Hearts Strangely Warmed

I deeply appreciate Sarah Lancaster’s summary of the Wesleyan tradition and its emphasis on holiness and piety within the context of community. True, as Ms. Lancaster notes, that emphasis has flagged somewhat at various times within the Wesleyan tradition—a consequence of routinization, no doubt—but the ideal remains, and it is important.

When I think of the Wesleyan tradition, I quickly return to John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience on May 24, 1738, as a formative moment (and I confess I was a bit surprised that Ms. Lancaster didn’t mention it). This is when Wesley attended a religious society on Aldersgate Street in London (not far from St. Paul’s) and felt his heart “strangely warmed.” What I find so arresting about this account is the evident surprise in Wesley’s telling of the story. A disquisition on Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans is hardly calculated to produce a pietistic response, but that is exactly what happened “about a quarter before nine” during Wesley’s visit.

Some scholars have referred to the experience as “mystical,” and the term seems about right to me. Whatever the nomenclature, however, it’s clear that it was life-changing for Wesley. And I love the element of surprise, in part because I too have experienced spiritual/mystical moments at unexpected moments. These are gracious visitations of the Spirit.

I see four important lessons from the Wesleyan tradition about following Jesus. The first, building on Aldersgate Street, is the centrality of religious experience. I was struck the other day while rereading Jean Sulivan’s Morning Light by his thoughts about the relation between faith and rationalism, especially regarding the teachings of Jesus. “Rationalistic explanations,” he writes, “transform the message into slogans and render it inoffensive.” The Wesleyan tradition—as well as Wesley’s own experience—affirms that faith is more than mere intellectual assent.

Second, Wesleyanism points to the centrality of community, and this, historically speaking, is important not only for the spiritual formation of individuals but also for social reform. In fact, if we look back on the noble tradition of evangelical social activism in the nineteenth century, we see that the impetus for these reforms was not the Reformed tradition; it came instead, more often than not, from the Wesleyan-Holiness movement. Put another way, it was not Charles Hodge and the Princetonians, writing from their ivory tower hideaways on the leafy Princeton Seminary campus who were working to eradicate slavery or push for women’s rights or ensure the success of public education. No, that energy, as historians Donald W. Dayton and Timothy L. Smith have demonstrated, came largely from the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. It’s no accident that the formative event of the women’s rights movement took place at Wesleyan Chapel, in Seneca Falls, New York.

Third, and building on the previous point, gender. Unlike many other Christian traditions, the Wesleyan-Holiness movement has not only valued, but encouraged the participation of women. Indeed, one of the tragedies of the Holiness movement’s offspring, Pentecostalism, is that white Pentecostals in particular have steadily shut women out of leadership roles, this despite Azusa Street itself and the long and distinguished history of women’s leadership—Sarah Lankford, Phoebe Palmer, and many others.

Finally, we should congratulate the Wesleyan tradition for finding inventive ways to evangelize, to bring the gospel to the masses. Methodist meetings themselves, derived from and building on Pietist conventicles, provide one example, but the real genius of Wesleyan Methodism was the circuit riders, whose influence on the nineteenth-century American frontier endures to this day.

The Almost Pietist

Wesleyan Methodism may have had its home in the Church of England, but it was deeply shaped by Pietism through John Wesley’s acquaintance and respect for the Moravians. Many of the characteristics with which Christopher Gehrz describes his Pietist seeking to follow Jesus were present in the 18th century movement that Wesley led. Some remain, although probably not as universally and regularly practiced as they used to be.

I was deeply appreciative that hymns were featured prominently in the reflection. As a child, I often sang hymns to myself when I played alone. My mother’s lullaby to me when I was very young was “Blessed Assurance.” My own favorite hymn is “Jesus Lover of My Soul,” written by Charles Wesley in 1738 not long after his conversion. I sang this as a lullaby to my own daughters when they were small, and to my grandchildren as I have opportunity. I regret that this hymn is not a congregational favorite, so I don’t often get to sing it in worship. Hymns have deeply formed my own relationship with God.

There is nothing more glorious to me than singing in the company of other Methodists at a meeting of annual conference or some other large gathering. Wesleyan Methodists have been a singing people, although lately many churchgoers in the United States prefer contemporary “praise and worship music” to hymns. Methodists around the world create their own ways of singing their faith in their own styles, and some of these “global” songs become favorites also in the U.S. Whether old hymns or newer songs, singing has been a practice that has been central to following Jesus.

Another important connection between my tradition and the piety Christopher Gehrz describes is meeting in small groups. John Wesley was already involved in small groups because the Church of England made use of religious societies (which were themselves influenced by Pietism), but after he met Moravians he organized them into effective accountability groups with mutual confession and having no clergy leadership. The purpose of these groups was for Methodists to support one another in following Jesus. Private devotion was also encouraged and practiced, but the small groups (called classes and bands) were the backbone of the movement. I imagine the use of small groups varies around the world, but in the U.S. (in the UMC) they are not used as effectively as they once were. We rarely ask each other the questions that Wesley gave to the bands, for instance: “Have you peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ? Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Do you desire to be told of your faults? Do you desire that every one of us should tell you from time to time whatsoever is in his heart concerning you?” Anyone who is willing to submit to these questions is really serious about following Jesus.

One of the most effective continuing uses of “small groups” in United Methodism is the United Methodist Women (now changing its name to United Women of Faith). The UWF (UMW) provides women the opportunity to meet, study and work together in “circles.” Educational materials are produced every year so that UWF (UMW) members may intentionally grow in faith together so they may continually learn how to follow Jesus.

Wesleyan Methodists have also seen the connection between the inner experiences of salvation and world transformation. Even small congregations try to be a force for good in their communities. Because of our connectional system, we can and do mobilize quickly to respond to crisis. We suffer from blind spots, of course, and there can be sharp differences among Methodists on various social matters. We are not always agreed upon how following Jesus ought to transform the world.

I was struck by the observation that practice matters more than right belief. This view was also held by John Wesley for whom the distinguishing mark of a Methodist was neither orthodoxy nor opinion nor any particular practices, but rather love for God and neighbor. I note in our history, though, that John Wesley broke with others with whom he shared this love (that is, the Moravians and Calvinist Methodists) but did not agree in theological understanding (namely, he saw tendency toward antinomianism in their theology). I wonder whether any theological differences might trouble the waters between Pietists, especially because Pietism can be spread across traditions?

As I read the description of a Pietist that Christopher Gehrz provides in “A Week in the Life,” I can almost move with her through the week. It does seem that having institutional structure may mute some of the more Pietist aspects of history of Wesleyan Methodism, but I think that most of us seek for new life and authenticity, and we still have some practices that may be used toward that purpose.



Standing against the Tides of Routinization

I open with my appreciation for Christopher Gehrz’s explanation of Pietism, and I love his conceit about a week in the life of a Pietist.

The beauty of Pietism, in my view, is that it functions as a corrective to hyper-ratiocinated religion. Aside from the Pietism evident in the Anabaptist movement, I’m struck by the multiplicity of Pietistic impulses that arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Methodism among the Anglicans, Continental Pietism, Scandinavian Pietism (which shaped Mr. Gehrz’s tradition as well as my own), Quietism among Catholics and even Hasidism among Jews. All of these Pietistic expressions emerged in reaction to the arid scholasticism into which the larger traditions had fallen.

Pietism tends to emphasize warm-hearted religion over correct theology. Its worship, especially in the case of the Holiness movement or Hasidim, veers into ecstasy. More important, Pietists found inventive ways to circumvent the existing power structures, and none was more important than the conventicle, an expression of the fact that, as Mr. Gehrz points out, the “Pietist Tradition has no ecclesial shape or institutional structure.”

That, in my view, is both positive and negative. I’ve long argued that institutions—human constructs, after all—are remarkably poor vessels for piety. Institutions seek their own longevity, and it’s very difficult to kill an institution. The Pietist conventicle, or the Methodist prayer meeting, provided a means to circumvent calcified and unresponsive institutions. All well and good. But a kind of sociological inevitability kicks in at some point, and as the faith becomes routinized and institutionalized a new wave of scholasticism takes root—and thereby sets the stage for a new Pietistic revival of some sort.

All of this is complicated by the fact that religious fervor, the kind of spirituality favored by Pietists, is very difficult to sustain over a long period of time. This especially complicates the religious formation of children within Pietism because religious fervor—in my experience, at least—does not translated easily across generations. That’s not to say that children do not appropriate the faith for themselves or on their own terms, but that appropriation is sometimes fraught.

The history of Pietism, in my view, teaches us that the lure of scholasticism and a highly rational theology is very strong. A ratiocinated theology provides regularity and predictability, whereas an emphasis on a warm-hearted piety can lead in all sorts of unpredictable directions. Denominational (institutional) authorities can rein in such impulses, but that leads in turn to another pietistic eruption.

I’ve mentioned this example before, but I’ll invoke it again because it is relevant to this conversation. My denomination of origins, the Evangelical Free Church (cousin denomination to Mr. Gehrz’s Evangelical Covenant Church), emerged out of Scandinavian Pietism and has strong ties to the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. Beginning in the early 1960s, however, the scholastics began their relentless quest to reshape the denomination. As a consequence, a tradition with deep roots in Pietism has become a bastion of Reformed (Calvinist) theology.

Mr. Gehrz’s account suggests that the Evangelical Covenant Church has avoided such a takeover, and for that I applaud him and the denomination’s leadership (and I’d like to learn more about how that was possible).

I’ll conclude with another, more contemporary example: Calvary Chapel and the Jesus movement, which I’ve studied extensively and which bears, at least in its early years, a strong resemblance to Pietism. It began as hip and easy-going, with strong Pentecostal overtones. We can credit (or blame) Calvary Chapel for the ubiquitous “praise music” that has now infected pretty much all of evangelicalism. Even as Calvary Chapel began its tentacular expansion, however, Chuck Smith insisted that it was not a denomination; it was something more akin, he insisted unpersuasively, to a conventicle (though he didn’t use that term).

When Terry Todd and I visited with Smith and quizzed him about the church, he said that anyone speaking in tongues at Calvary Chapel would be ushered out of the auditorium. When we asked whether Calvary Chapel was a denomination, he emphatically denied that it was.

Several years later, I received a phone call from Dan Matthews, rector of Trinity Church in New York City and head of Trinity’s cable channel. The channel offered air time to religious groups, but it insisted that any such group was a denomination. Knowing of my interest in Calvary Chapel, Fr. Matthews was calling to ask if Calvary Chapel was indeed a denomination.

“What did Smith tell you?” I asked, chuckling to myself. Fr. Matthews said that Smith assured him that Calvary Chapel was indeed a denomination.

And so it goes.

Almost Persuaded

Wes Granberg-Michaelson has presented a compelling, even winsome, case for Reformed (Calvinist) Christianity, a tradition that once shaped my theological perspective. He speaks of the emphasis on community (for infant baptism especially), the importance of confessions, the sovereignty of God, ecumenism, and the Reformed tradition’s reckoning with sin. Mr. Granberg-Michaelson, a distinguished Reformed leader himself, also acknowledges that “defining faith by correct propositions can imprison belief in rationalism and mistake ‘correct’ thoughts for faithful practice,” and he cites his own experience walking the Camino de Santiago, memorably recounted in his lovely book Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage. That experience, he writes, altered his approach a bit. He now understands that “while what we think and confess carries importance, in the end we walk our way into faith.”

Having expressed my appreciation, I’d like to take this response in a slightly different direction. As a historian, I’ve been fascinated to watch various groups of evangelicals move away from their own theological heritages to embrace Calvinism in recent decades. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, provides one example. Mohler is a classic “wind-sock” theologian—a friend calls him a soundbite in search of a theology—who once avidly supported the ordination of women, for instance, but finger to the wind, decided to oppose it early in his career just as conservatives were about to take over the SBC. Theologically, he now identifies as a Calvinist, a curiosity (to say the least) in a denomination not historically connected to the Reformed tradition.

Another example, closer to home. I grew up in the Evangelical Free Church, where my father was a highly successful pastor for more than four decades. The Free Church is rooted in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition (decidedly not Calvinist), and yet over the past half century the entire denomination has shifted into the Reformed camp. Earlier in the twentieth century, for instance, the Free Church ordained women to the ministry (my father had an elderly ordained Free Church woman in his district as superintendent toward the end of his career); now, however, the Free Church is death on women’s ordination. What happened? I’d love to study this in more depth—and if I still had doctoral students, I would support this as a dissertation topic—but in the case of the Free Church the shift (as nearly as I can determine) began with the appointment of Kenneth Kantzer as dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the early 1960s. Kantzer in turn hired other Calvinist theologians to the faculty, and as seminary graduates fanned out into the churches, they utterly recast the theological orientation of the entire denomination over the course of several decades.

It’s a fascinating historical development, but my question is: Why? What is the attraction of Reformed theology for evangelicals, especially those who come out of the Arminian branch of evangelicalism?

Some of it may be theological confusion, a desire to identify with Calvin himself because he’s seen as intellectually formidable. And I’ll cite one anecdote. When I was producing Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham in the early 1990s, I asked Graham to characterize his theology. When he responded that he considered himself a Calvinist, my jaw dropped. Here is someone who had spent his entire career enjoining audiences to “make a decision for Christ,” decidedly not a Calvinistic appeal! (If Billy Graham is a Calvinist, I’m a Christadelphian.) Please understand, I don’t accuse Graham of dissembling; not at all. I think he simply believed for some reason that he, a self-confessed non-theologian, should identify himself and his ministry with Reformed theology.

So my question once again: What’s the appeal of Calvinism for evangelicals?

If I had to guess, I think it reflects a desire for order and rational consistency and intellectual respectability—as well as an attempt to distance themselves from those “goofy” Pentecostals. When’s the last time you met a Charismatic Calvinist? (I recognize that as soon as I write this someone is going to come up with a colony of Charismatic Calvinists in the distant exurbs of Grand Rapids or a compound in the hills somewhere north of Orange City.)

My guess is that the lure of Calvinism for evangelicals lies in the nature of Calvinism itself. The beauty of Reformed theology is that once you accept Calvinistic presuppositions—common grace, total depravity, and the like—you enter a theological vortex that allows you to explain everything—everything from human compassion to street crime to denominational schisms. It’s an airtight, self-contained universe, but it’s accessible only if you accept Calvinist presuppositions (which is why, of course, Cornelius Van Til’s apologetics were called presuppositionalism).

Evangelical logic choppers love Calvinism for that reason: its explanatory powers. And besides, John Calvin is more intellectually respectable than, say, A. A. Allen or William Marrion Branham or Sarah Lankford or even Charles Grandison Finney.

The unfortunate trade-off for this evangelical embrace of Reformed theology, as Mr. Granberg-Michaelson himself suggests, is a diminution of piety. The danger in Reformed theology, he writes, is that “spiritual experience is suspect, subjugated to right thinking.”

And I would add that one of the symptoms of this is that Calvinist theology itself too often comes off as arid and sterile. Not always, I’m sure, but frequently enough to raise the issue.

I’m not sure if it was indoctrination or absorption (to use Mr. Granberg-Michaelson’s nice distinction), but I too found Calvinism attractive when I was attending the aforementioned Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. And I did so, I suspect, for many of the same reasons I noted above. In addition, Reformed theology at the seminary was braided inextricably with a fixation on biblical inerrancy, which may represent the pinnacle of ratiocinated theology. (Full disclosure: I wrote my M.A. thesis on the Princetonians and inerrancy.) The effect was to render the Bible as a kind of relic, arid and sterile. Karl Barth’s notion that the Bible becomes the word of God was a, well, revelation to me, and my subsequent realization that Jesus is the word of God (John 1) was even more transformative.

So where am I today with Reformed theology? One of the altar call hymns from my childhood, part of a cycle with “Just as I Am” and “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling,” was “Almost Persuaded.”

Color me “Almost Persuaded” by Reformed theology.

The Traditional Latin Mass & Reactionary Politics

I found Christina Wassell’s account of moving from “generic Protestantism” (my term) to the Roman Catholic Church very compelling, and I certainly understand the quest for liturgy. As an Episcopal priest, however, I found the following sentence a tad confusing, explaining her move from the Episcopal Church to Rome: “While we had made an intellectual and theological leap of faith toward the tradition that would give us the Transubstantiated Body of Christ, it felt like moving to the desert.” I wonder: Why would Ms. Wassell move from the Episcopal Church (not “Episcopalian church,” by the way; the adjective form is shorter than the noun) to Rome in search of “real presence”? Most Episcopalians I know—including myself—emphatically believe in the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. (I don’t have statistics for Episcopalians, but according to a 2019 Pew survey, only one-third of U.S. Catholics believe in transubstantiation.)

Ms. Wassell goes on to say, “It was belief in the sacraments that fed us, along with spiritual reading and the scaffolding of Catholic piety.” Again, though I’m not certain what the author means here by “Catholic piety” (and there’s little in the essay to suggest what that might be), Episcopalians certainly believe “in the sacraments”; during the recitation of the Nicene Creed every week, for instance, we affirm our belief in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

So I’m left to wonder whether the migration from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism to the Traditional Latin Mass is motivated by something else.

I understand the lure of tradition and history, which many find in the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). And I absolutely share Ms. Wassell’s sense of the centrality of the Eucharist—not music or the sermon—in worship: “The whole point of Mass for Catholics is what happens at this moment on the altar.” I’m also sympathetic with her preference for Gregorian chants over “impoverished Catholic worship tunes,” though I confess a certain fondness for some of the Taize music. I don’t agree, however, that the priest facing the congregation during Holy Eucharist necessarily gives rise to showmanship; I have come to appreciate the holy beauty of a priest celebrating with reverence and care.

But here’s my confusion (and I’ll doubtless raise a similar question when we get to the Reformed tradition): Why does fondness for the Latin Mass necessarily go hand-in-hand with reactionary politics? It seems to me eminently plausible for someone to evince a preference for the Latin Mass on aesthetic or historical grounds without having to buy into an entire conservative agenda. It’s no secret that the TLM leadership—and, I gather, many of the followers—regard Pope Francis as a flaming liberal. That caricature is ludicrous, of course, but it appears to be fervently held by the TLM contingent—and it is suggested in Ms. Wassell’s statement that she and her family “were engaged in a fierce battle against the culture with our dear Catholic friends, but this battle wasn’t truly led by our Catholic priests and bishops.”

This sort of sentiment, I surmise, is behind the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ attempts to deny President Biden access to the communion rail because of his prochoice stance on abortion. Curiously, those same bishops have yet (as far as I know) to censure Roman Catholic politicians who support the death penalty, which also violates Church teaching. Hmmm. Although I disagree with the bishops’ position—in what moral universe is Joe Biden subject to episcopal censure when the same bishops fall over themselves to extol Donald Trump?—I’d have a lot more respect for them if they made even a cursory stab at consistency.

I wonder if TLM has devolved into a kind of signifier, much the way that even displaying the flag in recent years has become, for many, a signifier of allegiance to Trumpism. That’s a pity, in my view. Both the flag and the Latin Mass have their own rich history and integrity; reducing either one to a kind of totem for, let’s face it, division diminishes both.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that conservatives have glommed onto the Latin Mass. One sure way to wage “a fierce battle against the culture,” I suppose, is to embrace Latin. But I still see no necessity for the Traditional Latin Mass to be braided with reactionary politics.

Politeness is Good but not Enough to Uncover Bipartisan Common Ground in Politics: Strong Listening is Required

In the face-to-face conversation that I hosted involving four supporters of president Trump and four non-supporters, reported on extensively below, I insisted on politeness, characterized by a willingness to listen, without interruption, to the viewpoint of a person who disagrees with you and the reasons he or she has for holding to that contrary perspective.

My eight conversation partners (CPs) did well in practicing politeness. But, as our conversation proceeded, I came away with the impression that a number of our CPs were practicing what I call “weak listening.” They were being polite, but they had no intention of re-examining their own beliefs in light of the contrary beliefs expressed by others. They were patient and polite in listening to the contrary beliefs of others, but their mindset sometimes was to “get that over with” so that they could express and advocate for their beliefs.

Being polite is necessary, but not sufficient, in any conversation that is seeking to uncover common ground. To find common ground, “strong listening” is required, which means listening with an openness to re-examining one’s own beliefs in light of what you hear the other person saying that is contrary to your present beliefs.

What are the obstacles to making “strong listening” a hallmark of contemporary political discourse in America? Two major obstacles are obvious

The major obstacle is an unwillingness to talk respectfully with those who disagree about contentious public policy issues that includes critically re-examining one’s beliefs. This unwillingness eliminates the possibility of uncovering any common ground This is the result of the rampant tribalism that pervades American culture these days, a “us-versus-them” mentality that causes “us” (our tribe) to view those “other folks” who disagree with us as not only wrong but evil.

In his splendid book Enough About Me, Richard Lui describes this unwillingness to re-examine one’s beliefs about political issues as follows, “We tend to quickly demonize political opponents, throwing around accusations and labels in the hope that they’ll stick so we don’t have to argue our points, much less examine them critically” (p. 128).

An egregious example of this unwillingness to re-examine one’s beliefs about any political issue is contained in Mitch McConnell’s recent statement that “100 percent of my focus is on stopping this administration.” 

In effect, McConnell is saying that he will fight any political legislation that the Democrats propose. This stance precludes the possibility of Republicans and Democrats respectfully talking to one another about their disagreements. It precludes those on both sides of the political aisle practicing “strong listening” about the issue at hand toward the goal of uncovering some common ground.

A second major obstacle to making “strong listening” a hallmark of contemporary political discourse in America is that the current procedures for congressional deliberations work against the possibility of having respectful conversations about political disagreements that could uncover some common ground.

To take what I believe is the most egregious example, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to see how ludicrous it is that one person (Mitch McConnel) can control what proposed bills get to the floor of the Senate for deliberation (full disclosure: I once was a rocket scientist). 

I do not have the expertise to propose a definitive solution to this current brokenness of congressional procedures. But three initiatives toward a solution come to mind, all of which have the common element of calling for the conversation that is needed to uncover some common ground (since not talking respectfully about political disagreements will make it impossible to uncover any common ground – No talk = no hope for uncovering any common ground). 

First, the call to a return to “regular order” must be strongly supported. Such regular order must include orchestrating committee hearings on any proposed bill, leading to “markups” and then allowing for amendments from the floor, all of which calls for conversation. Members of Congress must embrace such an open process for deliberation and debate.

Secondly, consideration must be given to re-shaping the use of the filibuster. The original intent of the filibuster was, and remains laudable: To ensure that a “minority voice” is adequately heard in congressional deliberations. But it appears to me that currently the filibuster is often used to stifle the conversation between minority and majority voices that is needed to uncover common ground.

A third initiative that I propose flows from my experiences, both good and bad, these past ten or so years, of seeking to orchestrate respectful conversations among persons who disagree strongly about contentious issues: Start any congressional deliberation about any proposed bill with a relatively small bipartisan group of legislators.

My hard-earned experience suggests that attempts at orchestrating respectful conversations will be fruitless if there is a lack of mutual understanding and trust among those who have strong disagreements. And the fostering of such mutual understanding and trust is best accomplished in relatively small groups where conversation partners can get to know one another on a personal level before jumping into an attempt to sort through their disagreements in the search for common ground.

This experience of mine suggests that there is wisdom in starting congressional deliberation on a proposed bill with a relatively small group of politicians. A good recent example of the effectiveness of this starting point is found in the work of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 58 members equally divided among Republicans and Democrats, who have succeeded in forging bipartisan agreement on eleven issues for consideration by the 117th Congress. 

I do not underestimate the challenge of finding any common ground when the proposals from the Problem Solvers Caucus come to the floor of the House or Senate; challenges precipitated by the fact that those outside of the Problem Solvers Caucus have not taken the initiative to get to know one another to build mutual understanding and trust.

I have no easy solutions to this challenge. Possibly a return to Regular Order can be orchestrated in a way that enables there to be a series of small group conversations that will build the mutual understanding and trust needed to uncover some common ground before the bill is brought to the full House or Senate for a vote.

A common element in all that I have proposed above creates venues for us to talk about our disagreements regarding contentious public policy issues. I am not suggesting that such a search for common ground will necessarily uncover some common ground. As I like to assert every chance I get, “one cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation.” 

Therefore, as I have proposed in an earlier posting [Bipartisanship is a Process Not an End Result], a politician on either side of the political aisle is being is being bipartisan if she practices respectful conversation characterized by the rare combination of passionate commitment to her beliefs and openness to re-examining her beliefs in light of “strong listening” to the contrary beliefs of others. Therefore, “strong listening” is bipartisanship. One is practicing bipartisanship relative to a given piece of legislation if one practices “strong listening,” even if the final vote on the legislation includes no votes from those on the other side of the aisle. (Remember that one cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation).

A possible objection to all that I have said above is a rejection of the idea that the search for common ground is the essence of doing politics. Those who situate themselves at either extreme of the political spectrum may argue that it is “my way or the highway”; I will not settle for less than a “full loaf.” I believe that this argument misunderstands the nature of politics, which, more often than not requires settling for “less than a full loaf.” It also reflects a lack of balance between the two poles of the rare combination of commitment and openness that I have argued is a pre-condition for having a respectful conversation that uncovers some common ground: strong on commitment, which is to be applauded, but weak on openness. I urge those who situate themselves at either extreme of the political spectrum to seek for a better balance between commitment and openness.

In conclusion. I address the question of how well President Biden is doing to date in what he calls his commitment to bipartisanship in politics. Let me focus my response on the current debate over potential legislation regarding infrastructure. A good start was that at the very beginning of debate about this contentious issue, President Boden hosted a meeting with Republican legislators. But my question is whether this meeting went beyond being the “weak listening” that characterizes being polite, to the “strong listening” of re-examining one’s beliefs about infrastructure in light of the contrary beliefs of others in the room. I don’t know if such “strong listening” took place, since I was not in the room and media reports about that meeting shed little light on that question.

But I do have a perspective on what should be the “ideal” in such a meeting: “Strong  listening” should be taking place The participants should exhibit that rare combination of deep commitment to their own beliefs about infrastructure and openness to re-examining their own beliefs in light of their “strong listening” to the contrary beliefs about infrastructure embraced by others in the room. If such “strong listening,” characterized by that rare combination is prevalent in the conversation, then there is hope for finding some common ground. But, even if the common ground uncovered is sparse or even non-existent, if “strong listening” was practiced in the deliberations, then bipartisanship was practiced.

Whether such bipartisanship emerges remains to be seen. There appears to be movement toward agreement on the size of a package.  President Biden has put a $1 trillion package on the table (after his earlier proposals for $2.2 trillion and $1.7 trillion) and Republicans have moved from an initial proposal for a $568 billion package to a $928 billion package. But the biggest obstacle to agreement is how to pay for whatever size package is agreed upon. It is my hope that in the days to come, some “strong listening” will lead to agreement on a package and how to pay for it that reflects the emergence of some common ground.

Recommendations for Small Groups Who Wish to Engage in Face-to-Face Conversations about Human Sexuality Issues or any other Contentious Issues

In my November 11, 2018 Musing titled “Pivoting from Respectful Electronic Conversations (eCircles) to Face-to-Face Conversations About Human Sexuality Issues or Any Other Contentious Issues,” I reported on an unfinished local face-to-face small group conversation about my book “Respectful LGBT Conversations” that “started well but then deteriorated.” That series of face-to-face conversations has now been completed. The following recommendations for orchestrating future face-to-face conversations about LGBT issues or any other contentious issues emerged from reflections from those who attended this completed conversation on LGBT issues as to “lessons learned” (what worked and what didn’t work).


In order to avoid the conversation becoming an “echo chamber,” it is important to “recruit” attendees who will represent a fair balance of differing views about the topic at hand. This is best done NOT by issuing a broad invitation (to members of a church or community) and “hoping that a good balance will emerge.” Rather, a better approach is to decide beforehand on the differing types of positions that can be taken on the issue; then issue personal invitations (one invitation to someone known to hold each position). When such initial invitations are accepted, then ask each such person to identify other church or community members who he/she believes will hold to a similar position, to whom the planners can then extend similar invitations (while encouraging that first person to encourage the new invitees to accept their invitations)

If the results of the conversation has the potential to significantly impact the well-being of one or more groups of church or community members, then representatives of such groups MUST be “at the table.” For example, despite the strengths of the procedures used in the case studies presented in the Respectful LGBT Conversations book, all three persons who provided leadership for these case studies reported that a flaw in their procedures was that gay persons were not adequately represented “at the table.” Therefore, the conversation too easily became an exercise in into talking “about them” rather than “with them” (as if they were “issues” and not “persons”).

Because of the logical flow of the conversation sessions that will be recommended below, it is important that all attendees attend all the planned sessions, with no attendees allowed to join the conversation after the first session (except under very unusual circumstances)



  • Although participants will be expected to present their views on the issue at hand with clarity and deep conviction, the purpose of the conversation is NOT to “win the argument.” Rather the purposes are:
    • To give a “fair hearing” to all points of view by focusing on “listening well” to viewpoints you do not share in an attempt to adequately understand the reasons that the “other” has for his/her viewpoint.
    • After all the differing viewpoints are “out on the table,” the conversation will move to attempting to identify areas of agreement and disagreement, including illumination of disagreements sufficient to make ongoing conversation possible.
  • To model “respectful conversation” among person who have strong disagreements (made possible by the second expectation now presented)

B. AGREEMENT TO ABIDE BY A SET OF “GUIDELINES FOR CONVERSATION – For example, the guidelines that were agreed to by all the conversation partners in our LGBT conversation, with one possible exception indicated below, were as follows:

  • I will try to listen well, providing each person with a welcoming space to express her perspective on the issue at hand
  • 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 “we can only agree to disagree;” yet I will do so in a way that demonstrates respect for the other and concern for her well-being and does not foreclose 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.

Unfortunately, in our LGBT conversation, there is some question as to whether one of the two the two “late arrivals” who held traditional positions on same-sex relationships adequately understood or actually agreed to either of these two expectations, because he was not present the first session where these expectations were reinforced (which deficiency will lead to one of our further recommendations below).


The first session together is the most important in that is sets the stage for the modeling of respectful conversations in all subsequent sessions. The first thing that must be established in this first session is that each participant, whether he/she holds to a “conservative” or “liberal” viewpoint on the issue, will be provided with a “safe space” to say whatever is on his/her mind without fear of being personally attacked or demonized.

Our recommendation for creating such a “safe space” is for the first session to begin with a review of the purpose and guidelines for conversation that all participants have already agreed to, to be followed only by time devoted to “getting to know one another” without any presentations or conversation about differing viewpoints on the issue at hand. This can be accomplished by the Moderator posing the following questions to each attendee, with a time limit presented (possibly 4-5 minutes) for each response, without allowing for any interruptions by other attendees.

  • Who are you? (Briefly introduce yourself to us)
  • Why have you joined this conversation? What do you hope to get out of this conversation? What is at stake? – wherever possible draw on aspects of own “story” that inform your response to these questions

The most valuable lesson we learned from our LGBT conversation is the importance of “building initial personal relationships of mutual understanding” (which hopefully leads to mutual trust) before embarking on the presentation of and discussion about differing viewpoints on the topic at hand.

A marvelous testimony to the central importance of “getting to know” a person who disagrees with you was the report from our married lesbian couple that “with the passage of time” a local doctor who was originally strongly critical of their same-sex relationship and not “friendly to them” has now become “friendly.” Our educated guess is that a good part of this change in attitude is that he has “gotten to know them better” by means of doctor/patient relationships.


Now that the stage has been set to promote respectful conversation about differing viewpoints, it is time for each participant to briefly present, without interruption (possibly in 5-7 minutes) his/her response to a question or two posed by electronically by the Moderator prior to this second session; questions intended to help all attendees to understand his/her position on the issue at hand. For example, for a small group conversation that Harold is beginning on March 13, 2019 on the topic “President Trump and Visions for America,” each of the 8 participants from the local community, equally divided between “general supporters” of President Trump and “general non-supporters of President Trump, each attendees will have 5-7 uninterrupted minutes to respond to the following two questions:

  • 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?


After this second session recommended above has been completed, the discussion group will now be well prepared to sort through their agreements and disagreements about the issue at hand in a respectful manner that is informed by a good preliminary understanding of the initial viewpoints of all the participants.

Some “heavy lifting” by the Moderator must now begin. To facilitate this, it is necessary that the presentations in the first two sessions be recorded and possibly transcribed for the Moderator’s careful review for the purpose of formulating a set of Leading Questions for the third session that will attempt o identify points of agreement and illuminate remaining areas of disagreement. (to be distributed electronically to all participants prior to the third session)

This formidable task for the Moderator needs to continue for the fourth and subsequent sessions, with the Leading Questions for each subsequent session emerging from the substance of the previous session.


No consensus emerged as to the suitability of the Respectful LGBT Conversations book as background material for this conversation. One of the attendees who was undecided as to same-sex relationships suggested that this book was very helpful to her because of her “undecided” status, in that it fairly presented both sides for each subtopic on the part of two conversation partners who had the competence to cogently present credible opposing viewpoints; both of whom held to a strong belief in the full authority and inspiration of scripture (while disagreeing on the best interpretation of certain biblical passages).

On the other hand, the author of the book (Harold) wondered out loud whether in this age of increasing “tribalism” (an “us-versus-them” mentality where me and “my people” have all the truth about the issues at hand and “you other folks” are all wrong), this book will only make both sets of tribalists “mad” because they are not interested in listening to a point of view other than the one they already hold, which appears to have been the case for the traditionalist who joined our group for just two sessions who bluntly stated that he had absolutely no interest in reading this book.

Obviously, more conversation is needed as to the best choice of reading materials for future conversations about LGBT issues.


Recall that a 3rd way church is one where no church-wide position is taken as to the appropriateness, or not, of same-sex relationships, but, rather the challenging attempt is made to love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ in the midst of disagreements about this issue.

Although no consensus was reached as to the viability of trying to be a 3rd way church, the following compelling observations were made during this last session:

  • It is relatively easy for a “straight” Christian to transfer to another local church, but where can a gay Christian (“like me”) find a loving place to worship if there were no 3rd way churches or “affirming” churches available?
  • A cogent concluding observation for an “undecided” member of this class was that she was hesitant to agree to attend this class because she loved the lesbian couple that agreed to attend, and was fearful as to how they would react to her honestly saying that she was “undecided.” She is still undecided at the end of this class, but now feels “liberated” because her gay sisters in Christ have, in this class, expressly given her a “safe space” to declare herself as “undecided” (all three of them being members of a 3rd way church in Orange City).
  • This observation fits well with the suggestion made by Mennonite Scholar Carolyn Schrock-Shenk that a conversation about contentious issues, like human sexuality, may not “change minds” about the issue at hand, but could have the marvelous result of changing one’s perspective about the person holding to a differing viewpoint (which is no small accomplishment).
  • A strength of being a 3rd way church is that it models the possibility of maintaining the “Christian unity” for which Jesus prayed in the midst of disagreements as to issues related to human sexuality, which is no small accomplishment in this day and age when many churches and their denominations are “dividing” over disagreements about such issues.


In my forthcoming book on “Reforming American Politics,” I propose three major strategies for a “Way Forward” that could move the current sad state of political discourse from conflict to conversation; the most audacious of which is: In your political activities, always seek for a both/and position relative to any public policy issue that reflects a balanced synthesis of the best insights of those who have disagreements, and encourage political representatives on both sides of the aisle to do likewise.

To take this bit of advice beyond being a pious platitude (or, in the minds of some readers, to demonstrate how unrealistic it is), I will illustrate its application by considering a possible “negotiation” regarding President Trump’s January 19, 2018 proposal on immigration, the highlights of which were as follows:

  •  5.7 billion for steel barriers in priority areas
  •  675 million for increased drug technology at ports of entry
  •  130 million for canine units, including training and more personnel
  •  800 million for humanitarian assistance
  •  782 million for 2750 additional agents
  •  563 million for 75 new immigration judges
  •  Three years of protection for Dreamers
  •  Three years of protection for refugees having Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s immediate reaction (even before Trump’s proposal was officially presented) was to call it a “non-starter,” essentially because it included money for a “wall” (of sorts) and it did not end the government shutdown.

I believe that Pelosi calling Trump’s proposal a non-starter was a mistake. Trump’s proposal may have been a very inadequate proposal and may have been only a re-hash of previous unacceptable proposals. But it was President Trump’s “starting point.” So, to call it a non-starter was to forfeit the possibility of any negotiation that could improve on this starting point.

What might be the substance of such negotiation? I will illustrate in an unusual way; by sharing snippets of a conversation I would like to have with President Trump about selected aspects of his proposal (which of course will not happen), saving for later some reflections on how Pelosi might engage in a similar negotiation (which could happen).

HAROLD: Mister President. I appreciate your returning to your previously expressed concern for the plight of Dreamers; those children of immigrants who were brought to America by their parents at a very young age through no choice of their own. But to only propose a three-year extension of their DACA status is to perpetuate a grave injustice. These Dreamers have not broken any laws and. therefore, deserve no punishment. Justice requires that they be provided with the pathway to citizenship for which you once expressed public support.

Furthermore, Mister President, I appreciate your proposal to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for three years for those who are fleeing natural disasters, persecution (or death) or armed conflicts in their home countries. For me that is another justice issue, since I believe that justice demands that we take the steps necessary to address the needs of other human beings who have been marginalized and oppressed. But this suggests that America take steps to address some of the poor conditions that prevail in these neighboring countries (which is a significant part of the “humanitarian crisis” that you refer to; which I believe should be the major focus of the 800 million in “humanitarian assistance” that you have proposed).

PRESIDENT TRUMP: I will consider the concerns and remedies you have expressed. But will you likewise consider some of my major concerns and proposed remedies? For example, we need to increase border security in ways that will minimize illegal immigration and combat the flow of drugs into our country. And many of our border agents tell me that some type of physical barrier (a wall or whatever) are needed at certain segments of the border to help achieve these results.

HAROLD: I agree with the need for improved border security, which could take the form of more physical barriers at selected places along the border, as well as other means, such as greater use of technology. But if the primary concern is with the flow of drugs into America, we will need to increase the use of drug detection technology at legal points of entry, such as airports, since that is where the major flow of drugs takes place.

But my agreement with you about the need for greater border security and the need to curtail the flow of drugs into America masks our significant disagreements as to the magnitude of the funding that is needed to address these problems. You propose 5.7 billion for “steel barriers” in “priority areas” along the border, plus approximately another 2.2 billion for other measures that you perceive as necessary to improve border security. My initial thinking is to agree with the proposal from Democrats that a total of about 1 billion should be spent on border security measures. We are obviously miles apart on the funding needed to improve border security and how this funding should be used. This suggests that we both need to go back to the drawing board. To get that re-thinking started, let us split the difference as to total funding; assuming that a total of 4.45 billion is available (halfway between 1 billion and 7.9 billion). We both need to develop new proposals as to how that 4.45 billion is best spent to improve border security.

To end this imaginary conversation at this point would be to ignore the huge elephant in the room, the partial government shutdown. So, I can imagine our conversation continuing as follows:

HAROLD: Even if we can reach some kind of agreement relative to the changes in your starting proposal that I outline above, we appear to be at an impasse relative to the  government shutdown for which you have publicly taken responsibility.  You call for legislative action on your starting proposal before re-opening the government. I believe the government shutdown must be ended immediately.

My argument for ending the government shutdown immediately is another justice argument. To be sure, the concept of “justice” is “contested,” with room for disagreement as to what it means to “do justice.” But if one starts with the general view that doing justice calls for treating all people “fairly,” then, despite some legitimate disagreements about the meaning of “fairness,” there is no way to argue that it is “fair” for a government employee to be deprived of the means to keep food on the table or medicine in the cabinet because of a political dispute about immigration. Government workers who are no longer being paid have done nothing to deserve that punishment. That is a clear injustice. To make matters worse, there is also strong evidence that national security and even the strong American economy are being increasingly compromised by the shutdown.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: If I give in on the government shutdown, there will be no incentive for Democrats to vote for any of the changes in border security or related immigration issues that I have proposed. If I end the government shutdown, there will be no reason for the Democrats to come to the negotiating table.

HAROLD: I understand your concern, but the Democrats have made it clear that they  will not negotiate until you end the shutdown. And any plans to have the Senate and the House approve separate plans that the other chamber will reject is a dead end exercise in political posturing.

There may be a way out of this impasse. Rather than having each party meet in private to develop plans that the other party will clearly reject, which seems to be the current approach and is clearly not “negotiation,” exert your presidential leadership by declaring that you will end the shutdown on the condition that a bipartisan approach to genuine negotiation about immigration issues be followed in both chambers of Congress, similar to the way in which a bipartisan “gang of eight” Senators came up with a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. To those who question that bipartisan approach because the Senate immigration bill of 2013 died in the house, I respond that this may have been because the House rejected the “bipartisan negotiation” approach that worked in the Senate.

Now that I have ended my imaginary conversation with President Trump. I may have only convinced most readers that I am totally out of touch with political reality, which is true if you accept the adequacy of the current way of doing politics, which I do not. So. I will close this Musing with some reflections on the example of “political negotiation” presented above that anticipates some possible objections from readers.


You are correct about that! The words I put into President Trump’s mouth in the above imaginary conversation were meant to focus on the message, not the messenger. For example, I avoided what he might have said as an impulsive response to my suggestion that his proposal for only extending relief for Dreamers for another three years was inadequate, which could well have been to vilify me for even suggesting that idea. Such a harsh response could prematurely end the conversation before it hardly got started.

The tone of my words and the words I have put into President Trump’s mouth in the above example reflect, without apology, the way I believe persons who have disagreements about political issues, or anything else, should talk to one another about their disagreements, As I elaborate in the closing chapter of my forthcoming book, this belief flows from my deep commitment to certain underlying values like love, humility, respect, patience, hope and an unswerving commitment to seek after the “truth” about the issue at hand. As one who aspires to be a follower of Jesus, my commitment to these values flows from my understanding that they reflect the teachings of the Christian faith. In particular, I believe that a deep expression of the love for others to which Jesus calls those who aspire to be his followers is to create a safe and welcoming space for the other persons to express disagreements and then to talk respectfully about the nature of of our disagreements. But these values to which I am committed are not just “Christian values”; they are “human values” that all persons of good will should embrace.


But there is little evidence that President Trump embraces these values. His first impulse is to vilify anyone who disagrees with him. That is wrong in and of itself.  But it is also an ineffective political strategy. There is great wisdom in the proverbial teaching that “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).

So, what would I do if in an actual conversation with President Trump, he vilified me? I would not respond in kind (as one person has put it, I would not allow him to determine my behavior). I would still present the arguments I present above, assuming that President Trump does not walk away from the negotiating table. If he storms out on me, that is his choice. But that leads me to reflect a bit on how Nancy Pelosi could, in actuality, engage in the type of negotiation that I imagine above.


I have no idea if Nancy Pelosi shares any of the arguments that I have included in my imaginary conversation with President Trump, which focus on my understanding of what it means to “do justice.” But she could present her own arguments in opposition to Trump’s proposal and counter with her own alternative proposals, which is what negotiation should be all about.

But, having said that, I would commend for Pelosi’s consideration my proposal for trying to break the current impasse about whether the current government shutdown needs to end before any negotiations can begin by suggesting to President Trump that he should end the shutdown on the condition that some type of bipartisan approach to negotiation be taken, similar to what the Senate “gang of eight” did in 2013. 

I close this Musing with two general recommendations that I believe are pertinent to engaging in genuine negotiations with those with whom you disagree on immigration issues (which I believe are also applicable to disagreements about anything else).


In an Adult Discipleship class that I was leading at my home church, I asked attendees to express their beliefs about President Trump’s proposal a while back to curtail the family reunification component of immigration. To a person, attendees parroted what the political party they belonged to said about that issue, with Republicans preferring to use the phrase “chain migration.” But I wasn’t asking them what their political party of choice believed about this program. I was asking them what they believed the Bible taught that might be relevant to this issue.

The prominent mistake that my Christian attendees were making was to substitute a “political lens” for a “Christian lens.” To quickly politicize every issue is a common mistake for Christians and everyone else.  

I intentionally avoided making that mistake in my imaginary conversation. I did this by avoiding any reference to either my political party (Democrat) or President Trump’s political party. Rather, I drove the conversation down to a more foundational level by seeking to uncover the operative value commitments that inform the beliefs of the two conversation partners. (in this conversation the meaning of the value of “justice” being the key issue).

Of course, not all citizens share my value commitments as a Christian. Therefore, at this deep level of conversation, disagreements as to the adequacy of differing value commitments still abound. But at least the debate is being carried out at a deeper level than “what does my political party say.”


I imagine that my proposal in my imaginary conversation with President Trump that funding for all border security measures be limited to about 4.45 billion rather than the 7.9 billion proposed by President Trump or the 1 billion proposed by Democrats will make both Democrats and Republicans unhappy. So be it!

The scourge of contemporary politics is tribalism, an “us-versus them” mentality where “my party” has the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the issue at hand and those in the “other party” are all wrong, at best, or downright evil, at worst.

Such tribalists will not settle for “half a loaf;” it’s “my way or the highway.” Such extremists, in either political party, eschew any attempts to reach across the aisle to seek a balanced synthesis of the best insights from both parties. What scares me most about the current political scene is the gradual disappearance of “moderate” politicians who reject tribalism, the root cause of which is that doing politics has become more about getting elected than governing well.

Therefore, my call for “genuine negotiation” about disagreements in the political realm may not gain much traction in a culture that is becoming increasingly tribalistic. But, given my value commitments as a professing Christian, it is the right thing for me to do.

[Authors Note: What a difference half-a-day can make when it comes to political discourse. I composed the above Musing on the morning of January 25, when the government was shut down. Half a day later, the government shutdown was revoked for three weeks. Although that makes some aspects of the above reflections inapplicable, I decided to post this Musing for two reasons. First, this piece still illustrates my understanding of how “genuine negotiation” should be carried out toward the goal of seeking for a both/and position relative to a public policy issue that draws on the best insights of those on both sides of the political aisle. Secondly, who knows what may happen in the next three weeks. The government may again be subject to another shutdown, in which case my recommendation that President Trump not propose such a shutdown provided that both chambers of Congress agree to “bipartisan negotiation” (such as carried out by the Senate gang of eight” in 2013) may be relevant].

A note from Harold Heie.


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.

Harold Heie


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.”


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?

Conversation Partners:

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. 




1. Talking Past Each Other or Worse

2. What Does Christian Love Demand?


3. A Comprehensive View of Political Activism

4. Party Politics and Beyond

5. The Role of Money and Special Interests in Politics


6. Immigration

7. Wealth and Poverty in America

8. Healthcare in America


9. Case Study Conversations Regarding Political Discourse and Political Action Within Churches and Christian Para-Church Organizations


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.










I am very pleased to announce that I have just signed a contract with Cascade Books (Eugene, OR) for them to publish the manuscript that emerged from this eCircle on “Christian Faithfulness and Human Sexuality.” The title for this book will be Respectful LGBT Conversations: Seeking Truth, Giving Love, and Modeling Christian Unity. George Marsden has written a Foreword for this book, which will be released in the summer or early fall of 2017.

Since my hope for this book is that it will be received as only the “beginning,” not the “end” of an important ongoing conversation, I hope that upon its release the contributors to this eCircle and the readers of this conversation will consider the possibility of using it, or promoting its use, in their various spheres of influence.

I want to once again thank my conversation partners for this eCircle, as well as George Marsden and the many readers who followed this conversation. This project would not have been possible without you. I am most appreciative.

Harold Heie
February 11, 2017