Why I'm teaching a class on political dialogue when no one wants to talk to each other ...
The truth is that many people do want to talk, to understand those who are politically opposed to them, and rarely do we actually hate each other -- but hatred and enmity generate clicks and publicity, and rarely is calm dialogue trending on Twitter, where much of U.S. policy and media coverage is actually meted out.
In the midst of this political climate, it can seem futile -- like shouting into the void -- to try and have nuanced discussions about political preference, partisan division, and especially the role of Christianity when it concerns current American politics.
Political positions in theory seem deeply entrenched and unmovable, so much so that when my husband told me yesterday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn't have votes to move ahead without witnesses in the impeachment trial, I scarcely believed him.
I say that because one thing I've noticed that's happened in the midst of a 24-hour news cycle and hyper-partisan punditry, with the decline of local news, is that people have become exhausted, which has depleted our capability for curiosity and investigation. Curiosity and learning require a mind that's open and energetic, a mind that's not already worn down by indebtedness, economic uncertainty, conspiracy theories, and fraying community bonds.
Finding out something new -- challenging your preconceived notions about ideas and about people -- that takes a great deal of intellectual and emotional energy. But I believe wholeheartedly it's an investment worth making, and one that for people of faith is absolutely essential.
If the early Christians could open their hearts to this change, meet new people and partner with them to build God's new kingdom, perhaps we Americans can summon the strength to open our hearts across the aisle and listen to each other, without shying away from telling hard truths.
I write all this believing and knowing, of course, that the hype of polarization and division is often just that: hype. Americans are divided politically and monolithically, but individually, there's often much more reason for mutual understanding. I spent 2018 traveling across America to red states and counties, interviewing Christian Trump voters and Christian leaders in red counties, to listen to their reasoning and understand how broader trends like Christian Nationalism or social issues like guns, immigration and abortion, fit into individual stories and understanding.
Since my book came out in August 2019, I've been traveling again -- this time speaking about my book in forums often titled: "Finding Hope in a Divided Country."
I've spoken in dark blue South Minneapolis and deep red northern Wisconsin. In Southern Missouri and North Carolina and northern, Scandinavian and German, South Dakota and Minnesota. In the weeks and months ahead, I'll travel to Florida and Arkansas and Indiana, as well as closer to home in Minneapolis and western Minnesota.
What I've found as I travel near and far from home is this simple truth. People are more complex than our demographics make us out to be. And while initially people enter into political and religious discussions nervously and apprehensively, after we pray together, after I share stories of voters across America that are relatable as well as true and sometimes troubling, people relax. They ask questions of me and of the group that I can tell have been on their hearts for a long time. They meet the people they've caricatured in their minds, as extreme liberals or extreme conservatives, and in talking to each other, walls often come down - we learn something about each other - and a hope for a better America resounds.
I'll end this blog by returning to its title: Why I'm teaching a class on political dialogue when no one wants to talk to each other.
Spoiler alert: that title is FAKE NEWS. It's not true. Instead, what I've found is that human beings - like the God who became flesh and dwelt among us - deeply desire connection with one another. Most of us really do want to talk to each other and ask questions that really matter and really trouble us. We just aren't sure how to do it. Sometimes people try on social media, and without speaking face-to-face, it's tough to decipher tone, and conversations devolve quickly into flame-throwing, accusations and hurt.
That's why I keep trying to do something different, gathering people together in local churches and universities and libraries, and why my hope is renewed each and every time I gather with people to talk about my research and about understanding one another as Americans. Even in the face of hard facts, like the susceptibility of American churches to become pawns in Christian Nationalism and weapons for political and financial power, learning about one another opens more doors than it shuts. People long deeply for dialogue with those who think differently than we do, and they're willing to listen to each other to bring about healing, especially within our politically divided American families and churches.
So now I'm adding to my efforts by teaching an online class, with the help of Luther Seminary's new faith+lead initiative for online courses. Next month, on Wednesdays in March on the 4, 11, 18 and 25 at 1 p.m. CST (and available for replay anytime), I'm leading a course on Finding Hope in a Divided Country, based on my research in Red State Christians and my travels since then in promoting political discussion and truth-telling through a Gospel-centered lens all across America.
If you're longing to discuss these topics - but you don't know where to start and you're afraid of what might happen when you do - I hope you join me for this course. We'll be focusing on four topics: surprise, warning, opportunity, and hope. You can register today for just $55. And together maybe we can change the American narrative, with the help of the Holy Spirit.