MODERATOR REPORT ON THE COMPLETED TRUMP CONVERSATION: AGGREEMENTS AND DISAGREEMENTS, UNANSWERED QUESTIONS, ADVICE FOR REPLICATING THIS EXPERIMENT
The complexities and nuances of our recently concluded conversation about “President Trump and Visions for America” are such that no two people will take-away the same set of conclusions. Therefore, what follows is my attempt to make coherent sense of it all. Although I draw deeply from the perspectives presented by all my conversation partners, I take full responsibility for the conclusions I present below.
I present my report in three sections: My perceptions of areas of agreement and disagreement that emerged from our series of conversations; my perception of questions that remain unanswered and beg for ongoing conversation; and my advice for those readers who wish to replicate this experiment in political discourse that draws heavily on what worked well and what did not work well (the beautiful and the ugly) in our conversation as well as my other past attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations among those Christians having strong disagreements. My ultimate hope is that the positive results that emerged from this conversation will inspire many readers to go out and do likewise in their respective spheres of influence.
AREAS OF AGREEMENT
In the areas of agreement that I identify below, I do not claim unanimity on the part of my conversation partners (unless otherwise indicated), but I do claim “general consensus.”
Current Political Discourse is Broken
As one conversation partner (CP) put it: “We agree that the current state of politics is broken and partisan” (“in a poor state”).
An Antidote to Broken Political Discourse is Respectful Conversation
There was unanimity among all the CPs that despite a bump or two in the road along the way our conversations exemplified the “respectful conversation” that can be an antidote to broken political discourse: In the words of two CPs: “My favorite take-away [from our Trump conversation] is that we all value civil conversations and are thankful for the chance to have these conversations with one another”; “respectful conversation is valuable and worth the effort.”
Note the implication in the second reflection above that, as one CP later put it. “respectful conversation is hard work” (much harder than the easy work of vilifying those who disagree with you without seeking to adequately understand their contrary positions and their reasons they have for holding to those positions).
The Place to Start a Respectful conversation about Disagreements is to Get to Know the Person who Disagrees with You
The CPs expressed appreciation for all the foundational work that was done to build positive relationships of mutual understanding and trust before diving into expressing disagreements. This involved getting to know one another by giving reasons for wanting to be part of the conversation based on one’s personal story and indicating what one hoped to get out of the conversation. It also included agreeing to abide by stipulated guidelines for respectful conversation. One CP summarized this as follows: “The good initial team building provided a foundation for a sense of community and a safe space to explore ideas. The agreed rules for engagement pretty well ‘defanged’ everyone and comfort grew with each meeting. Trust developed over time and all seemed to enjoy the interchange.”
The Next Step in a Respectful conversation about Disagreements is to Listen Well Toward the Goal of Mutual Understanding
To point to the rarity of persons who disagree with one another really listening to each other, one CP observed that “it was good for me to actually listen to viewpoints I disagree with.” Imagine that; putting oneself in a position to actually listen to the person who disagrees with you.
A number of CPs point to the positive results of such “actual listening.” For starters, the experience of one CP was that by actually listening he came to see that those who disagree with him “feel as strongly about their beliefs as I do about mine.” As a result of this realization, he “learned” that he needed to “consider carefully the other side’s perspective on things.”
Another CP noted that as a result of such careful listening, his “compassion for those we conversed with” became “deeper”; which “increased” his “ability to love those who are different than me.”
Another CP noted that as a result of such careful listening, “my perspective is wider now.” He elaborates somewhat by adding that “when liberal leaning friends have spoken [to him] with bewilderment at conservative perspectives, I have a stronger grasp on why folks might hold that conservative position and am able to communicate that more clearly and with less disdain.” A positive result of this widening of perspectives is that, whereas in the past he has found it “difficult to find folks who disagree with you to sit down and talk/listen about the things we disagree about”; “now I feel that I know several people [his CPs in this conversation] I can continue to talk to when new things emerge in the news in order to continue my learning about ways to perceive the world that are different than mine.”
A common theme in the above reflections from CPs is that by means of careful listening, they attained greater understanding of the contrary positions taken by others and the reasons underlying these contrary positions. In the words of three CPs: “I think we heard from each other and came to understand each other’s rationale for varying positions better; “Through listening to Christians who support Trump, I can say I understand better where you are coming from and why, as a Christian, you approach the question of supporting Trump different from me, also a Christian”; “The single most important “take-away’ … is that we all experienced and saw a willingness from each other to truly listen and to try to understand each other’s perpsectives.”
What, then, is the point of such careful listening in the quest for better mutual understanding? One CP suggests that it is “not so much to persuade as to exercise our ability to see and hear from one another, particularly amidst our differences.” (we will return later to the issue of whether such careful listening actually changes minds).
It is time for me to insert two editorial comments. First, while the mutual understanding that should emerge from listening well certainly includes coming to understand the contrary position of the other, it must go beyond that to adequately understanding the reasons the other person has for his/her position. Such laying bare of underlying reasons for holding to particular beliefs will facilitate the quest for possibly finding some common ground in the midst of disagreements.
A second editorial comment is my belief that one must distinguish between weak and strong ways of listening. As I assert every chance that I get, a pre-condition for the possibility of respectful conversations about strong disagreements to uncover some common ground, or, at least, to illuminate the disagreements, is that the conversation partners embrace a rare combination of commitment and openness: A willingness to express one’s own beliefs with clarity and deep conviction (that is commitment); combined with a willingness to carefully listen to and give serious consideration to the contrary beliefs of others (that is openness).
Given that foundational belief on my part, a weak view of listening is to just be polite; to let the other person talk without giving serious consideration to the validity of what the other person is saying. In stark contrast, the strong view of listening that I call for involves a willingness to critically examine one’s own beliefs in light of the contrary beliefs of others; without attempting to predict beforehand the results of such self-examination – it could lead to a reinforcement of one’s own beliefs, or an enrichment of one’s beliefs. But it could also lead to correcting one’s present beliefs.
Was the listening that took place during our Trump conversation of the weak variety or the strong variety? One CP expressed concern that he too often settled for a weak version of listening: “too often, I think I have sacrificed my voice & views in favor of a false civility, being ‘nice’ in the interest of ‘peace.’ Prizing rationality on issues over truly expressing my values & convictions whether or not they seem ‘reasonable’ to others.” He suggests that he and the other CPs still “[struggle] with just how honest we can be about our convictions while maintaining … civility and personal respect.”
My frank assessment of our conversations is that that my CPs exhibited some of both weak and strong ways of listening.
It Appears that None of us Changed our Minds Regarding Public Policies
A number of CPs point to the lack of evidence that our conversations changed many minds, either in themselves or other CPs: “I have not changed my beliefs about President Trump and the divide between what I perceive to be his vision for America and my vision for America remains”; “I don’t find that I changed my beliefs on President Trump or my vision for America as a result of our conversations. I’ve enjoyed our conversation, But I don’t find that any of the arguments I’ve heard in opposition to my positions are compelling enough for me to change my ideas.”
Another CP says that she “[doesn’t] know if any of us changed our minds about specific policies we support or don’t support,” adding that “at least I didn’t. While I understand better why those who support Trump support him and I have more respect for their reasons, my own lack of support for him or his policies is unchanged.”
Why were minds not changed? A number of other comments by CPs provide some hints.
First, one CP insightfully points out having “some very similar foundational beliefs and value convictions” can “take us in different directions politically” regarding public policy issues (for example, all of our CPs believe in the “end” of assisting the poor, while disagreeing about the role that government should, or should not take as “means” for accomplishing that “end”). As another CP put it, “”we agreed that our faith has implications for our citizenship, though the nature of those outcomes remain divergent.”
Another CP suggests that having a strong set of “core convictions” may militate against changing your mind. “I think my beliefs stem from core convictions I hold and were not likely to change during these conversations.” My own reflection about this suggestion is that we all need to be careful that our core convictions are not held on to so strongly that we succumb to a weak view of listening to the contrary core convictions of others that does not go beyond politeness. As indicated in the above section, I maintain that no matter how strong our core convictions may be, we need to be open to examining the adequacy of our convictions on the basis of seriously considering the contrary convictions of others.
Finally, another reason why not many, if any, minds were changed as a result of our conversation is that the moderator (me) was not adept enough at guiding the conversation in a way that may have changed some minds (more about that below).
A Number of CPs said “I Changed”
At the conclusion of this conversation, one CP asserted that “I don’t think I have changed.” But a few other CPs saw significant change in themselves.
One CP expressed this change most eloquently as follows: “I hope … that the biggest change brought about through this experiment has been in me. I still disagree with many of the policy positions of those who support Trump, … However, when we started, I not only disagreed, but I was disagreeable. I know I am still disagreeable at times, but I hope I have become less disagreeable, or at least that I am becoming less disagreeable. Though this process, I have been able to see more clearly my own contribution to the winners/losers, point-scoring approach to politics that I believe is a loss to everyone in that it harms community and discourages compromise and collaboration.”
Other CPs expressed similar views about how they changed. What one CP learned about himself was that “I can disagree respectfully, and have good, spirited debate with people I have very little in common with politically.”
Another CP reported that as a result of these conversations, “my compassion for those I conversed with is deeper.” He came to a fuller realization that “those who I disagree with are my neighbors and these conversations are have increased my capacity to listen, desire to understand, and ability to love those who are different than me.”
Another CP noted that these conversations changed him in developing his “habit of curiosity and listening.”
Another CP insightfully pointed out that what he learned about himself was that he needed to avoid putting those who disagreed with him into neat categorical boxes: “The change I perceive most in myself is the importance of not slipping into using those comfortable labels to categorize someone who starts using phrases that signal a direction that I might disagree with.” He then points all of us to an alternative approach that is central to this entire experiment: “Rather than assuming I already know what they’re going to say, I need to hold back, listen, and ask follow up questions.”
My Perception of the Other CPs Changed
One CP expressed most eloquently a change that he perceived took place during our experiment as to how the CP’s viewed each other: “One thing that I feel has emerged from this [conversation], but I want to be careful not to speak for the group, is that I think we all see each other as part of the same ‘Christian family.’ Like, …, I think some of us feel like really distantly related cousins, but I think we see in one another a genuine love of Christ and an authentic desire to follow Jesus. And really, I’m not sure I could want more that that from a conversation. To be able to see one another as co-citizens of the kingdom of God is a great conclusion to any conversation if you ask me.”
Another CP said the following about how her perception of the other CPs changed; calling this change “transformational”: “To change from not knowing someone or not knowing them well, and in that lack of knowledge resorting to generalizing and stereotyping and then to conclude our experiment with more knowledge of seven others whose distinct viewpoints we have worked to hear and respect is a compelling transformation.”
I do not have empirical evidence to support the assertion that all the CPs left this conversation agreeing with this observation that their views of the other CPs changed,. But my intuitive sense is that this was the case. Whereas there may have been some initial suspicions that those who disagreed with me politically were inferior Christians, that feeling was eventually dispelled. It eventually became apparent to everyone that we all aspired to be faithful follower of Jesus. Our disagreements were about how best to do that in the political realm.
To the extent that this intuitive perception of mine is accurate, its importance cannot be overstated. It is only when we come to see each other as aspiring to be faithful followers of Jesus that there is any hope that we can eventually sort through our disagreements as to how best to follow Jesus (by means of ongoing respectful conversations).
The “Means” President Trump Has Chosen for Doing Politics Violate Christian Teachings
There is unanimity among all the CPs that the means President Trump has chosen to seek to accomplish his political ends are problematic. Witness the following reflections from CPs: “I think the biggest area of agreement that we found was that nobody was extremely happy with all the tactics that Donald Trump uses as President”; “Trump has dismayed even those of us who support him with some of his words, deeds, and tweets”; “Trump’s rude and disrespecting communication is not acceptable and is not a Christian virtue.”
Two CPs express their concerns about President Trump in terms of his not being a good role model: “We agree that President Trump’s style is no role model to emulate”; “We seem to agree that President Trump is not a positive role model when it comes to moral character or decency.”
One CP elaborates on some of the “unchristian means” that President Trump uses to work toward accomplishment of his desired ends: “vulgar language, rude behavior, belittling opponents.”
But here comes a significant point of contention. While agreeing that President Trump’s means for doing politics do not measure up to Christian standards, the CPs do not agree on the extent to which that shortcoming should or should not matter. In the words of one CP: “we disagree about the degree to which that [his faults relative to “moral character and decency”] matters in the presidency” I now turn to this issue as the first of two major areas of disagreement that emerged in our conversation.
AREAS OF DISAGREEMENT
Should President Trump’s Unchristian Means for Doing Politics Matter?
One’s answer to this question depends on one’s position as to the relationship between means and ends in politics.
My own belief is that the accomplishment of a good end does not justify an evil means. Therefore, even if one believes that some or all of President Trumps desired ends comport with Christian values (e.g., his wish to appoint conservative anti-abortion justices who will seek to overturn Roe Vs. Wade); that end which is perceived as good does not justify using unchristian tactics to work toward its accomplishment. This fits with my understanding of the biblical teaching, which I grant sounds outrageously unrealistic, that “evil is to be overcome with good” (Romans 12;21).
But the idealism that I express above may be too simple in light of the complexity that exists when casting a vote for a given candidate for the Office of President. For when I entered the voting booth in November of 2016, I was presented with a choice as to who to vote for: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, a third party candidate; or a write-in candidate (as a semi-humorous aside, a friend of mine actually voted for me to become President in one election; I forget which).
The obvious fact that we were presented with alternatives when voting for President in 2016 was captured in the following way by one of our CPs: “Some of us think that because Trump is (fill in the blank) he should not be president. Some of us think that even though Trump is a (fill in the blank with the same word); he’s still better than the alternative.”
So, here is the way in which I make sense of the Trump supporters among our CPs voting to Trump in 2016 despite their beliefs that his way of doing politics is unchristian: the alternative of voting for Hillary was unacceptable because she would also choose some unchristian means for doing politics and would advocate for some political “ends” that are antithetical to the Christian faith (e.g., abortion on demand up to birth), and the ends and means she would choose are more problematic from a Christian perspective than the ends and means that candidate Trump would choose. From this perspective, President Trump’s unchristian means for doing politics matter, but that legitimate concern is overridden by greater concern about what are believed to be “more unchristian” ends and means that the other candidate (Hillary Clinton) would pursue if elected.
That this conjecture on my part may have validity is suggested by the following view expressed by one of our CPs who is a Trump supporter: “If I as a Christian cannot vote for Trump because of this [essentially, his character flaws], who do I vote for? Do I vote for a Democratic candidate who promotes the killing of the most innocent [by supporting abortion on demand]?”
So, where does all of this leave us? It leaves us with the recognition that there can be situations in life, as when in a voting booth, where we have no choice but to choose what we perceive to be the “best bad option” (what ethicists call choosing what we perceive to be the “lesser of evils”).
Our CPs disagreed about the comparative severity of perceived departures from Christian norms on the part of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, which suggests the need for further conversation.
Do President Trump’s Policy Goals (Ends) Comport with Christian Teachings?
A second major area of disagreement among our CPs was about whether the political ends sought by President Trump for domestic and international policies are consistent with Christian teachings. Although these disagreements were always below the surface, I erred in my role as moderator by not orchestrating in-depth conversations about these disagreements. Allow me to explain.
I start with a reflection by one of my CPs that “it would have suited the purposes of conversing about Donald Trump a little more if instead of the broad topics we ended up discussing, we could have found some specific policies that have been enacted and discussed those.” A similar suggestion from another CP was that we need to “well define the topic and require the conversation to be related to the topic,” adding that we need to “require participants to clearly define their position on the topic.”
Another way to express this concern, said by another CP was that “my own preference would be to go deeper more often.”
A concrete example of this lack of depth was provided by another CP relative to our conversations about abortion: She regrets that we didn’t “expand the conversation” by contrasting the views of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: “Since Hillary Clinton is an ardent abortion advocate, her contrast with Donald Trump, the most Pro-Life President ever, is relevant.”
With these reflections as background, here is where I believe I erred in my role as moderator from the very beginning of our conversation. The two initial leading questions that I posed were “What is our vision for the future of America?” and “To what extent do you believe President Trump is facilitating, or not, the accomplishment of your vision for the future of America?” In retrospect, I believe these questions were too broad. I should have posed some more specific leading questions about particular policy goals (ends) that President Trump was implementing and their congruence, or not, with Christian teachings. That would have led to the in-depth conversations about specific policies that we never got to.
So, while I know that our CPs had major disagreements about policies, we never got around to discussing these disagreements in-depth, which I regret. Later in this report, I will suggest some possible ways to remedy that deficit for those readers interested in replicating our experiment in their local settings.
SOME MORE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS BEGGING FOR FURTHER CONVERSATION
My fondest hope for all the respectful conversations I have initiated, both online and face-to-face (as in my Trump conversation), is that they are only a beginning; not an ending. Since my CPs for my Trump conversation have developed some good friendships based on a significant degree of mutual understanding and trust, my dream is that they will continue to talk to one another now that our Trump conversation is officially completed.
Since the responses to leading questions already posed often beget new questions (so many questions, so little time), there is still so much to talk about regarding the Trump presidency from a Christian perspective, even beyond the two questions posed above to which CPs gave differing responses. I will now propose some further unanswered questions.
As you will soon see, in sharp contrast to the view of one of my CPs that “our conversation was too theological,” I believe that our conversation was not theological enough.
Is Sin Personal, Structural, or Both?
I came away from my conversation with the impression that some of my CPs believe that sin is strictly personal; the things I do or say that are affront to God. I certainly believe in this personal dimension of sin. But there is also a broader structural element of sin, practices initiated by sinful human beings that inhere in societal structures; which are also an affront to God. An obvious example is the sin that was inherent in the institution of slavery in America, the remnants of which continue to plague us.
What is the Scope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
One’s view on whether sin has a structural as well as a personal dimension will inevitably inform one’s view as to the intended scope of the “good news” of the gospel of Jesus Christ. My broad view of the scope of sin leads me to a broad view of the purposes of God. In addition to desiring that individual persons be saved; God wishes to redeem all of the created order; including sinful societal structures. The biblical teaching that most informs this belief of mine is Colossians 1:20 – “And through him [Jesus Christ], God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven …”
It is important to note how what I have just asserted comports with my understanding of eschatology (the “end times”). Not being a theologian, I do not have the competence to sort through the differing views as to the nature of the “end times.” My partial understanding is that the “kingdom of God” was indeed inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and will be fully realized at the end times (in ways that I do not comprehend and about which respectable Christian theologians disagree), But in the meantime, Christians are called to plant “tiny seeds of redemption” during their earthly pilgrimages (Matthew 13:31-32).
This is not to suggest that the full realization of God’s redemptive purposes at the “end times” is ultimately dependent on what we Christians do on earth (although I do view myself as “partnering with God”). But it does suggest that our callings while here on earth are to provide intimations of that eventual full realization, analogous to the way in which a morning sunrise hints at the eventual full noonday sun. And I see the various ways in which I seek to provide such intimations as special cases of my aspiring to “love God and to love my neighbor as myself.”
Now, all of the above may seem like “theological obfuscation” to the reader. Not so! I will now seek to demonstrate, by means of posing some additional questions, how your responses to these initial theological questions will have a profound influence on how Christians should do politics and your view of how President Trump is doing in light of Christian teachings.
What is the Relationship Between the Calling for Christians to Address the needs of the Poor and Marginalized in Society and the Possible Role of Government in Addressing Such Needs?
In my estimation this is the most important question that remained unanswered at the end of our conversation. And, as you will soon see, this challenging question will beget a few thorny sub-questions.
As already hinted at, all of our CPs expressed belief in the “end” of assisting the poor and marginalized in society, but significant disagreements remained as the best “means” for accomplishing that good end.
Before addressing that disagreement, it is important to note a biblical basis for a Christian calling to assist the poor and marginalized in society, portrayed in the teaching of Jesus recorded in Matthew 25, that those who will “inherent the kingdom” are those who give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, care for the sick and visitation to the prisoner. But Matthew 25 is silent as to the best “means” for caring for the “least of these,” and it is that silence as to “means” that leads to significant disagreements among Christians.
I believe it is fair to say that in our conversation, those CPs who supported President Trump expressed the view that Christians should express such love for others by means of their own charity and the charity of Christian churches and other Christian organizations rather than expecting government to play a role.
In contrast, those CPs who were not supporters of President Trump embraced a more expansive view of the role of government as including assisting the poor and marginalized in society, in addition to, not in place of private Christian charity.
This contrast leads me to pose the following sub-question: Are the needs of the poor and marginalized in our society too extensive to be met by means of private charity?
My own personal response to this sub-question, which I do not attribute to any of my CPs, is that the needs of the poor and marginalized in our society are too great to be met solely by means of private charity. For example, there are many Americans who are born into such extreme poverty that they are not able to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” They need assistance in the form of food stamps and other welfare programs. But I could be wrong about that. More conversation is needed
A possible rejoinder to my response to this sub-question is that in practice, many attempts at providing such public assistance have been ill-conceived, involving “handouts” without expectations for taking personal initiatives that can eventually overcome total dependency on such handouts (e.g., availing oneself of job training possibilities).
It is such ill-conceived welfare practices that give credence to the concern expressed by one theorist that “What one person receives without working for, another person must work for [to pay taxes toward providing public assistance] without receiving.” To the extent that current welfare practices legitimate this concern my response is that steps then need to be taken to develop public assistance programs that provide the temporary assistance needed in a way that helps recipients to fare better in our market economy. The second sub-question this leads to is: What should be the elements of a welfare program that best provides the assistance needed to help recipients become flourishing members of society? More conversation is needed.
A second possible rejoinder to my claim that there is a proper role for government in providing public assistance for those in dire need is that my basing this claim on the teaching of Jesus recorded in Matthew 25 may indeed be compelling to those who profess to be followers of Jesus, but those who hold to other religious or secular worldviews may not share this teaching of Jesus. This leads to a third sub-question: Is the call to address the needs of the poor and marginalized in society just a Christian calling; or is it a calling to be embraced by all human beings?
My response to this third sub-question, which, once again, I do not attribute to all my CPs, is that the call to care for those in dire need is not just a “Christian calling.” It is a “human calling.” That will take some explanation.
The challenge is to create a proper balance between two foci that are good, unless taken to extremes that preclude the second focus; the focus on being a unique individual and being a member of one or more communities. Drawing on the words of the Declaration of Independence that Americans ought to have certain “unalienable rights,” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” the tendency in America has been to focus on the pursuit of these rights as individuals, without adequately taking into account that we are also social beings; members of one or more communities, who. I argue, on the basis of my commitment to the teachings of Matthew 25, ought to be caring for one another. But the idea that we are social beings who ought to care for one another is not just a Christian teaching. I believe that the need to care for one another reflects an important aspect of our shared humanity.
Is Abortion Always Wrong?
One of our CPs emphatically took the position that “abortion is always wrong”: “Because being ‘successful’ always ends the life of a unique human being created in the image of God, abortion is always wrong.”
Did all the other CPs agree? It depends on who you ask. One other CP said: “We spoke a lot about abortion, and I think we came to some basic frameworks about this topic, but I don’t think we found much agreement on the parameters of when (if) an abortion is justified.” I agree with this second CP.” Let me explain.
I believe it is fair to say that all of our CPs were pro-life (from the fetus to the end of life). Therefore, no CP argued for any from of “abortion on demand.” But I don’t think we settled the question of whether there are ever any extraordinary circumstances of what ethicists call “tragic moral choice,” where all the options that are available are destructive in some way, and one must choose what is judged to be the “best of all of the destructive options” (what ethicists call the “lesser of evils”).
We did discuss one such possible example of tragic moral choice relative to abortion, the case of “saving the fetus or saving the mother.” What should be done when a sound medical diagnosis is that if the fetus is not aborted, the mother will surely die?
The CP who holds that “abortion is always wrong” had a response that I believe was novel to all the other CPs: The doctors should take every possible step to save the mother; even if an unintended consequence is that the fetus “will die,” and this “letting die” is not abortion since it does not involve taking a proactive step to “kill the fetus.”
This explanation seemed to satisfy the other CPs, but that was not discussed. But, even if this is an adequate explanation (which would require further conversation), there are other possible cases of tragic moral choice relative to abortion that were not addressed at all. For example, what choice should be made if a sound medical diagnosis was that allowing the pregnancy to continue would almost certainly lead to a complete mental breakdown for the mother?
Therefore, in conclusion, it is my judgement that we did not exhaust the question of when (if at all) an abortion may be justified as an example of tragic moral choice. I believe that more conversation is called for.
Should Christians be Skeptical About or Oppose the Authority of Government?
One of our CPs points to this question when he asserts that “While I believe [the] existence [of government] makes sense, I think Christians should remain skeptical of and often in opposition to the authority of governments and the actions governments take.” He basis his skepticism or opposition on his belief that “our expectations of governments to behave within a Christian perspective [is not] a realistic expectation,” a belief that he sensed “at least some” of the other CPs agreed with.
Of course, this is a foundational question with which all the CPs and all Christian readers of this report need to answer for themselves. I will now present my response.
There is an important distinction to be made between being “skeptical” of the authority of government and being in “opposition” to the authority of government. I will first address the opposition position.
I reject the opposition position in light of the teaching in Romans 13 that governmental authority has been instituted by God and, therefore, Christians should be “subject to the governing authorities” (vs. 1), with an important qualification: If there is a conflict between what government ordains and what I understand to be what God ordains, I must choose the latter.
But aren’t the actual workings of government broken, marred by sin, in a way that is contrary to what God ordains? For the most part, yes. However, given my view that God wishes to redeem all of the created order, including the political realm, my response to this political brokenness is to seek to plant tiny seeds of redemption, entrusting the harvest to God.
In my attempts to plant tiny seeds of redemption in the political realm, I make a distinction between the “process” of doing politics and the possible “results” of that process.
My views about a process for doing politics that comport with Christian values in based on a foundational premise that has been the basis for my face-to-face trump conversation and all of my online attempts over the past nine years to orchestrate respectful conversations among Christians who have strong disagreements:
Jesus has called all his followers to love their neighbors. Providing someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then talking respectfully about your disagreement is a deep expression of love.
A corollary of my foundational premise is “You don’t love someone who you have silenced.”
My foundational premise is the basis for the “conversational model” for doing politics that I present in my book Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation.
In summary form, my proposed conversational model begs for bipartisanship; where politicians on both sides of the political aisle engage one another in respectful conversation about their agreements and disagreements toward the goal of finding sufficient common ground to inform bipartisan legislation regarding the policy issue at hand (and I never tire in pointing out that this bipartisan approach was actually used by a bipartisan “gang of eight” U. S. Senators in 2013 to formulate a bill on comprehensive immigration reform that combined a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants with respect for the rule of law evidenced by the inclusion of appropriate fines (therefore, not amnesty) along this pathway to citizenship. Alas, this bill died in the House of Representatives).
It is because of my commitment to the conversational model for doing politics that I caucused for Amy Klobuchar in the Democratic Iowa Caucus on February 3, 2020 in light of the primary approach she said she would take if elected President: “I will gather people together to try to find common ground instead of scorched earth”; an approach that she has put into action as a U. S. Senator by reaching across the isle to orchestrate many bipartisan legislative bills.
I must now address forthrightly the potential criticism that for Christians my proposed conversational model for doing politics will unavoidably require “compromising” Christian teachings.
The essence of this criticism is that the bipartisan approach to doing politics that I propose will probably not lead to all the resulting legislation that I believe is called for by my understanding of Christian values. That is true.
But to say “it’s my way or the highway” (hyper-partisanship at its worst) is to guarantee the political deadlock that will ensure that you get nothing that comports with your understanding of Christian values; and something is better than nothing.
Now, it is settling for something that comports with Christian values rather than everything you believe Christian values call for that is viewed by some Christians as a “compromise” of Christian teachings. I believe that is true only if you believe that the “other half of the loaf” that the politician on the other side of the aisle got by means of bipartisan conversation was clearly a contradiction of Christian teachings, which I maintain is generally not the case. Therefore, a Christian doing politics may have to settle for a legislative result that is “relatively good” from a Christian perspective because by the very nature of bipartisan political discourse, the “perfect” is unrealizable (as is sometimes said, “the good can be the victim of the perfect”).
Notice that my above summary of the contours of the bipartisan political process that is central to my proposed conversational model for political discourse allows for (even possibly calls for) a healthy dose of “skepticism” about the extent to which legislative results will comport with Christian values because of the rampant hyper-partisanship of contemporary political discourse. I concede that. But that does not in the least negate my deep conviction that the political process I outline comports well with Christian values, since if gives deep expression to an often ignored and violated form of extending love to me neighbor to which Jesus has called me and all who claim to be his followers. As a Christian called to plant tiny seeds of redemption in the political realm, I must seek to be faithful to that loving process, entrusting the results to God.
To What Extent, If at All, Did Our Trump Conversation Model the Conversational Approach to Doing Politics that I have Proposed?
It was my dream that the Trump conversation that I moderated would effectively model the efficacy of the conversational model for doing politics that I have proposed. The jury is still out as to the extent to which that was accomplished.
Since we never got around to talking enough about the adequacies or inadequacies, of President Trump’s policy goals (ends) from a Christian perspective, partially, at least, because of some problems in my framing of leading questions, we did not uncover much bipartisan common ground relative to legislative policies, with the potential for one minor exception that we didn’t have time to explore further.
This potential minor exception was pointed to by one of our CPs in his reflection on the chapter on immigration (7) in my Reforming American Politics book, where I reported on how two conversation partners in my online conversation that led to this book who had strong initial disagreements about immigration policy eventually found some common ground in labeling as “reasonable” a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform that included both punishment for entering the country illegally (in the form of fines) and a pathway to citizenship. In the words of this CP, “The immigration chapter in Harold’s book revealed for me much greater common ground for a partial solution – optimistic now.” If we had the time to discuss this observation further, it may have lent support to the focus on seeking bipartisan legislation that is central to my conversational model for doing politics.
But, as described in the “Areas of Agreement” section above, we did uncover very significant common ground relative to the nature of the respectful conversation process that must be the foundation for then seeking common ground relative to policies. I like to think that if our CPs could continue their conversations after we completed this Trump conversation, some common ground relative to polices would emerge. If my CPs continue talking to one another in an informal manner this could happen. Time will tell. But, in the meantime, I conclude this report with a section on how the lessons learned from what worked well and what did not work well in our Trump conversation can help readers of this report who may be inspired to replicate a conversation about contentious political issues in their various spheres of influence.
SOME ADVICE FOR GOING OUT AND DOING LIKEWISE
In their responses to end-game questions at the end of our conversation, the CPs had some good suggestions for improving the conversation process we used that could be helpful to other small groups who may wish to replicate a conversation about the Trump presidency or any other contentious issue, political or otherwise, in their local settings. Four words of advice stood out.
Great Care Must be Taken in Formulating Leading Questions
As I have already reported, I erred in the very beginning by formulating two initial leading questions that were too broad (What is your vision for the future of America? To what extent do you believe President Trump is facilitating, or not, the accomplishment of your vision for the future of America?).
Future groups wishing to replicate a conversation about the Trump presidency should formulate more sharply focused leading questions (e. g. what is your assessment of President Trump’s immigration policy?), possibly calling on some outside expertise in formulating such questions (as I did in my online conversations when I solicited the services of consultants to help me formulate leading questions).
The Moderator Needs to Have a Loud Whistle
Although our conversations were by and large very respectful, there were a few bumps in the road. As one CP said, “The ground rules [for respectful conversation] are good, but I’m not sure we lived into them as well as we might have.”
In fact, although there were eleven official sessions for our conversation, we had a twelfth improvised session to re-group; during which there were some apologies for lack of respect and we all reaffirmed our need to do better to abide by the agreed upon guidelines for respectful conversation.
As Moderator, I take responsibility for that bump in the road. As suggested by one CP, I should have been a “referee with a very loud whistle,” While acknowledging that the Moderator (me) set a “gracious tone,” he went on to suggest that I could have “coupled [that tone] with higher fences to keep the conversation corralled and moving to a preset place.”
Another CP, who had apologized for some lack of respect during our improvised twelfth session. suggested that I could have been “more ‘aggressive’ as moderator about stopping comments/conversation any time they veered away from or violated the rules for respectful conversation we all agreed to.”
Both of these CPs are absolutely correct. Interestingly, at one point when I did not “blow a loud whistle,” one of these two CPs compensated for my deficiency by gently reminding all the CPs of their common commitment to abide by the agreed upon rules for conversation. That was a splendid example of the CPs holding each other accountable.
You Can “Go Deeper” by Having Paired Conversations, the Results of Which are Reported Back to the Entire Group
A number of CPs suggested, in differing ways, that our conversation could have gone “deeper” if, rather than always meeting as a group of eight CPs, we had orchestrated some two-CP conversations where just two people try to understand each other’s differing positions about a given leading question for the purpose of seeking some common ground; then reporting the results of their conversation back to the entire group (possibly using the novel strategy of expecting each CP to articulate to the larger group the other CP’s position to the satisfaction of that other CP, to demonstrate that adequate understanding was attained).
I think this idea should be seriously considered by groups wishing to replicate our experiment for a reason that harkens back to a significant difference in the results that emerged from my online conversations about contentious issues and the results that emerged from this face-to-face conversation. I will attempt to explain.
In the online conversations on my website, the typical procedure was for just two CPs to seek to sort out differing views about a given leading question by means of three postings over a one-month period. This procedure led to the uncovering of some significant common ground (more than we reached in our face-to-face Trump conversation). It seems that when a group is expanded to as many as eight people, the cacophony of differing views makes it more difficult to identify areas of agreement.
If this procedure is used, the hope is that after the paired CPs have reported back to the larger group, a foundation will have been laid that will make it easier for the entire group to identify some common ground.
In Responding to Leading Questions, CPs Should Read from Written Statements
I close this section on advice for local small groups wishing to replicate our experiment with what may appear to be a relatively minor word of advice, but is nevertheless important; a word of advice that again harkens back to a difference in how I orchestrated my online conversations and how I orchestrated this face-to-face Trump conversation.
In my online conversations, my CPs had no choice but to commit their responses to leading questions to writing (for posting on my website). In my face-to-face Trump conversation, I allowed CPs to speak extemporaneously or from sketchy notes. That was a mistake. It led to too much “off-the-top-of-the-head” ad-libbing. Prior to a given session, each CP should be expected to commit his/her response to a posed leading question to writing, with that written response to be sent to all the other CPs prior to the session to give everyone time to think about that response before the session.
PENULTIMATE CONCLUSION: SINCE QUESTIONS BEGET FURTHER QUESTIONS, WE NEED TO KEEP TALKING
According to my count, we ended our conversation with eleven unanswered questions (presented above). Why didn’t we just start with those. As already noted, part of my response is that I started with two leading questions that were too broad. But there is a more fundamental reason.
No matter what leading questions you begin with, the conversation that ensues will inevitably beget new questions that reflect the particular interests and commitments of the conversation partners. So, there really is no end to the conversation.
The fact that there is no end to the conversation about complex political issues is not to be disparaged. There always is hope that some common ground will emerge (as it did in our conversation; witness the “Areas of Agreement” noted above). But even if that doesn’t materialize, engaging in respectful conversations about strong disagreements is a deep expression of love. Loving others is always the right thing to do.
GRAND CONCLUSION: WE DID CREATE A SAFE AND WELCOMING SPACE
One of our CPs had a long personal history of being demonized and vilified for her conservative views about abortion (“Abortion is always wrong”). Given that painful history, my heart was warmed when I read her reflection about our conversation: “I have appreciated how those in this conversation group who disagree with me have done so civilly. That is rare and wonderful and contrary to my experience with newspaper columns and letters to the editor as well as Facebook conversations.” Another CP expressed a similar sentiment when he said “It is rare to play in a playground like this.”
So, my grand conclusion is that although our bold experiment was far from perfect, we did create something that is extremely rare these days in our polarized society characterized too often by a tribalistic us-versus-them mentality. We successfully created a safe and welcoming space to express and talk respectfully about disagreements. That is no small accomplishment. Thanks be to God and to my conversation partners.