If the lively public discussion at First Presbyterian Church of Waco a week ago concerning our increasingly polarized nation yielded a defining moment, it came near the end of the afternoon. It involved a graying woman who told all of us about posting a comment to her sister’s Facebook lamentation regarding the looming split of the United Methodist Church over gay marriage and gay clergy. Her own post to her sister was put simply and bluntly: Neither God nor the Bible has changed.
Her sister didn’t respond.
When Rev. Leslie King, who quite nimbly moderated the Saturday gathering of 30 or so, asked if this lack of response by the woman’s sister bothered her, she replied: Not particularly.
I found this individual otherwise delightful. During one of five vigorous roundtable discussions on everything from whether social-media companies should censor some posts, to voter suppression laws, to limiting the influence of money in electioneering, she reminded others, “We can always agree to disagree and still have fun.” Yet her answer to the room about her sister suggested indifference, even defiance, to all who disagree with us: Take me or leave me. I don’t really care what you think.
This was, of course, contrary to the very spirit of the forum, one of a series planned nationwide this election year by USA Today and the Kettering Foundation and undertaken locally by the Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative, First Presbyterian Church of Waco and St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. (Another event is set for March 7 at First Presbyterian.) Unfolding amidst an era of rumor, resentment, rage and self-pity, these events seek to press civil discourse to forge at least some political consensus, even as politically self-serving forces strive to aggravate our differences and alienate us from one another.
I see this hostility daily at the Trib. I can publish columns of widely differing perspectives on the same topic on the same page, the very epitome of fair and balanced coverage, only for those on one side or the other to see red at the inclusion of opposing opinions. On one occasion, the author of one column wrote to complain of my including an opinion contrary to his on the opinion page; someone sympathetic to the other side phoned to angrily berate me for including the other guy’s opinion.
Such complaints are natural in a job like mine. Far more distressing is the vitriol and deceit from those once presumed to set examples for us all. Last week, for example, Republican Congressman Paul Gosar posted a photo on Twitter purporting to show President Barack Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. This fake photo comes from a federal lawmaker whose own siblings found him so reprehensible they urged his election defeat in 2018. Amazingly, Arizona voters kept him on the job.
Last weekend’s group at First Presbyterian came up with some consensus, including a resolve to “stop rewarding rage,” which I assume could include blocking or defriending those whose online rants include groundless vilification and vicious falsehoods. There were calls for nonpartisan redistricting, though no one was quite sure how to manage this. And a call arose for strictly relevant civics education. As one recalled moaning many decades ago, “My gosh, why do I have to memorize all the counties of Maryland?” And the former chairwoman of a city regulatory commission noted amid talk of overregulation: “If people and corporations would do the right thing, then we wouldn’t have to have all these regulations.” To which someone else chimed: “It’s greed, plain greed.”
But also critical in all this is the need to hear out our neighbors, friends, co-workers and siblings without labeling them socialists or fascists or traitors or dismissing their silence as acceptable or convenient. As Rev. King, who has wrestled with such divisions in her own congregation, noted to all that afternoon, demonstrating sincere interest in others’ viewpoints can leave us feeling a bit vulnerable. And that in turn can seem a little crazy.
“I love people,” remarked an older gentleman in the group, one wearing an Air Force gimme cap, proud of his immigrant roots and carefully enunciating each and every word, one whose eight children are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. “I love to discuss things and share things.”
“But why are you laughing?” the reverend asked.
“Because I am crazy.”
I strongly suspect all of us will be a little crazy by the new year’s end. But let us at least be true to one another as American citizens, even as we are true to ourselves.