I wish to express my deep appreciation to the 23 conversation partners who made such marvelous contributions to my recently completed eCircle on “Reforming Political Discourse.” You all dealt very effectively with some contentious issues regarding politics in America today and you expressed your disagreements with your respective partners with great respect and love. This project would not have been possible without your splendid work.
As for three of my previous eCircles, I am now working on a book manuscript that hopes to capture the highlights of this eCircle. I am aiming to complete this manuscript by November 1, 2018, with a publication date shortly thereafter. My tentative title for this book is Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective.
Below you will find a copy of a talk I gave on June 9, 2018 at the bi-annual conference of Christians in Political Science held at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain in Georgia. This talk presents the foundational premise behind this eCircle; my reflections on the “pre-conditions for a respectful conversation in politics and beyond”; a Table of Contents for my forthcoming book; and some “preliminary findings” that will eventually be elaborated upon in the book.
RESPECTFUL CONVERSATIONS IN POLITICS AND BEYOND
I am the token mathematician in this splendid gathering of Christian political scientists.
I was delighted when Kim Conger, a member of the CPS Cabinet invited me to give a talk on the topic “Stability of the Numerical Solution of Hyperbolic Partial Differential Equations in Three Independent Variables.”
Just kidding! That was actually the title of my doctoral dissertation.
Seriously, Kim was a “conversation partner” for the project I will tell you about this morning. She made a marvelous contribution and thought that attendees at attendees at this conference might find my project to be interesting. Time will tell!
So, I am honored and pleased to be here.
And I must say that I have enjoyed hearing excellent reports on how attendees are bringing Christian perspectives to bear on their scholarship and teaching as Christian political scientists. You are to be commended.
My real topic this morning is “Respectful Conversations in Politics and Beyond.”
A FEW WORDS TO REMEMBER
I used to have an elevated view of how long people remembered anything I said at a conference, church, classroom, anywhere.
My friend Bob cured me of that about 45 years ago. Bob and I were teaching at The King’s College, just north of New York City. We were on line for lunch one day and I told Bob that I had been asked to speak in chapel in about a week and I was thinking about speaking on a particular topic. But I was concerned that I had spoken in chapel about a year ago on a related topic and I didn’t want to repeat myself.
Bob looked at me, wide-eyed in disbelief, and said: “Harold, if conceit were consumption, you’d be consumed.”
But Bob wasn’t finished with me yet. He was just getting warmed up. He went on to say: “Harold, what makes you think anyone remembers anything you say 15 minutes after you say it”
So, since I don’t want to give you too much to forget, here are 8 words I hope you will remember long after this conference: You don’t love someone who you have silenced.
The seed for those few words were planted in the summer of 2011 when I decided I had enough of the appalling state of public discourse. Persons who disagreed with each other in public too easily resorted to name-calling and demonization of the other. They typically lived in echo chambers, listening only to persons who already agreed with them. They typically held to fixed positions, without openness to learning anything from those who disagreed with them.
There had to be a better way to engage those with whom you disagree, possibly even a “Christian way,” whatever that might mean.
I did a little research on how people communicate with each other electronically, with deplorable results. Blog postings were typically followed by numerous cryptic comments from readers that either praised the author, or, more often than not, vilified the author. Seldom did I find comments that continued or advanced a genuine conversation. What a wasteland!
Despite these disappointing findings, I decided I would give an online forum a shot, possibly because I didn’t have the financial means to gather folks together from far and wide for face-to-face conversations (which is the mode of engagement I prefer). So, with the help of a tech-savvy friend (since I am somewhat of a techno-bozo), I launched my own web site, www.respectfulconversation.net, dedicated to the goal of “Modeling respectful conversations among those who disagree about contentious contemporary issues.”
I decided to pursue this goal by hosting electronic conversations (eCircles) on selected topics. My first eCircle, on the topic “The Elusive Quest for Christian Unity,” went poorly, primarily because
after I announced the eCircle to about 100 friends via email, most of whom expressed keen interest, only 8 persons took the time to post pieces. As we used to say in the aerospace industry, I had to make a “mid-course correction” for subsequent eCircles (more about that in a few minutes)
If you now fast-forward to 2018, I have hosted eCircles on the following three topics: An Alternative Political Conversation, A Future for American Evangelicalism, and Human Sexuality. After each of these eCircles, I have published a book that attempts to capture the highlights of the eCircle (with the most recent book titled Respectful LGBT Conversations: Seeking Truth, Giving Love, and Modeling Christian Unity). And I am now in the ninth month of a ten-month eCircle on the topic “Reforming Political Discourse,” on which I will focus for the remainder of this presentation.
I will start by laying bare the premise that informs all my eCircles.
The context for my premise is the universal agreement among Christians, as far as I can tell, that a follower of Jesus is called to love his/her neighbor. So far so, good. But there is significant disagreement as to how that neighbor love should be expressed.
My respectful conversation projects focus on one oft-neglected expression of such neighbor love. The premise behind my eCircles is very uncomplicated and easy to state (it isn’t rocket science, at least to state; it is much harder than rocket science to do).
Providing someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then to talk respectfully about your disagreements is a deep expression of love
A variation on this theme is: You don’t love someone who you have silenced.
I will now report on the broad contours of my present eCircle on “Reforming Political Discourse” (hereafter called RPD) in three sections: The structure of this conversation; Pre-conditions for a respectful conversation in politics (also applicable to all other areas of public discourse); and some preliminary findings, to date, from my present eCircle.
The Structure of the RPD eCircle
My RPD eCircle consists of ten successive month-long conversations on pre-announced subtopics, with two or more pre-selected conversation partners posting 3000 word essays three times (on the 1st, 10th and 20th of the month) using an agreed upon protocol that focuses on Leading Questions that I have posed.
For each month, the conversation partners have been recruited based on my understanding that they likely have significant disagreements in their responses to my questions. As an aside, I should note that to recruit the 22 conversation partners for my RPD eCircle, I had to extend about100 invitations If you wonder about that, we can talk about that in our Q&A session.
For example, here is the pertinent information for the February 2018 conversation on the subtopic “The Role of Money and Special Interests in Politics.”
Subtopic 5: The Role of Money and Special Interests in Politics (February 2018)
Leading Questions: How have money and special interests influenced politics, for good or for ill? What is your position on the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court? Should the role of lobbyists for special interests be restricted? Should there be stricter conflict of interest rules? What are the implications of your position for President Trump’s “negotiating a deal” approach to politics?
Kimberly Conger, Assistant Professor of Political Science & Public Administration, University of Cincinnati
Frank Hill, Director, The Institute for the Public Trust, Raleigh, NC
The agreed upon protocol for most of the month-long conversation called for the first posting to focus on the answers to my Leading Questions from each conversation partner; with the second posting calling for each partner to seek to identify the agreements and disagreements expressed in the first postings; and the third posting asking each partner to identify the issues that beg for ongoing conversation.
I found out the hard way a few eCircles ago that if I pose too many Leading Questions that were not closely inter-related, the CPs may address differing questions in their first postings, thereby nullifying the possibility of uncovering agreements and disagreements in their second postings (since they were talking about different things). You will notice that for the example before you, I do pose numerous questions. But that did not present a problem since at least the first four questions are closely inter-related]
A crucial aspect of the structure for these conversations consisted of my expectations for how the conversation partners should “talk to one another in cyberspace; What I call my Guidelines for Respectful Conversation.”
Guidelines for Respectful Conversation
· I will seek to empathetically understand the reasons another person has for her perspective.
· I will express my perspective, and my reasons for holding that perspective, with commitment and conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation with a person who disagrees with me.
· In my conversation with a person who disagrees with me, I will explore whether we can find some common ground that can further the conversation. But, if we cannot find common ground, I will conclude that “for now we agree to disagree”; yet I will do so in a way that demonstrates respect for the other and concern for her well-being and keeps open the possibility of future conversations.
· In aspiring to these ideals for conversation, I will also aspire to be characterized by humility, courage, patience and love.
It is extremely important for me to note that in extending invitations to join my eCircle as a conversation partner, I made it clear that to be accepted as a conversation partner, you had to agree up-front to abide by these “Guidelines for Respectful Conversation.”
One would like to think that you shouldn’t have to be so prescriptive up-front about how people should talk to one another. Shouldn’t that “go without saying?” No! I have found out the hard way that if you don’t stipulate before a conversation starts your expectations for how the conversation should be conducted, the conversation can quickly deteriorate because of the tendency these day to quickly resort to name-calling and demonization of a person who disagrees with you.
Since the goal of my eCircles is to “model respectful conversations among those who disagree about contentious contemporary issues,” I am pleased to report that for all my eCircles, my conversation partners have honored these guidelines for conversation to an admirable degree; thereby effectively modeling respectful conversation (You can confirm that conclusion by going to my web site).
A final word as to structure is about the book that I hope eventually emerges after completion of my RPD eCircle, on which I have been working all during my eCircle, writing a draft chapter during the month following each month of electronic conversation. The tentative Table of Context for this book is as follows.
REFORMING AMERICAN POLITICS: A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
PART ONE: POLITICAL DISCOURSE
1. Talking Past Each Other or Worse
2. What Does Christian Love Demand?
PART TWO: THE NATURE OF POLITICS
3. A Comprehensive View of Political Activism
4. Party Politics and Beyond
5. The Role of Money and Special Interests in Politics
PART THREE: PUBLIC POLICY ISSUES
7. Wealth and Poverty in America
8. Healthcare in America
PART FOUR: CASE STUDIES
9. Case Study Conversations Regarding Political Discourse and Political Action Within Churches and Christian Para-Church Organizations
PART FIVE: CONCLUSIONS
10. Are There Limits to Free Speech and Civil Discourse?
11. A Proposed Way Forward for Christians (And Others)
To give credit where credit is due, I note that during the stages of designing the agendas for all of my eCircles, I drew heavily on the expertise of “consultants” who have far more expertise in the subject matter than I do. So, for my current RPD eCircle, I was assisted immensely by input from Luke Bretherton from Duke Divinity School. The late Steve Monsma was an invaluable consultant for my “Alternative Political Conversation” eCircle, as was Julia Stronks, professor of political science at Whitworth university, for my eCircle on human sexuality. And The Colossian Forum, for whom I serve as a Senior Fellow, provided the financial support needed for the Five Espressos Firm to manage web site during this eCircle.
Pre-Conditions for a Respectful Conversation in Politics and Beyond
A conversation among persons who have strong disagreements will be fruitful only if the conversation partners exhibit commitment to the Christian virtues of love, humility and courage, and have an uncompromising commitment to seeking after “truth.”
As already noted, the pre-condition of love is to absolutely essential if a respectful conversation about disagreements is to take place; especially that oft-neglected expression of love that provides someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to first express and then talk about that disagreement
But the conversation partners must also give evidence of a significant measure of “humility.”
Ask yourself when the last time was that you heard a politician or staunch supporter of a particular public policy position say “I may be wrong.” As scripture teaches, we all “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
As human beings, the particularities of our social locations inform our views on public policy. The position taken by someone who disagrees with me may be deeply informed by her particularities, such as her gender, socio-economic status, race, and elements of her personal biography, which may enable her to see things that I miss. Likewise, my particularities may enable me to see things that she misses. And since we are both finite and fallible human beings, we cannot claim that either of our partial glimpses captures the full truth on the matter, as only fully understood by God. In addition, I can be blinded when I succumb to the temptation to sin by thinking “it’s all about me and those who agree with me.”
It is hubris; a gross failure to exemplify an appropriate attitude of humility for me to assume that I have a God’s eye view of the truth about a given policy issue. It takes genuine humility for me to express my beliefs with clarity and conviction while acknowledging that “I may be wrong.” The ideal of “humility” that I aspire to for can be summarized as my acknowledgement that however strongly I hold to my beliefs and express them with deep conviction (and, yes, even with deep emotion and passion), I may be wrong.
Note that such humility does not mean being “wishy-washy” about your beliefs. Rather, it involves you holding in tension that very rare combination of holding to and expressing your beliefs with clarity and great conviction at the same time that you publicly acknowledge that you may be wrong.
Both Ian Barbour and Rischard Mouw have given eloquent expression to the nature of this rare combination. In his book Myths, Models and Paradigms, Barbour proposes the following definition of “religious maturity.”
It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights. But it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity.
In his splendid book Uncommon Decency, Richard Mouw draws on Martin Marty in highlighting the importance of “civility” in living out this rare combination of commitment and inquiry, calling for a “convicted civility.”
One of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions often lack civility.… We need to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a “passionate intensity” about our convictions. The real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility.
Openness to the beliefs of others without commitment to your own beliefs too easily leads to sheer relativism (I have my beliefs, you have yours; end of conversation). Commitment to your own beliefs without openness to listening to and respectfully discussing the beliefs of others too easily leads to fanaticism, even terrorism. (As C. S. Lewis has observed, to which past and recent world events tragically testify, “Those who are readiest to die for a cause may easily become those who are readiest to kill for it.”) One of the most pressing needs in our world today, is for all human beings, whatever their religious or secular faith commitments, to embrace, and hold in tension, both commitment and openness; giving living expression to “convicted civility.”
A third pre-condition for actualizing a respectful conversation about significant disagreements is the virtue of “courage” – the willingness to “speak out” my understanding of the “truth” relative to the issue at hand, even if negative consequences result from my doing so.
One of my invitees to be a conversation partner for my eCircle on human sexuality declined my invitation, explaining that if he went public with his views on same-sex marriage, he would be “painting a bulls-eye on his back.” Sometimes we need the courage to paint bulls-eyes on our backs.
A fourth pre-condition for engaging in a respectful conversation with someone who disagrees with you is an uncompromising commitment to seek after “truth” about the issue at hand.
When you dig all the way down, it is my “quest for truth” that is the foundational reason for my passion for seeking to orchestrate respectful conversations among people who have strong disagreements, in the political realm and elsewhere.
This passion has emerged from a continuous integrative thread in my life since my early teaching days: my insatiable “quest for truth” at the cognitive level and my aspiration to live out that truth one day at a time.
The ultimate authority to which I am committed is not to be found in the pronouncements of church leaders, the Pope or anyone else, or to the interpretations of Scripture and doctrines of any particular Christian tradition or denomination, for no person or Christian tradition/denomination has a corner on God’s truth.
Rather, my ultimate authority is the truth as God fully knows it. The fact that I am not God presents a considerable challenge. Since I only have a partial glimpse of the truth, at best, it is important for me to engage with love, humility and courage in respectful conversations with those whose glimpses differ from mine, so that, together in conversation, we can gain better approximations to that truth.
I have received some push-back along the way because of my unswerving commitment to seeking after the “truth.” When I announced my eCircle on human sexuality, I became suspect in the eyes of some Christians in high places. The fact that I would give a voice to those who questioned the traditional view of marriage was a cause for suspicion.
I remember one phone conversation with the leader of a prominent Christian institution who said he would encourage such conversations at his institution, but these conversations would NOT lead to a change in the institution’s affirmation of the traditional view on marriage. That is a mockery! To set pre-conditions for the results of a respectful conversation is ludicrous because, as I never tire of saying, you cannot predict beforehand the results of a genuine conversation. During our telephone conversation, it soon became apparent that wed were motivated by different values. Although he did not use these exact words, it seemed to me that he was driven by values like “acceptance” and “affirmation” by other institutions in his area of work and by concern over what the supporters of his institution would think, or do, if they found out that “we were even talking about such things.” Not once did I hear the word “truth” spoken. Nor do I recall any mention of the Christian values of love, humility and courage.
I will conclude by reporting on some of the preliminary findings for my RDP eCircle, which will be finished at the end of July.
Some Preliminary Findings
Since my formal education was completely devoid of any study of political science (not even one course), I may now be walking into the lion’s den in this room filled with political scientists. But I have often had more nerve than brains, so here goes. I will just share with you a brief glimpse at four tidbits that have emerged from the conversations to date. The eventual concluding chapter for my projected book will elaborate and, hopefully, improve upon what I will now briefly share.
Political Equality Means That Everyone’s Voice Gets Heard (No one is Silenced)
In their robust exchange regarding the role of money and special interests in politics, Frank Hill and Kim Conger, one of your CPS leaders, start with divergent views as to the meaning of “political equality.” Frank equates “political equality” with an “equal right to vote.” Kim argues, very persuasively, for a much broader view of “political equality” as meaning that everyone “has a voice” and the problem with the inordinate influence of money in politics is that money “buys access and attention” that eludes those ordinary citizens who lack such resources. Frank and Kim do eventually find some common ground, which I hope you can read about some day.
In the Immigration Debate, Respect for the Rule of Law and a Pathway to Citizenship are Not Mutually Exclusive
The conversation about immigration between Matthew Soerens of World Relief and Robert McFarland, a law professor at Faulkner University, was of special interest to me because of my own “on-the-ground” advocacy work on behalf of my Latino neighbors in northwest Iowa.
In face-to-to face conversations I have had with Congressman Steve King, Senator Chuck Grassley and a few Iowa State legislators, the omnipresent “conversation stopper” when talking about undocumented immigrants has been “They have broken the law, so they should be punished.”
Although these exact words were not used in the initial postings from Matthew and Robert, that general idea caused their conversation to get off to a bumpy start. Matthew wanted to jump right into a conversation about how current immigration laws could be made “more just.” Robert rightly pointed out that this assumes that there is agreement as to the meaning of “justice,” which he asserts, correctly I believe, is not the case: “justice is a contested concept” (as an important aside, disagreements as to the meaning of “justice” arose a number of times during this eCircle, which I am still trying to sort through).
In that context, Robert, the lawyer, focused on the retributive aspect of justice by emphasizing “respect for the rule of law”: Those who violate the law should be punished.
In contrast, Matthew focused on the distributive aspect of justice, with a focus on the need to compassionately help the vulnerable and marginalized members of society, in accordance with the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 25.
Matthew sought to bridge this divide by proposing a both/and position, calling for an appropriate form of punishment for those who entered our country illegally, in the form of fines, rather than the deportation that is tearing Latino families apart, combined with a pathway to citizenship (which you may recall was the essence of proposed legislation in 2013 which the Senate passed, but which died in the House). Robert eventually expressed sympathy for this both/and approach, although Matthew and Robert did not reach a meeting of minds as to what should be done about Dreamers.
It’s Not Just Politicians and Those Who Vote for Them Who do Politics
Whereas I started my eCircle thinking of politics as “seeking common ground for the common good,” a few of my conversation partners encouraged me to embrace a broader definition of politics as seeking to forge a common life together in the midst of a lack of agreement as to a common good.
If one accepts such a broader definition of doing politics, then it appears to me that politics is pervasive in all of life, including church activities and even living well together as a family.
In that context, Jim Skillen, the retired Founding President of the Center for Public Justice (CPJ) and Harry Boyte from Augsburg College had a provocative exchange about the proper scope of political activity.
Based on his direct experience with the Civil Rights movement on the 1960s, Harry argues that the “priority” for political action should lie with non-governmental entities, like churches and voluntary associations.
Jim argues for a both/and approach wherein “seeking to forge a common life together” should be the work of both governmental entities (the executive, legislative and judicial branches at the local, state and national levels) and non-governmental entities, such as families, schools, churches, businesses and voluntary associations, with a proper differentiation between the responsibilities of these various entities, as per Kuyperian thought. The possible role of churches in such broadly defined “political activity” is the June subtopic currently under discussion on my eCircle.
A common theme emerges from these first three tidbits: A both/and approach to public policy, rather than an either/or approach” Political equality means BOTH an equal right to vote AND giving everyone a voice in the political process. Political activism should include BOTH activity in the governmental realm AND activities carried out by non-governmental entities, like churches and voluntary associations, that are seeking to forge a flourishing common live together in the midst of disagreements. Immigration reform should include BOTH a respect for the rule of law AND a pathway to citizenship. And to sneak in another example not included in mt three tidbits, reflecting the results of my May conversation on healthcare, improvement of our healthcare system will require BOTH private AND governmental initiatives.
But, therein lies the rub: politicians and their supporters typically gravitate toward “either/or” approaches to advocating for particular public policies, not “both/and” approaches. This leads me to my final tidbit from the results of my RPD eCircle; a possible first “fatal flaw” in my project.
A Possible Fatal Law: Political Tribalism
One of the most cogent observations made by my conversation partners was presented by Kevin den Dulk, which, as I will soon explain, could be viewed as pointing to a fatal flaw in my entire eCircle project. It has to do with what Kevin refers to as “affective polarization, which is the foundation for our current “political tribalism.” So, as not to lose anything in translation, here are Kevin’s exact words (posted on my web site).
… We often bemoan how ideology or policy preferences on hot-button issues push partisans apart, and indeed these are important concerns. But today’s most consequential divisions are more basic; they operate at the level of identity. Political scientists call this pattern affective polarization, a deep emotional resonance with a party – the “in-group” – and visceral reaction against the opposition – the out-group. Our partisan divide isn’t merely about liberals versus conservatives, pro-life versus pro-choice. Our lives as partisans have become downright tribal.
To paraphrase what Kevin goes on to say, the effect of such “tribalism” is that most political conversations don’t involve listening carefully to opposing viewpoints and deciding on the basis of the perceived merits of the reasons given (which are central features of my project). Rather, it is more common to resort to a “rationalization” for a given position that flows only from one’s tribal identity.
Kevin then adds the observation that what makes this tribalism so destructive is the unwarranted leap that is made from believing that the other person is “wrong” to asserting that he/she, therefore, is “evil,” citing some research that was done at Stanford University.” In Kevin’s exact words:
If mere ideology or policy views were the bases of inter-group attitudes, partisans would simply describe the opposition as wrongheaded. But instead partisans overwhelmingly label their opponents as untrustworthy, immoral, and dangerously threatening.
Kevin’s legitimate concern could be ameliorated if there were more “moderates” on both sides of the political aisle who would be willing to listen to those on the other side of the aisle and seek for both/and public policy positions that reflect the best thinking on both sides of the aisle. But with the current “hollowing out of the middle” in legislative bodies, the political field is increasingly dominated by extremists who say it’s EITHER my way OR the highway”; extremists who thrive on political tribalism.
As we Norwegians say, “uff da” (A Norwegian expression of dismay).
I think Kevin has hit the nail right on the head as to the most fundamental pathology in current American politics. But I must then be open to the possibility that my whole project, which assumes that people will discuss political differences in a respectful manner based on the merits of reasons given for differing positions, will have little influence on how people do politics these days (a first possible fatal flaw in my project).
A second possible fatal flaw is the scary thought that no one will continue the conversations are barely begun during my eCircle. A total of six 3000 word postings on any of the complex subtopics is totally inadequate. My eCircle is meant only be the beginning of a conversation; not the end.
I’m not sure I have a cogent response to these two legitimate concerns. But I will leave you with one closing thought.
I have not hosted my current eCircle on politics, because I envision being “successful” in changing how Americans do politics. I embarked on this eCircle because I aspire to be faithful to my understanding of how followers of Jesus are called to lovingly and respectfully engage those who disagree with them in politics (and all other areas of public discourse).
But I do have this wild dream, that I can only envision through the eyes of faith, that if my eCircle models “respectful conversation” in an effective manner and readers will see that it can even lead to some good public policy positions, they will sit up and take notice and give it a try (continuing the conversation). But I say that knowing that there is a fine line between faith and stupidity and I am not always sure on which side of that line I am walking.
Throughout my life, I have been driven by dreams that seem impossible. What has sustained me is the parable of the mustard seed, recorded in Matthew 13: 31-32.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of seeds, but when it is grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches
My calling as a follower of Jesus is to plant tiny “seeds of redemption.” I can entrust the harvest to God.