Reason and Passion in Public Discourse

The Supreme Court decision earlier this week regarding the Affordable Health Care Act is yet another reminder that we can anticipate an election season fraught with intense partisanship. The free exchange of ideas, even radically disparate ones, is essential to a healthy democracy. Yet we also know that discourse in this country is not infrequently more an effort to entertain and titillate than to actually examine complex social and political issues.

It’s fascinating (and occasionally rather unsettling) to observe the intense emotions that characterize some of the rhetoric in the American public square. It can be equally intriguing (and perhaps even more disturbing) to recognize those kinds of intensities within oneself. As a minister of a congregation in Maryland, an issue that I and many of my fellow Unitarian Universalists are keenly focused on is the future of marriage equality in this state. I recently attended an interfaith training that was supported by Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the Lutheran organization ReconcilingWorks, and the Human Rights Campaign in which we were challenged by our very fine presenter, ReconcilngWorks Executive Director Emily Eastwood, to confront opponents of marriage equality not with debate and rational arguments, but by seeking to connect, understand and care — while still advocating for LGBT rights. This is no easy task for a guy like me who has made some very rational, downright academic arguments for marriage equality publicly on more than one occasion. I sometimes wonder if it is as common fallacy among religious liberals that if we could just explain “the facts” to a benighted world, people will come to “the truth” (which usually means that they will agree with us). Referring to marriage equality, Ms. Eastwood pointed out, “This is not a head issue, it’s a heart issue.” People don’t oppose same-sex civil marriage because they have carefully analyzed empirical data and peer-reviewed, double-blind studies about it. They oppose it because something in their innards clenches when the subject comes up. And if I’m honest, I’ll admit that my own intestines squirm when I listen to people grouse about “defending” marriage (and my wife feels the same way).

James Luther Adams, one of the most influential Unitarian theologians of the twentieth century, remarked that “Where our heart is, there our reason will be.” It very often happens that we are not dispassionate and objective even when we think we are. We are both thinking and feeling beings at all times, and we function this way in the most intimate aspects of life as well as in public discourse on matters of import to our communities, our nation and the whole of creation. We are also spiritual beings. The Golden Rule is not, “Thou shalt pedagogically seek to change thy neighbor’s opinion to be more like thyself.” What does it mean for us to put our self-righteousness aside and seek to truly understand a different point of view — even one we will never, ever agree with? To seek honest connection with another human being under such circumstances is the work of a very mature, enlightened being.


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