A Hope for Evangelicals and Civil Political Discourse (interview with Harold Heie)

Today’s post is by Harold Heie, Senior Fellow at the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College (full bio here). He is the author of Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk: A Pilgrimage Toward Peacemaking,and his interest is in creating respectful conversations on the internet about difficult topics. Below is my interview with Harold Heie concerning his book, Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation.

What is your book all about?

Six evangelical Christians who situate themselves at various points along the political spectrum posted position papers on my web site (www.respectfulconversation.net) on the following public policy issues: the federal budget deficit, immigration, religious freedom, Syria and Iran, Israel and Palestine. Poverty in the US, marriage, health care, K-12 education, gun control, abortion, and the role of government.

The bulk of this book contains my syntheses of their postings, in which, for each topic, I identify common ground and remaining unanswered questions that can be the basis for ongoing conversations. The book concludes with postscript essays from my six contributors.

Why did you write this book?

I was initially motivated by my utter dismay at the brokenness of contemporary political discourse, characterized by demonizing political opponents, calling their motives into question, and using the most coarse and vitriolic language in expressing disagreements, all of which contributes to political gridlock.  I decided that there has to be a better way to do politics.

What is that better way?

My understanding of a better way to do politics is deeply informed by my Christian faith commitment. As a Christian, I aspire to be a follower of Jesus who taught his followers to love God with all their hearts, souls and minds and to love their neighbors as themselves.

I believe that a deep expression of my loving another person is to give that person a welcoming, safe space to disagree with me on important issues and then to engage that person in respectful conversation about our disagreements for the purpose of identifying common ground and illuminating our remaining differences sufficient to enable us to continue the conversation.

That ideal sounds out touch with how politics works these days. Can you realistically envision our politicians and their supporters engaging one another in that respectful way?

That ideal is certainly a stretch, to say the least. In that light, I had no intention of writing a book that would try to convince anyone, in the abstract, that respectful conversation is possible in our current political climate. That would be impossible.

Rather, I chose to write a book that demonstrates that “it can be done;” my ideal can be realized. My book actually models respectful conversation in the political realm; in this case among evangelical Christians having widely divergent political views.

Do you think that your model will have any influence beyond a small band of evangelical Christians?

God only knows. I and my contributors have attempted to faithfully witness to a way to do politics that is true to the command of Jesus that we love those who disagree with us. I am happy, and relieved, that I can leave the results of that faithful witness in the hands of God. Drawing on the words on Jesus recorded in Matthew 13:31-32, we have planted a “seed of redemption.” The harvest can be entrusted to God.

But I assume you have hopes and that your model will catch on in a big way.

Certainly My dreams have always exceeded what seems possible at the moment. It is my dream that my book will not be the end of conversations about 12 thorny public policy issues, but will only be the beginning.

Through the eyes of faith, I can envision these conversations being continued in numerous venues, such as college classrooms and educational settings in churches. My wildest dream is that some local, state or national politicians will take notice of this model and will give it a try.

What obstacles do you see to that dream coming to fruition?

The obstacles are enormous, primarily because of the dominant prevalent view of the purpose of political activity. Anyone who thinks that the primary purpose of doing politics is to get elected or to support someone else’s election will find little of value in this book.

But if one believes, as I do, that the purpose of politics is to govern well, and such governing requires seeking the common ground needed to promote the common good, then the model I present shows a way to make that happen.

But isn’t your view of the purpose of politics being to find sufficient common ground to foster the common good a minority view today, even facing extinction?

It is worse than that. Our current political system punishes those who believe they need to “reach across the aisle” to find common ground with their political opponents. Politicians are typically rewarded for taking a “my way or the highway” approach, eschewing the quest for “both/and solutions” to contemporary problems that draw on the best insights of those on both sides of the aisle.

This does not paint a hopeful picture for the future of politics, or for your model having any significant influence among contemporary politicians or their supporters.

I realize that. I think it is fair to say that the model I am proposing is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Some significant changes in the very structure of politics will be needed to create a political environment that is conducive to the flourishing of the model I am proposing.

I am not competent to spell out the full nature of these structural changes. But they will surely include addressing the problems created by the enormous amounts of money that are expended on the election of those with extreme views and the thwarting of the political aspirations of those who aspire to “govern from the middle” by seeking for common ground with members of the other party to work toward “balanced’ solutions to our most pressing societal problems.

You refer to the possibility of arriving at “balanced” solutions to pressing societal problems. Can you be more specific as to what such “balance” may look like?

I and glad you asked. In the midst of the diversity of viewpoints expressed in my book, a common theme did emerge: the need for balance between competing views. I will give two brief examples, the details of which are elaborated in the book. There is little hope for solving the federal budget deficit problem unless a balance is struck between the need for cuts in expenditures and the need for increased revenues.

Likewise, in the gun control debate, the choice is not between addressing the mental health and culture of violence problems that beset our nation or legislatively enacting some commonsense gun control measures. It has to be both, in proper balance

If persons in the media read this book, what will most surprise them?

Since the media has often described evangelical Christians as if they were monolithic in their beliefs, the biggest surprise will be the revelation that deeply committed evangelical Christians hold to a great diversity of views on most public policy issues.

Another big surprise will be for the media to see that evangelical Christians who disagree can actually talk to each other graciously and respectfully (in sharp contrast to the many sad instances in which evangelical Christians have contributed to the cesspool of much contemporary political discourse).

Let me end where I possibly should have started. Given the sorry state of much contemporary political discourse, what do you say to Christians who say that politics is so broken that Christians would be better off devoting their time and energies to sowing seeds of redemption in other areas of endeavor?

An adequate question could require another book. My short answer is that, contrary to the narrow view that God only wishes to redeem individual persons (which was prevalent in my pietistic Christian upbringing), I now embrace a broad view that God wishes to redeem all of the created order, including the political realm (see Colossians 1:20).

I deeply admire those Christians who say that in light of the brokenness of the world, we should focus on modeling an alternative way of life in our Christian communities. I agree with the importance of such modeling in our Christian communities. But that does not preclude some Christians, like me, sensing a deep calling to model Christian living in the political realm. Once again, it should not be either/or. It should be both/and.

 

  • Luke Breuer

    There is hope, here’s the Huffington Post’s Glenn Beck: I Played A Role In ‘Helping Tear The Country Apart’, published today.

    “I remember it as an awful lot of fun and that I made an awful lot of mistakes, and I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language,” Beck said during an interview with Megyn Kelly. “I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart and it’s not who we are.”

    He continued, “I didn’t realize how really fragile the people were. I thought we were kind of more in it together and now I look back and realize, if we could’ve talked about the uniting principles instead of just the problems, I think I would look back more fondly.”

    Now, I’d say that ultimately you are how you behave, and so Beck hasn’t fully figured out what he is, but the above is at least a step forward.

    • Lars

      Luke, you forgot to add the ;-) !!

  • John W. Morehead

    I applaud Heie’s efforts. What he is doing in politics as an Evangelical needs to be done in religious engagement, both within the household of Evangelicalism as we discuss competing religious and political ideas, as well as between religious traditions in interreligious engagement.

  • http://www.yeshua21.com/ Yeshua21.Com

    Great article–I particularly appreciate these lines:

    [My understanding of a better way to do politics is deeply informed by
    my Christian faith . . . I aspire to be a follower of Jesus who taught his followers to love God with all their hearts, souls and minds and to love their neighbors as themselves. I believe that a deep expression of my loving another person is to
    give that person a welcoming, safe space to disagree with me on
    important issues and then to engage that person in respectful
    conversation about our disagreements for the purpose of identifying
    common ground and illuminating our remaining differences sufficient to
    enable us to continue the conversation.]

    Moreover, it seems to me that the Spirit of light and life– the light of Reason in the broadest sense of the Word –is that which joins us all together (cf. Gk logos
    in John 1:1). As such, there would seem to be no good reason to be defensive–no real need to be overly protective of our beliefs or opinions; and no call whatsoever to ridicule others who have shown themselves willing to expose their beliefs and opinions to the light of reason in the spirit of free and open inquiry.

    When Jesus asks us to take up our cross, he is asking us to die before we die–to
    be willing to die. In part, this means that we must come to terms with the physical suffering and death which is our destiny, one an all. But it also means to leave the past behind and to place our future in God’s hands. It means to die to our particular points of view; to die, perhaps, to that in which we are personally invested–that to which we are personally attached (cf. Luke 14:26-27; Matthew 10:37-39). And it is well documented that this sometimes means we must reconsider our most cherished beliefs and be willing to forgo many of our personal preferences (cf. Acts 10:9-15). The Apostle Paul testifies to this as
    follows:

    “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as
    loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss
    because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”
    (Philippians 3:7-8).

    “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live,
    but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I
    live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”
    (Galatians 2:19-20).

    In this Spirit, what do we have to lose?

    http://jeshua21.wordpress.com/additional-essays/what-do-we-have-to-lose/

  • Bryan

    This looks to be an interesting read. I went to Amazon in hopes of looking at the table of contents but it was not viewable in this capacity. What I am curious about is if a radical change to capitalism is offered. Continuing within the boundaries of capitalism only seems to ensure that a structural evil is in place in which we believe we can somehow navigate these troublesome waters of politics.

    I am curious if he is using MacIntyre due to his reference to the “common good”. However, if MacIntyre’s diagnosis is correct, and I think it is, we have never defined the common good in its Aristotelian sense, to proceed in going forward. As a result, it will be quite difficult to “reach across the aisle” to find “common ground” because that common ground is fragmented at best and with radical individualism utmost on the agenda, one “could” find common ground but it is only among those who share the fragmentation. MacIntyre views the Liberal/Conservative opposition as a false dichotomy; they are two sides of the same coin with both sides appealing to an individualism with no coherent moral system in which to share.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lotharson

    Thank you for this interview, this is a true blessing!

    I expressed very similar thoughts about blogging being a wonderful opportunity to learn to love our enemies and keep our self-righteous anger at bay.

    I also commented on ground-breaking findings of psychologist Jonathan Haidt analyzing the causes of the loveless features of the culture war.

    Finally I highly recommend a book of progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser called You’re Not As Crazy As I Think where he speaks up for love, respect and tolerance and learning to agree to disagree.

    Christians who adopt an aggressive rhetoric towards respectful opponents are dishonoring their Master.


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