate themselves at either extreme of the political spectrum to seek for a better balance between commitment and openness.
In conclusion. I address the question of how well President Biden is doing to date in what he calls his commitment to bipartisanship in politics. Let me focus my response on the current debate over potential legislation regarding infrastructure. A good start was that at the very beginning of debate about this contentious issue, President Boden hosted a meeting with Republican legislators. But my question is whether this meeting went beyond being the “weak listening” that characterizes being polite, to the “strong listening” of re-examining one’s beliefs about infrastructure in light of the contrary beliefs of others in the room. I don’t know if such “strong listening” took place, since I was not in the room and media reports about that meeting shed little light on that question.
But I do have a perspective on what should be the “ideal” in such a meeting: “Strong listening” should be taking place The participants should exhibit that rare combination of deep commitment to their own beliefs about infrastructure and openness to re-examining their own beliefs in light of their “strong listening” to the contrary beliefs about infrastructure embraced by others in the room. If such “strong listening,” characterized by that rare combination is prevalent in the conversation, then there is hope for finding some common ground. But, even if the common ground uncovered is sparse or even non-existent, if “strong listening” was practiced in the deliberations, then bipartisanship was practiced.
Whether such bipartisanship emerges remains to be seen. There appears to be movement toward agreement on the size of a package. President Biden has put a $1 trillion package on the table (after his earlier proposals for $2.2 trillion and $1.7 trillion) and Republicans have moved from an initial proposal for a $568 billion package to a $928 billion package. But the biggest obstacle to agreement is how to pay for whatever size package is agreed upon. It is my hope that in the days to come, some “strong listening” will lead to agreement on a package and how to pay for it that reflects the emergence of some common ground.
Liz Cheney has been the recipient of much wrath from the Trumpism wing of the Republican party when she courageously asserted that “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning the democratic system.”
Before elaborating on the significance of this bold statement, let me emphatically assert my agreement with the assertion that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump is indeed a “big lie.” There is absolutely no credible evidence of significant voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election. All claims to such fraudulence have been rejected by members of the judiciary. This makes me thankful that America’s Founding Fathers had the wisdom to establish a tripartite system of governance, with appropriate checks and balances between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches, intended to prevent a president, like Donald Trump, committed to establishing autocratic rule by the Executive branch, from establishing such autocratic rule.
The truth is that, despite some minor glitches that are unavoidable in any large-scale election, the 2020 presidential election was eminently fair, thanks to the faithful discharge of their duties on the part of state election officials, both Republicans and Democrats.
As an aside, the most pernicious aspect of many recent state legislative initiatives to modify state electoral procedures is the transfer of responsibility for ensuring the fairness of elections from these trustworthy election officials to state legislatures.
As the Republican party struggles with defining its future, the tension is between adhering to the truth or embracing a “big lie” for the purpose of gaining legislative power. As Frida Ghitis puts it, the current debate within the Republican party is one “between plain truth and deliberative lies propagated by self-serving politicians at the expense of their country’s democracy.”
The nature of this tension is made clear by the disagreements between Liz Cheney and Kevin McCarthy as to how the Republican party should move into the future, which makes clear that there are two alternative ways for the Republican party to proceed: McCarthy asks Republicans to “compromise truth for power”; Cheney asks Republications to “sacrifice power for the sake of truth.” Let me elaborate.
I believe that May 12, 2021 will go down in history as a low point in the history of the Republican party; the day that Liz Cheney was removed from her leadership position with the National Republican Congressional Committee because she spoke the truth about the 2020 presidential election: It was not stolen by Joe Biden.
The main culprit is Kevin McCarthy who views embracing the “big lie” as a means to regain political power in the mid-term elections in 2022, with him sitting at the top of this power structure as the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. The overwhelming evidence suggests that that the primary motivation that drives McCarthy is a lust for power. This has led him to first say that President Trump bore responsibility for the insurrection on January 6 and say later that Trump did not incite the violence. He can’t have it both ways. One of these assertions is a lie. And anyone who lies to maintain and increase his power has lost all credibility.
McCarthy has also suggested that embracing the “big lie” is a means to obtain “unity” within the Republican party. But any attempt to build unity around a lie is doomed to failure in the long-run, as long as our tripartite system of governance is sustained (And the manner is which our judicial branch of governance withstood the “big lie” from Donald Trump is encouraging).
Before presenting an alternative vision for a Republican future, here are my major criticisms of the Trumpian vision summarized above. First, by focusing exclusively on gaining and retaining power, Trumpian Republicans evidence little concern for fostering the well-being of their constituents. As a result, their politics is strictly oppositional, focusing on grievances and their fear of losing a position of privilege in America. As a result, their policy positions are mostly negative, dealing with what they are against in the Democratic agenda. They present a meager positive agenda designed to improve the lives of those who elected them to office.
My second criticism flows from my Christian faith commitment. Simply put, from a Christian perspective, a perceived “good end” (regaining political power In 2022) never justifies an “evil means” (lying) to attempt to accomplish that end. As unrealistic as it sounds, Romans 12:21 teaches that evil is to be overcome with good. Therefore, if Republicans believe that the Democratic political agenda is “evil,” embracing the “big lie” is not an acceptable option for overcoming that evil. And, for those readers who believe that such evil means can be justified by the “good end” of regaining political power in 2022, I note my belief that such a short-term gain will eventually lead to long-term disaster for the Republican party, because, in the long-run, faithfulness to our tripartite form of democracy will ensure that truth, not lies, prevail.
Is there an alternative for a Republican future that rejects the “big lie” that is at the core of a Trumpian vision for a Republican future? A small group of Republican politicians, including Adam Kinzinger, Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney advocate for such an alternative Republican future; one that refuses to sacrifice truth and embraces classical conservative Republican principles as an alternative to the agenda of the prevailing Trumpian Republican agenda, which rejects these classical conservative Republican principles. Possibly the most egregious example of how Trumpism is contrary to these classical conservative principles is the Trumpian rejection of “welcoming” immigrants to America.
For Republicans who may be reading this Musing (hope springs eternal!), I highly recommend going to Adam Kinzinger’s website (www.country1st.com), which he describes as a “home for reasonable people of good will; seeking common ground to make our country better for future generations.”
Why do I, a registered Democrat, meddle in the Republican business of defining a viable Republican future? Because I believe that for American democracy to thrive, we need at least two strong political parties who have competing views as to what is good for our citizens and are willing to engage in respectful conversations in search for common ground.
I close with a reminder to readers who share my commitment to the Christian faith. The biblical vision for the nature of “power” and its use rejects the prevailing political view (on the part of both Republicans and Democrats) that “power” means holding tightly onto positions of authority.
An alternative view of “power” was exemplified by Jesus, who I aspire to follow. As recorded in Matthew 4: 8-10, Jesus clearly rejected the temptation to be in charge of “all the kingdoms of this world.” Rather, he chose a life devoted to selflessly meeting the needs of the “least” members of society (see Matthew 12:31-46) which contributed to the “rulers” of his day crucifying him on a cross. That is indeed the exercise of “power.” The “power of love.”
Those committed to the alternative future for Republicanism embraced by Adam Kinzinger and a minority of other Republicans are not quick to call their quest an expression of “love.” But, according to my understanding of the biblical teachings about “love,” that is what they are embracing, since caring for the well-being of others, and respectfully talking to others about competing views as to what constitutes human well-being are both deep expressions of the love for others to which Jesus calls those who aspire to be his followers.
Relative to the current struggle for the soul of the Republican party, one political pundit said that the Trumpian vision for that future form of Republicanism “prefers to unite behind a lie [That the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump] rather than stay divided over truth.”
Saving my rejection of building a future Republicanism on a lie for my next Musing, I will now argue for my belief that “being divided over truth” is an inevitable aspect of our humanity that should be acknowledged and embraced and should be the starting point for respectful political discourse.
The fact that we are divided about the nature of truth about any given public policy issue reflects the fact that as finite and fallible human beings our beliefs about that issue are deeply informed by the particularities of our differing social locations, such as our gender, our socio-economic status, our sexual orientation and our life-stories. So, it is an inevitable aspect of the human condition that we often disagree about the truth regarding any public policy issue.
Therefore, rather than rejecting that aspect of our shared humanity by “buying into a lie” for the sake of creating an “easy unity,” we should be exploring ways to navigate our current divisions about the truth regarding many policy issues.
As readers of this website know, my proposal is that we navigate our disagreements about what is the best approximation to the truth about any given public policy issue by creating welcoming and safe spaces for conversation partners to freely express their particular beliefs about the truth of the matter and their reasons for holding to those beliefs, to be followed by respectful conversation that seeks to uncover some common ground, or at least illuminate remaining disagreements in a manner that can inform ongoing conversations.
Therefore, my recommendation to readers of this Musing is that in your respective spheres of influence you start with an acknowledgement that it is our shared humanity that inevitably leads to divisions about the truth, and you then seek constructive ways to navigate such divisions, hoping that you will give serious consideration to my recommendation for doing so.
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.
All of us take the position that what we believe about a given issue (in politics and every other area of public discourse) is true, and we are prepared to give our reasons for taking that position.
But what many of us are slow to acknowledge is that our believing that our position on a given issue is true is deeply informed by what scholars call “the particularities of our social location.” In plain English, this means that what we believe is true about a given issue is deeply informed by “who we are.”
For example, our beliefs are deeply informed by our gender, our socio-economic status, our sexual orientation, and a lifetime of experiences that comprise our personal biography; all elements of our “personal stories.” It is because our personal stories differ that we may hold to differing beliefs about the issue at hand. My personal story may help me to see and understand things that you miss because of your differing personal story, and, similarly, your personal story may help you to see and understand things that I miss because I am not you.
So, what to do in light of our differing beliefs about what is true regarding the issue at hand? Readers of this website know that my response to this question is that those holding to such differing beliefs about what is true need to give each other a safe and welcoming space to express their particular beliefs and the reasons they have for holding those beliefs, to be followed by respectful conversation about areas of agreement and disagreement, toward the goal of collectively gaining greater understanding as to what is “actually true” about the given issue.
The greatest obstacle to this utopian dream of mine as to how people who disagree should respectfully engage one another is the ever increasing tendency for one element of each of our particular stories, the “tribe(s)” to which we belong, to degenerate into “tribalism” That assertion begs for some explanation.
Each person belongs to one or more tribes; groups of people with whom we most closely identify; people with whom we feel most comfortable; such as members of a particular church or a local Republican or Democrat political organization. That is good because we all need a sense of belonging.
But where belonging to a tribe degenerates into “tribalism” is when the members of my tribe distain members of other tribes; adopting an “us-versus-them” position that “they” have captured nothing of the truth about the issue at hand. And it often gets worse; not only are they “all wrong”; they are downright “evil” and should be demonized
Social media feeds such rampant tribalism. Whatever your beliefs about a given issue, however untrue they may be, you can find support for your beliefs somewhere on social media. And as long as you limit your reading to sources that only mimic what you already believe, you will have no good reason to examine your beliefs
In the realm of politics, such tribalism is the cause of the current dysfunction in the halls of Congress and the growing inability of Republican and Democrat politicians and their followers to respectfully talk to one another about their disagreements regarding public policy issues.
To take these reflections beyond the realm of abstraction, I will now imagine two small group conversations about current hot-button issues, the question of whether the 2020 presidential election was “stolen”; and the debate about the efficacy of wearing masks. For each of these issues, I will share a brief portion of what I would say in such a small group conversation to those who disagree with me, hoping that this will prompt them to re-examine their beliefs (hoping also that they will say things that will cause me to re-examine my beliefs).
But, first, I will share my hard-earned recommendations about how to get this small group conversation started, as elaborated in my forthcoming book Let’s Talk.
The members of this small group should be chosen to ensure that there is a balanced cohort of participants who hold to differing beliefs about the issue at hand.
Secondly, before laying bare disagreements, participants need to “get to know one another”; building relationships of mutual understanding and trust by talking about non-threatening questions like “Why is this topic important to you?”
Thirdly, all participants must agree, up-front, to abide by certain stipulated “Guidelines for Respectful Conversation” that focus on exemplifying that rare combination of “commitment” and “openness” that is a necessary pre-condition for having a respectful conversation about differing beliefs: Strong commitment to one’s own beliefs sufficient to state those beliefs with clarity and deep conviction (even passion) combined with “openness” to re-examining one’s present beliefs on the basis of carefully listening to the contrary beliefs of others and the reasons given for holding to those differing beliefs.
So, assuming my imagined small group conversations are initiated in this way, here is a portion of what I would say in conversations about the two contentious issues identified above.
Don’t Generalize from Partial Truths
Relative to the question of whether the 2020 presidential election was “stolen,” I agree with those conversation partners who believe that there were some irregularities in the 2020 presidential election. No large election is perfect. That is a portion of the truth. But it is a mistake to generalize from that partial truth.
There is overwhelming evidence, as conceded by former Attorney General William Barr, that the magnitude of these irregularities was far from being sufficient to conclude that the election was “stolen.” by Joe Biden. The preponderance of evidence indicates that this election was “fair,” thanks to the splendid work of election officials, both Republicans and Democrats, in abiding by the election laws in the various states.
Follow the Science Not Political Posturing
Relative to the question of whether wearing masks reduces the transmission of Covid-19, I agree with those conversation partners who point to the fact that Dr. Anthony Fauci changed his beliefs about the efficacy of wearing masks between March and April of 2020; stating in March that masks should largely be reserved for healthcare workers, and stating in April that his March recommendation needs to be broadened to include the general public. That is a portion of the truth. But to criticize Dr. Fauci’s for this change in his beliefs reflects a huge misunderstanding of the scientific enterprise on the basis of which he made this change.
In brief the scientific enterprise is not static. It is a dynamic self-correcting practice. A scientist forms a hypothesis in an attempt to explain a given phenomenon. But he or she is then open to refining that hypothesis on the basis of evidence provided by further testing. Therefore, Dr. Fauci’s change in his beliefs about the efficacy of wearing masks reflected the emergence of new scientific evidence. Dr Fauci is to be applauded, not criticized, for “following the science” rather than political posturing. And the present scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the belief that the wearing of masks reduces the transmission of Covid-19.
Is there a Viable Future for Political Discourse?
These two imaginary snippets of small-group conversation are meant to make the point that conversation partners need to be open to the possibility that their beliefs about a given contentious issue may not be true, and the best way to gain a better approximation to the “actual truth” is to collectively talk respectfully with those who hold to differing beliefs.
But is this hope for respectful conversations about political disagreements an example of unrealistic wishful thinking in a time when tribalism is running rampant? It will be possible only if persons who have strong political disagreements will be willing to combine their deep conviction that what they now believe is true with openness to the possibility that what they now believe may not be true. Exemplifying that rare combination of commitment and openness will require a measure of humility that is in rare supply these days, including, sadly, among Christians whose rhetoric claims that humility is a Cardinal virtue. I can only envision this happening through the eyes of faith.
I never tire of saying that you cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation. This truth makes a charade of calls for international diplomacy that stipulate up-front what the results of that diplomacy must be. It also helps to clarify that the elusive word “bipartisanship” needs to be viewed as a process and not an end result. I will illustrate by considering the current debate as to whether President Biden is being bipartisan in his attempt to get Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package.
As I have argued elsewhere, the unyielding pre-condition for a respectful conversation to take place is that the conversation partners embrace that rare combination of “commitment” and “openness” that combines a willingness to express one’s beliefs about the contentious issue at hand with clarity and deep conviction at the same time that one is willing to listen carefully to the contrary beliefs of conversation partners and the reasons they have for holding to those contrary beliefs and a willingness to re-examine one’s own beliefs in light of this careful listening; which could lead (but doesn’t have to lead) to changing one’s beliefs.
In that light, I believe that a politician on either side of the political aisle is being bipartisan if he/she practices such respectful conversation characterized by exemplification of this rare combination of commitment and openness; whatever the end result of practicing such a process may turn out to be.
So, relative to the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package that President Biden has proposed, he is being bipartisan if he practices such respectful conversation in his engagement with Republicans who have proposed a $6 billion relief package. A good sign was his willingness to listen to the contrary views of 10 Republicans. It is my hope that in the weeks ahead, when there will be time to refine the 1.9 trillion proposal, such respectful conversations will continue. President Biden has indicted his willingness to talk further about elements of his proposal, like the targeting of the $1400 relief checks. I hope that such respectful conversations continue. It is possible that such ongoing conversations will not lead to major changes in the current $1.9 trillion proposal because of the compelling argument that the current needs of Americans in the wake of the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic are so great that bold steps must be taken (an argument that is embraced by almost 70% of Americans). If this means that legislation is passed that has no Republican support, the process of bipartisanship will still have been practiced if deliberations have been characterized by respectful conversations.
The above reflections throw light on President Biden’ claim that he wishes to promote “unity” rather than division among Americans. Such unity does not mean that all Americans will agree with whatever relief package is eventually passed by Congress. Rather, the unity that we must seek is a shared commitment to a process of deliberation that is characterized by respectful conversations.
America’s Founding Fathers had the wisdom to set up checks and balances between the three branches of government: the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial. This balance of powers has served our country well over most of our history. But it came under severe assault under the presidency of Donald Trump; who made decisions as if he has unlimited power to do as he pleases to satisfy his own self-interests. At the same time, with few exceptions, a hyper-partisanship has flourished in the halls of Congress that has led to legislative gridlock. The result has been a frontal attack on the checks and balances needed to maintain a robust democracy that would have been fatal to the American Democratic experiment had it not been for the courageous public service of members of the judiciary; from both sides sides of the political aisle, who would not cave into the autocratic commitments of President Trump. Their meticulous commitment to the state and local laws governing election returns revealed the nonsense of President Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud. Although they were true to their callings as public servants without seeking applause, they are heroes who deserve our applause.
But this victory for democracy has a deeper dimension upon which we need to focus. It points to the possibility of a return to a way of doing politics that is centered on building unity rather than creating self-serving divisions.
I believe it is fair to judge that President Trump’s way of doing politics focused on creating divisions. Consider, for example, President Trump’s approach to NOT addressing the rampant racial inequities in America. From the earliest days of his presidency when he declared that there were “good people on both sides” of the protests in Charlottesville, he has played to the fears of white Americans that people of people of color will erode their white privilege, thus creating unbridgeable divisions between white Americans and Americans of color. In the process of doing so, he has created a stark asymmetry between how differing groups of Americans view constitutionally permitted protests over racial inequalities: The protests on those in the “Black Lives Matter” movement are viewed by a significant group of Americans as inciters of violence, while another significant group of Americans view those who oppose the elements of the “Black Lives Matter” movement as “peaceful protestors,” with the result that nothing is done to address existing rampant racial inequalities,
This stark division among two major segments of American society that President Trump has sown is but one exemplification of the deeper problem with public discourse in America: tribalism; an us-versus-them mentality that holds that “those other folks” not only lack any understanding of the “truth” about the contentious issue at hand; they are downright evil and need to be demonized. Such tribalism is the inevitable result of the politics of division that has been consistently practiced by President Trump.
But I close these reflections with two rays of hope. First, President-Elect Biden has pledged to replace a politics of division with a politics of unity. Of course, time will tell whether that is possible. To his credit, Biden has refused to grovel in the mud with President Trump. A hopeful sign that creating a politics of unity may be possible is the splendid way in which a bipartisan cohort of legislators (the Problem Solvers Caucus) passed a second $908 billion pandemic relief bill.
My second ray of hope is that out of the current political chaos a new vision for the Republican Party will emerge that will reject the present “Trump” version; returning in some form to the meaning of Republicanism that characterized the Reagan era. In his splendid book We Should Have Seen It Coming, Gerald F. Seid notes the following three elements of Reaganesque Republicanism: limited government characterized by fiscal responsibility; welcoming of the immigrant; a foreign policy that promotes democracy around the world. All three of these emphases have been rejected by the present “Trump” version of Republicanism. It is my hope that after Trump’s tenure as president is over a group of Republican legislators will shape a new form of Republicanism that embraces these commitments. The most likely current Republican legislators who could focus on this task could include Ben Sasse (Nebraska), Adam Kinzinger (Illinois), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).