Activists versus Dialogue at the Parliament.

“Would the fundamentalists have shown up for a pluralistic conference that respects multiple viewpoints anyway” This was a recent posting I saw regarding the Parliament of the World’s Religions failure to engage Christian conservatives as well as many other groups.

It makes a big assumption: that conservative religious groups aren’t interested in dialogue, which really isn’t the case. I regularly host and moderate dialogue involving conservative Jews, Muslims, and Christians along with those from far more liberal traditions. Conservatives are willing to dialogue about social issues, as long as the results aren’t determined in advance.

Recently I attended a meeting of leaders from different faith groups interested in politically engaged social action. And they ran the gamut from conservative Christians to liberal Jews. One thing quickly became clear: they could not and would not form a coalition around a single issue. Each constituency they represented had its own constellation of concerns, and none of these was identical with those of others.

For example: a conservative evangelical Baptist group was very much in favor of immigration reform and a path to citizenship, a concern the shared with Roman Catholics. But like the Roman Catholics the Baptists were opposed to easing restrictions of abortions.

A group representing LGBTQ interests found support from a Jewish group that also supported the Black Lives Matter movement. But an African American church leader made clear that his organization wasn’t on board with the LGBTQ agenda and resented having it compared to the Civil Rights movement.

And so on. Pick an issue from climate change to fracking and it both fractured the room and created the opportunity for unexpected coalitions.

Which was the weakness and strength of the recent Parliament of the World’s Religions. In its plenaries it effectively fractured the room, excluding groups that couldn’t by its progressive package of issues. But in the literally thousands of sessions it provided opportunities for dialogue and coalition building. It pity is that the Parliament organizers choose to divide the room in advance.

Which is a mistake that those of us engaged in inter-religious dialogue should not make. The way to write an agenda for dialogue is by engaging in dialogue: a dialogue in which there is no insistence on buying into a particular progressive or conservative package. A dialogue that recognizes divergent beliefs and interests and seeks only to provide a jumping off point for smaller coalitions around issues of mutual interest.

Indeed, such inter-religious dialogue begins to look like the way democracy should work. Not the polarization that marginalizes minorities, but constant forming and dissolving of temporary coalitions around shared concerns, points of view, or strategy.

Alas, political activism in its current American form has become almost completely incapable of just that kind of dialogue and strategic coalition forming. Which is why when activists took over the Parliament it meant the practical end of dialogue. As it has meant that when activists take over congress there is an end to legislation.

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