Pastors and Politics

Unknown+copyRev. Clementa Pinckney stood tall for liberty and justice for all before his brutal murder at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina. State Senator/Reverend Pinckney was both a passionate pastor and a passionate politician.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. changed America. His stirring sermons stirred the pot for revival that spilled out of churches and eventually swayed a nation. Voting rights. Workers rights. Civil rights. Equal rights. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was both a Baptist minister and a political game changer.

Rev. William Barber continues the legacy of King. His leadership within the NAACP, his Moral Mondays efforts and now the renewed Poor Peoples Campaign are inspiring thousands upon thousands of people who are committed to a moral revolution in America. Reverend Barber is both a zealous pastor and a  political activist.

In an era when we frequently discuss and debate what it means for America to function within the parameters of the First Amendment, 2dbb9186aaf3996a953dd8e78a9c1e3emany religious people continue to strike a healthy balance as they live out their faith in the public arena. In a time when our divided society argues about the separation of Church and State, many religious Americans, motivated by their faith, continue to make significant contributions to the shape and meaning of our national politics.

However, as much as I admire the pastors I name here, there is another religious-political-pastors’ movement afoot that makes me very uncomfortable.

For years, David Lane has been quite successful at motivating social and religious conservatives to become more active in politics. His latest effort is a series of well-funded training sessions for conservative pastors recruiting them and equipping them to run for office. Lane’s goal is to muster an “army” of “politicized pastors.” The director of faith engagement for the Republican National Committee, Chad Connelly, was quoted in a recent NPR article as saying: “[With] 5 percent more Christian evangelical people who are serious about the word of God and voting biblical values, we change the nation. We change the nation forever.”

I can’t justly criticize David Lane’s process since I applaud Rev. Pinckney for his political involvement; since I support Rev. Barber’s efforts to influence North Carolina and the nation; since I praise the prophetic voice of Rev. King. Every American has a right to choose their belief system and to live accordingly. Every citizen has a right to speak their mind and to argue their position in the public conversation. Just about any American has the right to run for city council or state school board or president of the United States. Religious people are not excluded from these freedoms and responsibilities.

But the part that makes me uncomfortable about Lane and Connelly and others is their presumption that it is only their values that are the quintessential “biblical values.” One, I disagree that their values are appropriate biblical values and Two, I disagree that their values ought to be the values of our nation.

I too am a Christian, a pastor, a serious student of the Bible. I too am one whose political views have been shaped by my understanding of Scripture. I too am one whose current “ministry” is blogging and speaking my mind from my own Christian faith into the larger public conversation. I too am taking advantage of the political process by writing my monthly letters to Senator Cruz and trying to influence his positions. (Yeah Yeah; I know; you don’t need to say it.)

David Lane and Chad Connelly and Ted Cruz and so many others in the conservative camp are motivated by the values of conservation and preservation of the traditions of a people. They believe that America’s strength lies in going back to an imagined halcyon way of being society together. They argue that America’s hope lies in remaining faithful to original visions. (I’m trying to state their position fairly and not argue a straw man here.) And yes, conservative religious people can argue their position from the Bible because there are definite strands of traditional, culture-bound, conservative thinking in Scripture.

But I see something different in that same Bible – a different, more appropriate way to envision what it means to be faithful people living together as a society of humans. I find in this Bible something that has created within me very different “biblical values” from the ones motivating Lane and Cruz.

Instead of a sectarian, exclusivist, judgmental reading; instead of going backwards, I emphasize Scripture’s prophetic vision of Shalom – where the lion lies down with the lamb; where all people live together in peace; where the widow and orphan are honored and the stranger among us is welcomed. It is because of my grounding in Scripture that I must emphasize Grace – where redemption and reconciliation trump revenge and retaliation. It is because of my biblical values that I am compelled not to seek my own good and the privilege of a few but rather the well being of the whole community.

Religious Conservatives emphasize individuality.

Religious Progressives emphasize community.

I listen to my conservative Christian friends and I hear the language of individuality: a “personal relationship with Jesus,” personal piety and personal responsibility. It is logical, therefore, that people who hold these kinds of religious values will hold comparable political values that emphasize individual freedoms, individual rights and private charity. (That is, of course, unless we are talking about personal decisions made by a woman with her doctor or the personal decision of a gay couple to marry. Yeah Yeah; I know; the topic for another blog another time.)

I listen to my progressive Christian friends and I hear the language of community: seeking unity within our diversity, not just tolerating but celebrating our differences, protecting the vulnerable, standing with the oppressed, advocating on behalf of “the least of these” (Jesus’ words). gty_selma_montgomery_civil_rights_walk_mlk_thg_120130_wblogThese are the “biblical values” that have motivated King and Pinckney and Barber and so many others to work tirelessly for the good of all. These are the values I hope will change the nation; change the nation forever.

David Lane knows his army of politicized pastors will probably begin locally: school boards and city councils and county commissioners courts. Since our laws protect against religious tests of elected officials, these pastors have every right to run for public office.

And the rest of us have the right – and more importantly the responsibility – to critique the values and motivations of candidates and elected representatives within our states and communities. Let us be alert, aware and active. Let us test the candidates, not for their religious associations, but rather for their values that will surely shape their positions and policies. Let us ask bold questions, challenge self-centered attitudes and advocate for the principles that can create among us gracious, welcoming, caring American communities.

 

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She frequentlyIntersections logo shares her thoughts with Coffee Party USA as a regular volunteer.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.

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Charlotte’s Letter to Sen. Ted Cruz on Misunderstanding Religious Freedom

Dear Senator Cruz,

I have written numerous letters to you considering the nature of our shared Christian faith and its appropriate intersection with culture and politics. As one of your constituents and as a minister, I have concerns about the numerous ways you conflate religion and politics and how this confusion contributes to division and animosity within our society. I am especially bothered by your constant rhetoric about “religious liberty.” I believe your approach is wrong-headed.

2dbb9186aaf3996a953dd8e78a9c1e3eDon’t misunderstand; I am a great supporter of the religious freedom of American citizens. I am ever so grateful for the First Amendment and for our nation’s efforts to abide by the remarkable principle that separates the State and the Church.

However, throughout our actual history, Christianity has enjoyed special privilege in America from its founding to this very day. Maybe not an “establishment” by government but certainly an advantage over other expressions of faith. The obvious result of this cultural advantage is that people of other faiths and people of no faith are often at a disadvantage.

Because I am a Christian, I am concerned about all our fellow citizens – equal not only in the eyes of the Creator but also in the eyes of the law. Since you say you too are a Christian, then it is right for you to treat each person as you would want to be treated. Since you are the elected representative of a wide array of citizens, it is your job to work for liberty and justice for all.

Why aren’t you concerned about the “religious freedom” of every American?

In my opinion, you have made a mountain out of a molehill by claiming that marriage equality threatens some people’s religious freedom.

I ask you: How does acknowledging the freedom of same sex couples to marry have anything at all to do with you and your freedom? I just don’t get it.

The SCOTUS ruling doesn’t require you to change your personal opinion; it doesn’t limit your right to express that opinion. Your tax dollars are not paying for these weddings. I can’t imagine a same sex couple asking you to officiate at their wedding ceremony, but if they did, you could just say “no.”

The SCOTUS ruling doesn’t require a County Clerk or a baker to change their religious beliefs. But the Supreme Court does require all elected officials to abide by the law. It requires merchants who operate within the public sphere to avoid discriminating against their fellow citizens.

Besides, I suspect clerks and bakers do business every day with people they dislike or disapprove of in some way or another. So what? We don’t have to approve of other people in order to treat them with respect and to do our own work with integrity.

Allowing for the greater freedom of our LGBT citizens in no way diminishes the freedom of straight citizens. IMG_0362So I just don’t understand: why does the marriage of my precious friends, Scott and Val, have anything whatsoever to do with you and your religious freedom?

Whenever I serve as minister of a local congregation, I must constantly take into consideration the broad range of beliefs inherent within such a diverse group of people. Shepherding, preserving, nurturing, deepening community in the midst of differing opinions is always a challenge but crucial to the work of a pastor.

If I let my personal opinions run rough shod over the concerns of another, I replace love with selfishness. If I allow the personal beliefs of one group to diminish the sincere beliefs of another group, I damage the health and vitality of the whole group. Finding ways to help a community grow together in love and grace in the very midst of its diversity is good and wise pastoral care. It is also good and wise politics.

Mr. Cruz, divisive rhetoric and intolerant policies are not wise and helpful politics. This is not even patriotic. And it is certainly not the way of Christ. I urge compromise and compassion instead. Our nation would be much stronger if our leaders and citizens practiced compromise and compassion. This is what true freedom requires. This is the real fruit of liberty.

Respectfully yours,

Rev. Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

 

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She frequentlyIntersections logo shares her thoughts with Coffee Party USA as a regular volunteer.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.

 

 

Confessions of a Reluctant Patriot

My husband put up our flag for the Fourth of July and came back into the house singing the Star Spangled Banner. We both love our country. We both are grateful for this nation we call home. But, on that particular day, I was surprised to realize how ambivalent I feel about the national anthem and about this flag waving to me from my front yard.

Maybe it’s our checkered past.

I stood on the portico of our County Courthouse this weekend and took my turn reading aloud the Declaration of Independence. It fell to me to read the paragraph complaining about the ways King George “excited domestic insurrections amoungst us, and endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontier the merciless Indian Savages…” Never mind the fact that Europeans mercilessly slaughtered and displaced the Native Peoples as we took over the New World. Never mind the merciless savagery inherent in every war – even our war for our own independence.

It was timely that I had read Mark Charles’ blog just that morning, Reflections from the Hogan: The Dilemma of the Fourth of July. A wise, bold Native American blogger, Charles calls us to remember our shared history with all its complexity. Even as we proclaim that “all men are created equal,” we must also acknowledge how many years it has taken this nation to grow toward the understanding that “all” means all.

Maybe it’s our blind practice of national religion.

Although I go to church most Sundays, I doubt I will ever again be in church on a July 4 weekend. As a minister, I am deeply troubled by the way authentic Christianity has been co-opted by an American civil religion. On this weekend, in sanctuaries across the nation, visitors will wonder who – or what – is actually being worshiped. flags-1024x508

 

I am happy to recite the pledge and sing our anthem at the fireworks show this Fourth of July; that’s an excellent and appropriate venue. But I believe absolutely that it is crucial for religious people to keep church and state separate.

Maybe it’s our checkered present.

Yes, America (finally) turned from our original sin of slavery, but I grieve the ways we continue to allow the underlying sin of racism to skew our society. White supremacy is still very much a thing all across America. Some people live out that value with brazen, dangerous animosity. Other people live out their belief in white privilege more politely. “Benevolent racism” I call it – feeling (and often expressing) discomfort and disdain whenever some people speak different languages, practice different religions, wear different clothing or celebrate different holidays.

So I understand why I am ambivalent about my patriotism. America is a mixed bag and many Americans are blind to that truth.

Even so, my good husband reminded me that the ideal is indeed beautiful. Our national anthem sings of the spirit of resilience among our people. Our national flag signals the unity inherent within the diversity of our people.

America is a dream, a hope, an aspiration.

Maybe not a dream come true – not yet. Maybe not ever. But it’s still worth believing in. And it’s absolutely worth working for.

I guess my challenge to myself is to get over my funky ambivalence and get to work. I will march with my NAACP friends in our local parade and then keep partnering together for our community. I will wFullSizeRender (1)rite letters to my local newspaper and to my elected officials. I will vote. I will do what I can to help my little piece of America live up to its ideals and grow into its dream. I will do what I can to nudge this nation to embody its stated values of equality and justice… I will do what I can; that’s all any of us can do.

 

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She is national secretary for Coffee Party USA and contributes regularly to the Join the Coffee Party Movement Facebook page.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.

Flag Meme credits

Meme: David R. Henson
Text: Frederick Buechner
Original Photo: Frankileon

Guest Blog: How White Christians Used The Bible — And Confederate Flag — To Oppress Black People

 

On Jan. 4, 1861, a Catholic bishop named Rev. A. Verot ascended a pulpit in The Church of St. Augustine, Florida, and defended the right of white people to own slaves.

The apostle Paul, Verot claimed in his sermon, instructs slaves to obey their masters as a “necessary means of salvation.” Quoting Colossians 3:22, he said, “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not serving to the eye, as pleasing men, but in simplicity of heart, fearing God.”

It’s no secret that hundreds of Christian pastors like Verot used the Bible during the Civil War to justify slavery. But the massacre last week of nine black people inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has once again forced white Christians in America to re-examine the white church’s historical ties to racism — and how hateful rhetoric like Verot’s had more power because it came from the pulpit. Continue reading Guest Blog: How White Christians Used The Bible — And Confederate Flag — To Oppress Black People

Guest Blog: “Piss Christ” And Drawing Muhammad: On Not Being Offended

Reflection by Lindsey Paris-Lopez

June 11, 2015
I recoiled a little just typing the title to this article.

The title of the infamous photograph by Andres Serrano, “Piss Christ,” makes me bristle as much as the content of a crucifix submerged in blood and urine. I can’t get used to the language on a gut level, even as I have come to appreciate it on an intellectual and even spiritual level. My visceral repulsion to this juxtaposition of the filthy and the sacred is probably similar to the feeling Muslims get when they see the beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) degraded in crass and crude caricatures. It can feel like a blow to the stomach, with anger and disgust rising up in response, to see or hear that which we hold most sacred defiled. Continue reading Guest Blog: “Piss Christ” And Drawing Muhammad: On Not Being Offended

Guest Blog: A Straight Christian Mom Responds to James Dobson’s Attack on Gays

blog by Susan Cottrell

Dobson

James Dobson doesn’t really “Focus on the Family”… he just focuses on SOME families. Marriage equality is only a matter of time—and Dobson’s newsletter attack, which includes a speech by Robert George, is basically a call-to-arms to resist “the homosexual activist movement” and its “master plan” of “destruction and redesign of the family.”

As I have written before, God does NOT define marriage as a man and a woman. My mentor pointed out years ago that Dobson would have been much more helpful all these years if he’d had a “Focus on Jesus” – instead of idolizing the nuclear family as he sees it. (Anyone who knows Jesus knows he is all about breaking down our boxes!)

Sarah Herndon is straight. She is a Christian and she and her husband have a one-year-old son. Sarah’s uncle, a conservative pastor, forwarded Dobson’s letter for his whole family to see, and he may have assumed that everyone was on board with his opinion. Instead of just deleting his email, Sarah spoke up with the response below to say that no, they’re not.

If you’ve been in this battle for any length of time, you’ve heard all the misleading, anti-gay rhetoric before. Sarah’s answer represents a broader Christian—and Christlike—perspective, the relevant perspective.

If you are being pummeled with panic-induced appeals to “fight gay marriage and the evil gay agenda,” let this letter encourage you.

Hi Uncle,

Normally, I would not respond to forwards of articles on religion, spirituality, faith, etc. However, I am compelled, for several reasons, to respond to you. Please know that I do so out of a desire not to attack you, but for you to hear something that needs to be heard by a great many more people in the Christian and Catholic community, especially those in positions of spiritual leadership.

Since you made the decision to share this, I made the decision to tell you what I think, and to let our family members know as well. And yes, I did read everything both men wrote before I wrote this.

You are a pastor. Your message is supposed to be that of love. What is sobering and disturbing to me is that you’re so wholeheartedly standing with these men who say that so many people out there, who just want to be loved and cared for equally, without fear of persecution, like everyone else, are less than you, less than me, less than anyone else who is straight.

What makes you think that condemning an entire group of people and claiming they will lead to the destruction of society has anything whatsoever to do with Christ’s teaching to love one another as we love ourselves?

Do you truly think that if a person is blessed to find a partner in life who will support them, love them as they are, without conditions, and they are able to affirm to each other, their families, friends, and community that they are committed to sharing both joys and sorrows for the rest of their lives, this will lead to the destruction of society? That love that expresses itself differently than yours is going to lead to the end times?

That way of thinking is dangerous. That way of thinking is destructive. That way of thinking has brought thousands of people to commit suicide every year, because they were rejected from the families who were supposed to love them the most. I have to wonder how that figures into your evaluation of the sanctity of life.

If you want to talk about the destruction of modern society being brought about by one group of people, I would point you in the direction of the people who have spent billions of dollars to control everything about our government and economy. Guess what? Those conservative politicians they prop up aren’t actually interested in who is gay, in who uses birth control, in who is a “good Christian” and who is “ungodly.” They are interested in making money.

Ungodly amounts of money, I would say. While they spend millions of our tax dollars trying to push through smokescreen “morality legislation,” they are hurting the very people they claim to represent, by failing to protect them from the powerful corporations that seek to subjugate us into an oligarchy where those who have money have 100% of the power.

I promise you, the people who shout the loudest about so-called family values do not care about them in the slightest. They’ve figured out that fear-mongering by claiming that your rights as a Christian will be infringed upon by giving someone else who is different than you the same rights has worked well for them. I can tell you something about these wild claims about businesses being forced to serve gay people: If some baker says they don’t want to make a gay couple a wedding cake, they aren’t going to demand that baker make it. They are going to find a baker who will. If a pastor doesn’t want to officiate at their wedding, they’ll find a different pastor. They’ll vote with their wallet. But I could go on about that all day, and that’s not the main thing I wanted to say to you.

It is not that long ago that, in this country, a mixed race couple’s marriage was considered to be an aberration and unlawful and not pleasing to God. It was thought to be a union that was less than a marriage between a white man and a white woman, and therefore, not deserving of equal protection.

It was not that long ago that, in this country, it was acceptable for people (including all of our founding fathers by the way, who keep getting trotted out as the ultimate Christians) to own people… slaves. Slaves were considered less than fully human and not worthy of equality. Our society, by and large, has realized this was terribly wrong.

For thousands of years, wars have been fought over who knows better how to worship God. On which people are the chosen ones, and which ones should be eradicated from the face of the earth. The concept of one group of people deciding who gets full privileges and membership to enjoying the love of God is a deadly one.

Christianity was never meant to be an exclusive club only straight people can join. Fortunately, millions of Christians, and thousands of churches in America, know that.

These human-imposed limits—of who is valuable and who is not, on who is worthy of God’s love and who is not, on who is going to heaven and who is going to hell—were not dictated by God or Christ. Our churches, Catholic and Protestant, are meant to be a welcoming body of Christ, a family where every member, though different, is equally valued, equally useful, equally loved, equally welcomed.

Robert George asks, “Do you believe, as I believe, that every member of the human family, irrespective of age or size or stage of development or condition of dependency, is the bearer of inherent dignity and an equal right to life?”

Absolutely I do. That’s why you’re wrong about gay people. That’s why James Dobson is wrong about gay people. That’s why Robert George is wrong about gay people. So so so so so so wrong.

Gay people just want to be treated with inherent dignity, and an equal right to life, a life without persecution. A life where people aren’t shouting from the pulpit that they don’t deserve the love that makes them happy. Gay people have much more to fear from you than you have to fear from them.

Lip service about “love the sinner, hate the sin” and all of that other hypocritical hogwash that tries to dress up condescending homophobia as a pious wish for people to get closer to God by rejecting a part of themselves will not fly with me.

Now, if saying these things makes me a “tame Christian” according to one man’s personal definition, frankly, I don’t give a damn. It doesn’t bother me what James Dobson or Robert George thinks, because I am 100% sure that after I die, no one is going to ask me why I didn’t hate more people. No one is going to ask me why I didn’t try harder to keep more people from being happy and loved and accepted by their community.

You’re wasting a lot of time and energy, a lot of opportunities to do good, by focusing on condemning some people. It is not courageous to hate people. It is courageous to love them. Love is always the answer. That is what Jesus wanted us to remember. How easily we can forget.

— Sarah

 

Read article on the Patheos website here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/freedhearts/2015/05/20/a-straight-christian-mom-responds-to-dobsons-attack-on-gays/

Guest Blog: Unaffiliated and Underrepresented

op-ed by Charles M. Blow

President Obama is a Christian (despite the fact that most Republicans apparently still believe that his “deep down” beliefs are Muslim, according to one poll conducted last year.)

In fact, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, there have only been four “religiously unaffiliated heads of state in American history,” the last being Rutherford B. Hayes, who left office in 1881. This, however, does not mean that they did not believe in God.

Perhaps the most famous unaffiliated president was Abraham Lincoln, who wrote in 1846:

“That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.” Continue reading Guest Blog: Unaffiliated and Underrepresented

“How Corporate America Invented Christian America:” A Reflection

I’ve been reading Kevin Kruse’s new book, One Nation Under God, and I’m intrigued by his analysis of how “corporate America invented Christian America.” Oftentimes our national debate circulates around the Founders and how they understood the relationship of church and state. Even with a fairly adequate historical record available to us, Conservatives and Liberals argue ad nauseam about what the authors of our Constitution and Bill of Rights intended. Kruse also downplays the theory that the Christian revival of the 1950’s was primarily a reaction against Communism. Kruse only nods to these discussions and instead posits an economic domestic agenda: that “a Christian America” was intentionally created in the 1930’s by anti-FDR corporate magnates in league with Evangelical preachers. Continue reading “How Corporate America Invented Christian America:” A Reflection

Charlotte’s Earth Day Letter to Sen. Ted Cruz

Earth Day 2015

Dear Senator Cruz,

On this Earth Day 2015, I thought I would write my fourth letter pondering our relationship to the earth from the perspective of our shared Judeo-Christian heritage.

I’ve read the email reports you send to us, your constituents, and I’ve researched the NASA sub-committee you now chair, the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness. This committee could be a significant place for you to use your voice to influence the larger conversation and motivate Americans to be more actively involved in the care of our planet. But then I watched the video of your interview with NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. and heard you contest the agency’s request for an increase to NASA’s earth science budget. 27398e432a4402f66006738cee989ce8This puzzles me.

As best I can tell, Mr. Bolden and his team are quite experienced and competent at their jobs. If they recommend having the budget support their original and continuing mission to focus on earth and atmospheric science as well as space and aeronautics, then why would you consider that a problem? From its inception, NASA has helped safeguard this planet by offering scientific data that allow policy makers to create sound approaches in our relationship with the earth. Right now, with all the environmental issues facing us, we need more of that, not less. Continue reading Charlotte’s Earth Day Letter to Sen. Ted Cruz

How to Talk to “Those People”

Civil conversation is hard.

Whenever people in a multifaceted, multicultural civilization try to have a civil discussion, things can get complicated very quickly. Our past experiences, our societal conditioning, our moral assumptions can place us in very different worlds when it comes to communicating. We talk to each other—sometimes using identical vocabulary—but we discover that words don’t necessarily mean the same things for people whose very lives function with an entirely different complex of meaning than our own. This happens in every day normal dialogue, so consider how challenging it is to carry on a meaningful conversation when deeply held values are at stake.

Civility is hard. These days, some people think it hardly matters. But it does.

As a pastor, I have done my share of marriage counseling, family counseling, congregational conflict counseling. Two things are particularly important when I help people find a peaceful way through painful differences: one is honesty and the other is respect.

Honesty demands that we speak clearly about the issues that spark our own passion.

Respect demands that we listen deeply in order to understand the issues that spark the passion of another.

Honestly does not mean saying whatever we think and feel and believe in a disrespectful manner. Respect does not mean hiding the truth of what we think or feel or believe just because we may offend. In a civil conversation, we say what we think with words that invite ongoing discussion and we respect the humanity of the other person enough to hear them out no matter how much we may disagree with what they say. ( I repeat: we respect the humanity of the person even when we disagree with their words and ideas.)

I found some helpful suggestions for civil conversation recently. David Gushee, an ethicist at Mercer University writing for the Baptist News Global, reflected on a recent lecture by Professor Alan Brownstein, a constitutional law and church-state expert—and a practicing Jew. That may sound like a joke (an ethicist, a Baptist and a Jew walk into a bar…) but Gushee loves to write (as I do) about intersections between faith, culture and politics and he thought Brownstein’s speech on Civility and Tolerance When Absolutes Clash was “riveting” and “brilliant.”

(David Gushee went on to reflect on the recent clashes concerning “religious freedom” laws using Brownstein’s guidelines of civility and tolerance. I think his essay is quite helpful. Read more here.)

How does one engage in civil conversation with honesty and respect when our core values seem to be dishonored by someone else’s deeply held beliefs? It’s hard. But Brownstein offers these guidelines:

Neither side may trivialize or dismiss the concerns of the other.

Neither side should define the “other” according to one single characteristic or identity marker.

Both sides should aim to help each other understand their own experience and perspective using a type of speech that can be heard by the other.

Both sides should accept the fundamental ground rule of life in a free society: the essence of liberty is the right to be different and to act wrongly in the eyes of others.

That statement made me stop and read it again: the essence of liberty is the right to be different and to act wrongly in the eyes of others.

Professor Brownstein went on to highlight the fundamental role of fear in situations of public conflict that we end up facing in our culture, politics, and law:

The fear of being excluded from full participation in public discourse or public life;

The fear that the other side is trying to coerce change of my side’s core identity;

The fear that the other side will use the power of law to force my side’s conformity with beliefs and practices that we find abhorrent.

The fear of losing or betraying deeply valued relationships of love, either with the Divine or with people, or both.

I find Brownstein’s guidelines helpful on several levels. His first suggestions are practical and workable. I’ve said for years that “communication is a skill to be learned.” Talk-To-Me-Image-300x233From the time we were babies, learning to speak, learning how to discern language, learning that some behaviors communicated an invitation to relationship while other behaviors alienated—from our earliest years, we have been learning how to communicate with others.

And we’re not done yet; we will never be done with learning and improving. Brownstein reminds us that there are many down-to-earth kinds of things we can do (and refrain from doing) that can help us speak and help us listen.

The other thing I like is Professor Brownstein’s insight about the covert power of fear. This rings true for me. When I think I am in danger in some way—my reputation, my ideas, my “truth,” my deeply held beliefs—then I am tempted to respond to another with defensiveness and attack. But whenever I step back and consider that the other person is struggling with their own fears—even if from a very different perspective than mine—then I am more inclined to work from the “honesty-respect” paradigm. Whenever I consider the very real possibility that I could be wrong (or at least partly wrong and only partly right) then I am more able to give others the liberty to be different and to act wrongly in my eyes. (I’ve written about this before in my blog: Sincere Differences Discussed Sincerely.)

My volunteer work with the Coffee Party USA has reminded me how uncivil our communication patterns have become in America in this 21st century. Maybe it’s the political climate. Maybe it’s the anonymity of cyberspace. Maybe it’s a devaluing of common courtesy across the broad spectrum of our society. Maybe it’s our culture’s dualism that tends to categorize people and ideas into boxes marked: black or white, right or wrong. Maybe we all are living with too much fear. Whatever is going on, incivility is damaging us in deep ways and it’s time to turn this around.

Some people won’t care; they are in this to “win” by using speech as a weapon that destroys its opponents (as Dr. Brownstein points out.) 6a00d8341c500653ef012877186c7e970c-800wi

But lots of us do care; we want to find ways to employ honest, respectful civil dialogue as a tool for breaking down walls and building bridges. We who share this commitment are the ones who carry the greater responsibility to model civility and to persevere in actually acting like civilized people.

We’re not so far-gone that we can’t improve our skills of speaking and listening.

We’re not so hardened that we have lost our ability to respect our shared humanity—even for an adversary.

We’re not so inept that we can’t express our honest differences of opinion with courtesy and civility.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

 

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She frequentlyIntersections logo shares her thoughts with Coffee Party USA as a regular volunteer.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.