[A]s far as I’m concerned, he can go to hell.— Fmr. President Jimmy Carter on Jerry Falwell, Sept. 1986
Dialogue across social and political lines often seems to get a bad rap these days. I wish I had counted how many of my social media peers had announced at some point over the past 2-3 months that they were gleefully unfriending anyone they saw supporting the candidate they opposed or promoting viewpoints they found reprehensible. It was at least a dozen.
There seems to be a prevailing sense that dialogue doesn’t work anymore—that “you just can’t talk to those people.” I’ve even read articles from major publications suggesting as much. In a recent New York Times article, Wajahat Ali recounted his efforts over the past four years to dialogue with his ideological adversaries, and ultimately instructed readers not to “waste your time reaching out to Trump voters as I did. […] [I] refuse to spend any more time trying to understand and help the architects of my oppression.” That feels like a pretty widespread perspective these days.
Part of me wonders if this is all just the inevitable result of living in an extremely pluralistic society. At some point, does the bewildering array of opinions swirling around us from infancy become so difficult to navigate that we just stop listening to people we disagree with? Are “fundamentalisms” perhaps just the natural response—a kind of psychic coping mechanism—when the cultural center can no longer hold?
I hope not. It would seem to me like a dangerously slippery slope to write off vast swaths of the population. With every degree of separation between rival tribes, it becomes ever easier for us to dehumanize and ultimately do violence to one another. It might feel good to avoid people you fiercely disagree with, even justified, but at the societal level it’s bad for us all.
In this most recent election cycle, there were clear signs of links between social alienation and certain voting patterns. In more general terms, as Daniel Cox explains, “When Americans are more distanced from society, they become untethered to local and national institutions and are less invested in their continuing function.” Elsewhere, David Brooks has written that among “those awash in anxiety and alienation,” “conspiracy theories have [paradoxically] become the most effective community bonding mechanisms of the 21st century.” These sorts of trends suggest, of course, that maybe shaming and shunning people isn’t the most productive approach. (Ya think?)
If you’ve ever heard the message of Jesus, you might suppose that Christians would be better than average at talking to people they disagree with, but despite numerous hard and fast commands from JC himself to love our neighbors/enemies, the long historical record suggests we’re just as terrible at it as anyone else. And yet, I like to think it doesn’t need to be that way. There’s certainly a grave need for more across-the-divide grace in our day and age, not least in a U.S. context. And one place that we as churchgoers can start to reach out to folks we may disagree with—in fact, perhaps the most important and most meaningful place—is within our own faith tradition. (Gulp!)
There’s a fascinating chapter from longtime Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox’s 2009 book The Future of Faith that deals with the importance and challenge of intrafaith dialogue. Cox begins by making the more obvious point about interfaith dialogue—that the world is so interconnected and culturally heterogeneous today that understanding and cooperation across religious lines has in some sense become a matter of survival. We are now “all each other’s neighbors,” he explains, “whether we like it or not.” So we will learn to live alongside each other in peace or we will destroy each other.
There’s no doubt that’s true, on a global scale. But Cox then points to something much closer to home for most of us: the need for more intrafaith dialogue, which he argues may well be more urgent. Why? Well, for starters, Christianity itself has become dramatically more heterogeneous in the past century. “In 1900,” he explains, “fully 90 percent of Christians lived in Europe or the United States. Today 60 percent live in Asia, Africa, or Latin America, and that figure will probably rise to 67 percent by 2025.” The mind-boggling global diversity of Christianity means that intrafaith interactions for Christians in general are only going to become more common and important to the work of the global church.
But the particular kind of intrafaith dialogue that Cox identifies as most pressing—and perhaps most demanding—at least in the U.S. context, is dialogue within predominantly “Western” versions of Christianity but across theological and political divides, which are, to state the obvious, where the really explosive fault lines lie. It’s there where he argues the real work needs to be done.
In the U.S., it’s probably not a stretch to suggest that in many churches Christianity has become so politicized that our religious beliefs and priorities are more shaped by our politics than the other way around. That’s not just true of the more prominent Religious Right, but the Left as well. Nadia Bolz-Weber often talks about her frustration with how disturbingly entrenched in party politics many mainline churches have become, to the point where, she laments, what we often hear from the pulpit on Sundays is barely distinguishable from “the platform of the Democratic Party.”
In this highly politicized context, interfaith dialogue is actually not that meaningful, because, as Cox explains, it’s basically just liberals talking to other liberals. This became clear to him during his years traveling the globe in the 70s and 80s to participate in interfaith conversations:
[I became] increasingly aware that the people I met were much like me. They belonged to the “dialogue wing” of their traditions. The other wing was always missing. […]
Whatever else they may disagree on, fundamentalists in every tradition concur on one thing: they vociferously oppose interfaith dialogue. They see it as a clear evidence of selling out. Their refusal to come to the table is aggravating to anyone trying to build peace among the religions. But the response to their refusal is also disappointing. […] Christians who take part in dialogue strongly prefer to converse with sympathetic Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. They rarely try to communicate with the most refractory wing within their own camp. […] What dialogically oriented Christian would not rather spend an afternoon with the Dalai Lama than with Pat Robertson?
Of course in conversations between people from differing [faiths] […] differences always come up. […] But the differences seem to be at a safe remove, since the participants are not a part of the “family.” They can be registered and dismissed as “interesting.” This is not the case, however, with the discrepancies that inevitably arise [within one’s own faith tradition.] […] In these encounters, things get tense, tempers often flare, and people sometimes stomp out of the room. More seems to be at stake. Many […] just give up.
But of course, if we’re not engaging the other wings within our own traditions, we’re not really doing much. If anything, by purposely or passively avoiding them, we’re actually making the problem worse, as the various wings in our own tradition only become “more isolated and truculent.”
Recognizing this conundrum in the early 80s, Cox decided to do something that might seem unthinkable today. As he writes, “I suggested to my colleagues in 1983 that we invite Reverend Jerry Falwell […] to visit us at Harvard.” Of course, “Some faculty and students were aghast […] They strenuously opposed inviting him to the campus and warned me against the danger of ‘giving him a platform.’” But Cox managed to make it happen. And while Falwell’s visit was certainly “a tumultuous event”—one can only imagine the kind of resistance he’d get on an Ivy League campus nowadays!—it was also extremely well-attended and mostly civil, with only a “few individuals in the audience shout[ing] insulting comments at Falwell as he spoke.” A few years later, Cox tried the same approach again, bringing in faculty from Pat Robertson’s Regent University, and had similar success.
Ultimately, he concludes,
Neither of these visits created any dramatic breakthroughs, but they demonstrated one thing clearly: the idea that “you just can’t talk to those people” was not necessarily true. We not only can; we must, and we did.
Admittedly, this kind of intrafaith dialogue is often more difficult than interfaith dialogue. Both sides understandably tend to avoid it […] But the result is that tensions between the wings within each tradition deepen, and instead of communication we fuel confrontation, calumny, and the constant threat of schism. […] Sibling rivalry is the nastiest kind. In the first murder Cain killed Abel over the proper way to sacrifice to the God they both worshiped.
To me, on a theoretical level, Cox’s across-the-divide approach is thus inspiring and as vital as ever. In our current political climate, the stakes for dialogue across theological and political lines within our own faith tradition are crazy high, but the opportunities are great, especially if we put Christ at the center.
And yet, on a practical level, I’d rather not. If I’m honest, I’d probably find it really difficult to stomach an hour-long lecture from the Falwell were he still alive—let alone justify paying him the speaker’s fee. That kind of “dialogue” sounds both exhausting and nauseating. These days, I struggle to discuss hot-button theological or political issues with many members of my own (literal) family. When I was a hot-blooded young adult, I used to pick those fights at holiday gatherings—now I avoid them.
But maybe “dialogue” doesn’t have to mean something official. Maybe we don’t need to go straight to the heart of our differences—be it LGBTQ issues, abortion, biblical inerrancy, the role of women, views on atonement, free will, eschatology, etc. Maybe “dialogue” can mean something more basic, more literal—just talking to people about nothing in particular, breaking bread, sharing space, working together. Maybe we just need to find ways to cross paths with the other wings in the church. When COVID ends, why not picnic together with other church communities across the spectrum? Or host joint choral concerts? Maybe build a Habitat house together? That would be progress in my view. At least it would freshen the air.
There’s a great scene from the first season of Modern Family where newly (re)married Jay Pritchett is struggling to connect with his stepson Manny. Gloria, Jay’s new wife, decides to make them work together to install a ceiling fan. As she puts it, “In Colombia, there’s a saying: if you have two stubborn burros that don’t like each other, you tie them to the same cart. The ceiling fan is the cart.” The tactic immediately sparks conflict, but of course, by the episode’s end, the pair have gained a better understanding of one another.
I’m a stubborn burro. I’m writing this post to myself as much as anyone else. I know I need to work on reaching out to people I disagree with more, even if that just means putting a ceiling fan together with them, and I think that the most natural and important place I could do that may well be within my own faith tradition, perhaps my own family.
“Dialogue” likely won’t heal many of our deepest divisions, but it will at least humanize our adversaries. The destructive power of ideology is that it turns complex human beings into tribal symbols. “Dialogue” tends to turn them back into complex human beings, and remind us of the complexity—and need for forgiveness—we all have in common. Forgiveness is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. So let’s start there. Christ lived and died for us all, y’all. I think we can at least talk to each other.