Dividing or Uniting Americans: Trying to Recruit Two Northwest Iowans

The following was published in the September 8 issue of the Capital Democrat in Orange City, Iowa

It has been accurately suggested that a rapidly emerging problem among Americans is that half of us don’t want to talk to the other half.

As some readers of the Capital Democrat may recall from previous pieces I have written, for the past decade or so my primary passion has been to try to create safe and welcoming spaces for persons who have strong disagreements to talk respectfully to one another about their disagreements, as a deep expression of love. The results of five such past conversations (called eCircles) can be accessed on my website, www.respectfulconversation.net.

I would now like to design a sixth such conversation, precipitated by a criticism I have of President Biden’s recent speech about “The Future of Our Nation.” Biden’s speech presented a strong critique of the extreme MAGA wing of the Republican party as posing a severe threat to democracy in America. I happen to agree with Biden about this severe threat. But my criticism of Biden’s speech is that, as one interviewee on Fox News said, in this speech he was serving as a “Divider-in-Chief,” not as the “Uniter-in-Chief” that he has promised to be. Perhaps Biden has given up hope that MAGA Republicans want to talk to those who disagree with them. I cling tenaciously to that hope.

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Divide or Unite: My Invitation to MAGA Republicans.

The impetus for my invitation is the speech recently given in Philadelphia by President Biden on the topic “The Soul of the Nation” and two criticisms of that speech, one by a Biden supporter and one by a non-supporter.

Biden’s speech was a blistering criticism of those he views as extreme MAGA Republicans; while acknowledging that there are many Republicans who do not fit into this category. In strong language, he stated his view that these extreme MAGA Republicans are a severe threat to Democracy in America.

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Navigating The Abortion Debate: Conversations Based on Values

The Supreme Court has spoken, voting 5-4 to overturn Roe vs. Wade, thereby turning over to the various states the right to enact their own abortion laws.

I fear that this decision will lead to an unprecedented level of vitriolic political discourse, and even to violence, as different states enact laws ranging from banning abortion at any time after conception to providing abortion “on demand” at any time during pregnancy.

It will surprise no one reading this Musing that given this climate of fear, I urge residents of all states to express their beliefs about abortion in public venues, with the hope that it is not too late for each state to provide safe and welcoming spaces for differing views to be shared and respectfully discussed.

Motivated by that hope, I will now present my views on abortion. Read more

Hurrah for Bipartisan Gun Legislation

I applaud the imminent passage of bipartisan gun legislation that is long overdue.

This is not the first time that a small bipartisan group of legislators has been able to forge bipartisan legislation. Two other examples come to mind, one old and one relatively new.

In 2013, a small bipartisan “gang of eight” senators, four Democrats an four Republicans, collaborated to forge a comprehensive bill on immigration reform that was passed by the Senate. Alas, this legislation died when it came to the House of Representatives.

A more recent example that had a successful outcome in the Halls of Congress was the passing of a bipartisan bill on hard infrastructure that started with the forging of a bipartisan bill by a small bipartisan group of legislators. Read more

An Open Letter to Elon Musk

Dear Mr. Musk:

News of your purchase of Twitter has elicited numerous reactions, both positive and negative. I am responding positively, with some qualifications.

I applaud your commitment to foster “free speech” that will give voice to the expression of any belief about any contentious issue. My applause is prompted by a very painful experience I had a number of years ago when a great injustice was done to me and I was silenced. No one wanted to hear my side of the story. No one should be silenced in a conversation about anything.

I also wish to applaud your assertion that “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy,” and your aspiration that Twitter become “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” I wish to take you at your word. Therefore, at the end of this letter, I will reflect on what may be required to make this assertion reality. Read more

Reflections on Gay Marriage

Author’s Note by Harold Heie: In my various attempts to model on this website respectful conversations among Christians who have strong disagreements about some contentious issues, I have attempted to be even-handed in allowing those on either side of each issue to present their differing beliefs, with minimal editorial comments from me as moderator. However, after having read my eCircle narratives, a few of my readers have asked me to present my beliefs about the issue at hand. I take that a good sign since it may testify to my  having been reasonably successful in my attempts to be fair in my eCircle reports, not “tipping the scales” in favor of one perspective on the issue.

But I believe I owe honest answers to the readers who have posed such honest questions. Therefore, from time to time, I have included in my blogs (what I have called my “Musings”) answers to those who wonder about positions that I take on selected issues. What follows is my response to the question a few of my readers have asked about my personal position on gay marriage.

A controversial question that is presently leading to significant rancor and schisms within Christian churches and denominations is:

Does God approve of a lifelong, monogamous, marriage commitment between a gay couple?

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Misplaced Value Commitments in Politics

If you dig beneath the surface of everything you say or do, you will discover one or more value commitments, in the ordinary sense of some things that you judge to be important.

Therefore, to make some sense of the turmoil in contemporary American politics, one must seek to uncover the foundational value commitments of politicians and their followers.

In their revealing book Peril, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa report on three events surrounding Donald Trump’s presidency that reveal value commitments on Trump’s part that I believe are antithetical to the Christian faith; misplaced value commitments that are sadly becoming the norm in American politics.

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Constant Ongoing Learning in Dialogical Community

These six words were used by my good friend David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer university, to describe my “approach” to engaging others. This observation was prompted by my recently making a “mid-course change” in the procedures for the ecumenical conversation on what it means to “follow Jesus” that I am currently hosting on this website. What led to my making this change was what I learned was working well, and not so well, during the first month of a twelve-month conversation.

As I thought more about this phrase, it became obvious to me that it captures a great deal of my “approach” to life throughout my Christian pilgrimage. So, I will now elaborate a bit on this, morphing into why I believe this approach to life is so challenging in these times of extreme polarization in culture and why I will persist anyway.

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Freedom is Not License: Mandating Masks or Not

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.

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From the Power of Control to the Power of Love

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.