A short anecdote from a podcast I was listening to recently keeps replaying in my mind: a man was walking with his friend and his friend said, “I’m hungry. I’d like to get a salad.” And the man immediately responded, “that should be easy to find, it’s a fairly liberal area.”
Laughing, he reflected on the fact that both knew exactly what he meant. Yet, since when is lettuce partisan? Sure, what constitutes a salad, and how much mayonnaise it has, may change depending on your latitude, but for the most part eating greens is just part of a healthy diet.
I share this man’s amusement, but the story also triggers my concern of U.S. culture pushing people into partisan spaces and whittling away at the few remaining sites of public convening. Houses of worship at their best serve as such facilitators of the public square (as can schools and libraries), inviting people who may otherwise not interact with one another to build relationships and shape community.
The salad story contains a critical distinction. Americans are increasingly attaching our sense of self and sense of belonging to partisan identity and extrapolating that across many aspects of life. To be accepted, we must shop at the right combination of stores and listen to the right music. Do that and, Republican or Democrat, we can somehow live guilt-free and know we belong. This concerns me.
Yet, I am also concerned we are not being political enough. As a consequence of partisan division, I worry many people are withdrawing from genuine political engagement, because there is a perception that to be political is to be hyper-partisan. To our peril, including the within churches, we fail to distinguish between the definition of partisan as, “a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person,” and the definition of political as, “of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government, even the local governance of an organization.”
A glimmer of hope in recent years is an increasing honesty about how decisions made by governments, business conglomerates, communities, and international bodies impact nearly everything we do and everything we consume. In this sense, yes things are “becoming” more political, because we are being more honest about them. A salad is political because immigration and labor, international trade deals, food safety, marketing strategies, and other factors contribute to where fresh vegetables are more prevalent and where they are not, and who grows and processes them. (As Anthony Bourdain said, there is nothing more political than food.)
What is detrimental is the dynamic of increasing partisan attachment to objects, actions, and behaviors—that liberal salad or conservative fried okra.
Honesty about the political nature of our consumption—from vegetables to entertainment to where we live—can help us be more understanding of what human costs—and earthly costs—go into the things many of us enjoy. This honesty can help us talk about ourselves, listen to others, and ultimately begin addressing unjust systems and many of the “isms” that maintain them.
Churches can and must do better serving as containers in which difficult, honest conversations take place, and they can begin by first helping people understand the difference between political and partisan. But there is so much more to do, including developing a capacity for civil discourse.
While houses of worship should be safe places that convene people and engage conversations about justice, they are also positioned with outreach into communities intended to induce constructive change for those in need and on the margins. Better dialogue can help us define problems and seek solutions, turning away from partisan divisions and prejudices and to leveraging the diverse talent that exists within our communities. Being more honest about politics opens up parallel pathways for addressing some of these same problems.
There are other outcomes of improved civil discourse as well, among them these three personal goals of mine for any training or consulting I do through Habits of Discourse. It is worth noting as well that there are forces working against the success of these three outcomes, so they are not merely passive byproducts of conversation but a part of building peace.
First, improved dialogue combats dehumanization. Across the partisan spectrum (with varying severity) are examples of dehumanization that perpetuate injustice and induce violence. Civil discourse begins with the simple definition: conversation to enhance understanding. This is not conversation structured to persuade or win, nor is it conversation to be polite, avoid discomfort, and silence others. It is conversation rooted in a curiosity to learn from the other to enhance our own knowledge, and then a reciprocal act of speaking with humility but with conviction from our own experience. To do this requires a base-line desire of wanting to be in relationship with others and an understanding that they are human just like us, full of unique particularities.
Second, building capacity for civil discourse minimizes unnecessary moments of disagreement, which I believe are more prevalent than we think. Each conversation is an interaction between people with different identities and lived experiences, vocabulary, cultural references, tone, mannerisms and more. As our country succeeds in increasing representation of marginalized and minority groups in work, worship, and leisure, and we’re bound to have more misunderstandings from a type of benign—even if consequential—ignorance that comes from lack of exposure. It is okay to make mistakes, but we must learn along the way. As speakers, we must make sure we have not only stated something but done so in a way that others can hear it. As listeners, we must learn to recognize when a comment sparks a strong emotional reaction and learn to ask good questions to seek clarity.
(Disclaimer: Engagement across difference often involves a person with less privilege explaining something to the privileged. I have benefitted from immense grace afforded to me by countless people over the years. This is merely one reason why expressing gratitude is also part of civil discourse. As important is taking the time to learn independently through reading, podcasts, and movies rather than expecting someone to explain everything to you.)
Finally, leaning into healthy conflict helps us to leverage our diversity. The vast majority of us have more in common than we realize, a commonality not of whole agreement, but one where we see each other’s humanity and largely share the same desires, even if we disagree on how to realize them. Yet in this “middle ground” we must displace conformity as our objective with the objective of having the capacity to seek to understand, appreciate, and celebrate difference. If we do that, our power is amplified for solving any problem before us.
Now that circles of power are less white and less male, a wider set of ideas and knowledge are accessing to the table, presenting an obvious scenario that disagreement may appear to be increasing. Diverse ideas are not a bad thing, they are a good thing. If we are truly interested in leveraging our diversity, not just fulfilling the acceptable metric of the moment, we should be building our capacity to engage with that larger body of perspectives and lean into constructive conflict, lest we be duped into performative ways of belonging that simply perpetuate exclusion and injustice.
Molding houses of worship into crucibles for building better practices for dialogue can help us to better serve each other and the communities in which we live.