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Jun 28, 2012

Thoughts from My Days in D.C. and the Faith and Politics Institute

First Entry at 8:30 AM: I am listening to former Senator John Danforth talk about the state of our civil discourse at the Fredrick Douglas museum. The room contains five senators, several congresspersons, and ecumenical religious leaders. I am not live blogging, but I thought I would share some of what I am learning from the dialogue with the Faith and Politics Institute.

This is not the usual gathering that I attend. Instead, it is a very diverse group of religious leaders from the Episcopal Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Roman Catholic church, and a handful of evangelical leaders.

Last night we heard helpful new research from the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation reminding us that people are increasingly hopeless and discouraged. They are, in many ways, giving up. Rich Harwood, the founder of the institute, reminded us that people want to do small things together that make a difference.

I agree that religious leaders can make a difference in the tone in Washington D. C., a place brotherly love is seldom on display.

Retired Senator Pete Dominici earlier surmised that the lack of cooperation in Washington is because members are no longer friends who think of themselves as friends. When you see one another as friends with the same goal, but with different views of how to get there, friendship brings you together for the same goal.

Retired Congressman Amo Houghton was then asked to say something and he said, "I have lots of thoughts but not words." He then sat down. I thought it was noteworthy that a politician would have the opportunity to talk and would not. I'd vote for him on that basis alone!

Senator Danforth just gave a helpful observation which I will summarize here:

Politics is not religion. Most of politics is sausage making-- the art of compromise. Religion is creedal-- it is not the same. In politics you do the best you can. Politics it at the margins and its product is debatable and ambiguous. It is not perfection-- it is kind of a mess. Religious leaders can make an impact with civility.

On the day that the healthcare ruling goes down, it will be interesting if that civility holds.

Update at 9:00 AM: I'm sitting next to Senator Danforth and I'm blogging (is that wrong?). I appreciate that he just said, "We are not going to change fundamental beliefs in this room." However, he indicated that faith is NOT politics, and it takes a different approach.

Update at 9:30 AM: The health care law ruling just came down from the Supreme Court and the room is abuzz. The people in the room have very different views on the health care bill, so it is interesting to see the response.

Now, we are beginning dialogue about very diverse groups-- note the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts-Schori and the chaplain of the Family Research Council, Pierre Bynum. The hope is to promote civil dialogue. Should be interesting.

I will probably quit blogging for a while since we are moving into discussion time. Long story short: my hope is that religious leaders might speak to the civility in our culture. Right now, we are spiraling into a very nasty political season. We will see if religious leaders can help (or not).

From my perspective this is an interfaith meeting. If you are interested in my thoughts on such engagement, you can read this Christianity Today story I wrote last year.

Update at 2:00 PM: As you might expect, there is a lot of conversation in our meeting on the health care ruling. The room is remarkably divided. I am intrigued by how Christians have staked out positions on the issue. I was just contacted by a national reporter for the story. Here is what I emailed:

My immediate reaction to hearing the news of the mandate being upheld:

There are Christians on both sides of the issue, but I think that most Christians would agree on two things. First, we need to fix a broken healthcare system. Second, the law itself has become remarkably divisive. I'm most concerned that, becuase of the approach and political environment, we are divided on an issue that should unite us-- caring for the least of these.

What I'm hearing from Christian leaders in terms of a reaction:

I'm with many denominational leaders right now-- some thought it was great and some thought it was terrible. The challenge is that, to my knowledge, most people are in favor of health care for all Americans. The difficulty is that people are not sure how to get there. President Obama and the Democrats have not yet made the case to the American people on this health care reform-- the polls say that quite clearly. It has divided America on an issue that should unite Americans. The problem is that it is hard to do that work when you are yelling at one another in a political season, so I don't expect much progress until after the election.

My take on the Christian or biblical response to this healthcare news:

Christians should care that everyone has health care. The challenge, though, is how to get there.

Update at 7:00 PM:

Well, I am back from D.C. and thinking through the meetings. The Faith and Politics Institute does a fine job and I appreciate their hospitality.

Here are some reflections on the meeting.

First, they were certainly important. I was aware of the importance-- which is why I agreed to come. When invited to have breakfast with Senators / Representatives, and to meet with national religious leaders, you probably should go.

Second, they were talking about an important subject. I do not think it is helpful (and it is certainly not accurate) to say this is the nastiest campaign ever. Yet, I think this will be a nasty campaign. I think that religious leaders have a part in calling for civility and I think that is an important subject.

Third, there were some calls for action. That might include a statement or strategy to call for civility. Depending on how that proceeds, I might participate-- though I am not much on co-signing public letters from diverse religious leaders. We shall see.

Fourth, I don't know if I am the right person for this. I was the only person there who was, well, like me. My life has been devoted to encouraging pastors and church leaders to get their churches on mission. I am a writer-speaker-pastor-type, not a political activist. I am not sure I need another cause, though I think this one is important. Again, we shall see.

Fifth, I was both discouraged and encouarged by the dialogue. I was encouraged that the conversation pointed to the need for civility and seeing the best in others-- to assume the best in others. In other words, for Republicans and Democrats to ASSUME they both have the good of the nation in mind and just have different views to get there. I was discouraged to hear that principle not at work in some of the conversations.

First, the discouragement.

For example, the group was 2-1 mainline/progressive to evangelical/conservative. I was hoping that the focus would be on agreeing that we needed civility and we would avoid the "uncivil" in our conversations. Yet, there were occasional challenges-- a couple in public and some in private.

For example, one participant asked, "Why are white men so upset at Barak Obama?" The response from one articulate (very conservative) evangelical, "The thing I like MOST about President Obama is that he is African American." The person who asked the question looked a bit surprised which, well, surprised me. I'm sure they exist, but I don't personally know a single white, evangelical male who is not pleased that we would elect an African American President, though they might deeply disagree with the President's policies. I was surprised that was surprising.

Furthermore, more than one person (but not most) implied the assumption that the Catholic Bishops were not honest in their religious liberty objections and that people who don't support the President's health care law don't care about the poor. I thought that was what we were trying to address-- these unhelpful assumptions. I was surprised to see them going on while we were talking against the very idea.

However, my guess is that the majority mainline group was just not accustomed to being in conversation with conservative evangelicals and Catholics. Thus, it illustrated the point-- you can't have civility if you don't assume that the other person has the best in mind for the country.

I was not offended by the idea that some religious leaders would say that they supported the President's health care law (most mainliners and even the centrist evangelicals did). However, I was a bit disappointed that at that time-- at that meeting-- the assumption was made (by a few) that those with a different view did not care about the uninsured.

Second, the encouragement.

Several of the mainline leaders saw this very issue (and addressed it). Furthermore, there was a genuine desire to move the conversation forward. I sat with several leaders who operated from a very different set of assumptions than I do. When we spoke together (and even when the issues above were mentioned) they were very quick to seek to build bridges and come to a common focus on civility.

Also, I saw the need to speak into the civility issue by the time the meeting was done. I am not sure how I will do this in some small way, but the tone in Washington is hurting the whole country. The tone in the media is hurting the country. I need to be a part of the solution. I am not sure what that means for me, but I think we all need to say, "Stop." We need to tell politicians that they need to stop, WE need to stop, and then Americans need to find ways to work together in political solutions.

It appears to me that both the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration have been accompanied by deepening divisions in our culture. We can't last long-term with this division.

I will close with my paraphrase of Senator Danforth's comments:

Politics is not religion. Most of politics is sausage making-- the art of compromise. Religion is creedal-- it is not the same. In politics you do the best you can. Politics it at the margins and its product is debatable and ambiguous. It is not perfection-- it is kind of a mess. Religious leaders can make an impact with civility.

More in the days to come...

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Posted:June 28, 2012 at 12:00 am

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