Disagreements as a Pathway Towards Common Ground in Politics

March 17, 2016

When considering the goal of politics as the search for common ground that promotes the common good, there are enormous disagreements about the substance of that common ground. That is to be expected, but what is alarming is the inability of most politicians to respectfully engage each other about those disagreements. More often than not, politicians resort to shouting at rather than talking with those with whom they disagree.

Such shouting has been rampant in some recent debates among presidential candidates, where political disagreements are wielded as weapons employed to garner voter support. In such verbal warfare, politicians holding to “fixed positions” on issues often dismiss or even demonize political opponents who disagree by shouting out a name: “Liar” was the name of choice in the February 13 Republican debate in South Carolina. Other favorite labels are: crazy political conservative; wild-eyed political liberal; free-market nut; socialist; homophobe; baby-killer.

But it is not just politicians who are at fault for the lack of actual conversations about disagreements. Citizens are typically ill-prepared for such conversations because of an unwillingness to even listen to those who disagree with us. Too many citizens get their political news by exclusively tuning into TV and Talk Radio stations where they only hear support for a position they have already taken on an issue. As Susan Jacoby has suggested, “Americans today have become a people in search of validation for opinions that they already hold,” demonstrating a strong reluctance “to give a fair hearing – or any hearing at all – to opposing points of view,” wanting to hear only an “echo” of themselves.

The tragedy of politicians shouting names at each other to garner voter support, or of citizens only listening to an echo of themselves, is that it precludes any serious attempt to sort through disagreements by respectfully talking with one another. There has to be a “better way” to deal with disagreements in politics, or any other arena of public discourse.

The basis of this “better way” for Christians is Jesus’s call for those who claim to be his followers to “love others.” Simply put, a deep expression of what it means for me to love another person is for me to create a “safe and welcoming space” for that person to express a disagreement; we do that by carefully listening to each other’s perspectives and have respectful conversations about our agreements and disagreements in the quest for common ground.

In his essay “Called to be Salt and Light – An Overview”1, Stephen Monsma proposes a concrete strategy for expressing such love to a person who disagrees with you. Monsma proposes the following three challenging steps:

  1. Start by getting to know the person who disagrees with you: The politicians or political pundits who bash each other on TV or Talk Radio probably do not know each other very well on a personal level. It is all too easy to demonize a person you hardly know or to simply dismiss him as stupid, biased, a liar, or evil. We may not be so quick to demonize others once we get to know them personally.
  1. Try to understand why a person who disagrees with you takes a position that you believe is wrong: The better you get to know someone, the better chance there is for you to understand why she believes as she does, as you uncover the experiences and the other various aspects of her social location that inform her beliefs on an issue. She has reasons for her position that you need to understand, and, likewise, she needs to understand your reasons for your position. Such mutual understanding can help build bonds of mutual trust that may enable you to talk through difficult issues about which you may vehemently disagree.
  1. Seek for mutual treasures by means of respectful conversation: Dr. Michael King, a Mennonite pastor and scholar, has proposed a provocative definition of “genuine conversation”: “genuine conversation involves a mutual quest for treasures in our own and the other’s viewpoints. The first move is to make as clear as I can why I hold this position…and why you might find in it treasure to value in your own quest for truth. The second move is to see the value in the other’s view…and to grow in my own understandings by incorporating as much of the other’s perspective as I can without losing the integrity of my own convictions.”

Note carefully what King is and is not saying. After genuine conversation, you may conclude that there is very little, if any, treasure in the other person’s position. But, then again, you may find some unexpected treasures in the other person’s position. You cannot tell until you talk. As I never tire of saying, you cannot predict beforehand the results of a genuine conversation.

For Christians to commit to this arduous and time-consuming process of talking respectfully with those with whom they have significant disagreements in politics, they will need to exercise a healthy dose of “humility.” I must be willing to say “here is my present position, but I may be wrong.” In politics, this means that I am willing to reach across the political aisle to seek to identify some “good ideas” on the other side that can complement my ideas.

To give a concrete example, Christians on both sides of the aisle generally agree that Christians ought to seek to help the poor. Their disagreements are mostly about the best “means” to accomplish that worthy goal. Those on one side of the aisle may emphasize the role of free markets. The emphasis on the other side of the aisle may be on governmental programs. Is it conceivable that rather than embracing an either/or approach (my way of the highway) that characterizes too much of contemporary politics, a respectful conversation could lead to a both/and approach that incorporates elements of the free market with elements of governmental programming while avoiding the potential abuses of relying exclusively on just one of these approaches? Of course, such attempts by politicians to “build bridges” across the political aisle will require immense courage: in a political system that often focuses more on “getting elected” than on “governing well,” such “reaching across the aisle” typically gets punished on Election Day.

My educated guess is that by now, many readers will have decided that I am completely out of touch with reality when I propose this “better way” to deal with disagreements in politics: “that is just not going to happen in our current political climate.” But why can’t Christians model this better way? With that hope and prayer in mind, I simply decided a few years ago that I was not going to spend too much time trying to convince other Christians in the abstract (as in this essay) that my proposal for respectful conversations about politics and other contentious areas of discourse is possible. Rather, I committed to demonstrating that it is possible by “just doing it” (to borrow a phrase from Nike).

Therefore, I set up a web site called “Respectful Conversations2 in which I have hosted a number of extended conversations among Christians who disagree about some contentious issues, which includes an “Alternative Political Conversation” informed by the content of this essay.3

I believe it is fair to say that these electronic conversations have demonstrated that Christians who disagree vehemently about some contentious issues can express their disagreements with grace and respect, identifying common ground and illuminating remaining disagreements in ways that can inform ongoing conversations. A marvelous by-product of these conversations is that they demonstrate that Christians having strong disagreements about divisive issues can actually come to know each other as deeply committed brothers and sisters in Christ. This is a modest step toward realization of the ever elusive quest for “Christian unity” that Jesus prayed for in John 17; teaching that such modeling may be our greatest “witness” to those who do not share our Christian faith.


About the Author
  • Harold Heie is a senior fellow at The Colossian Forum. His website, www.respectfulconversatuin.net, is devoted to modeling respectful conversations concerning contentious issues about which Christians have strong disagreements. The highlights of a conversation on human sexuality are reported in his recently released book Respectful LGBT Conversations: Seeking Truth, Giving Love, and Modeling Christian Unity. He is currently hosting a conversation on “Reforming Political Discourse.”

  1. “Called to be Salt and Light – An Overview,” Harold Heie & Michael A. King, eds., Mutual Treasure: Seeking Better Ways for Christians and Culture to Converse. Cascadia Publishing House, 2009 

  2. Respectful Conversations is currently hosting an extended conversation about LGBT issues. 

  3. The results of which I distilled in a book titled Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation. Abilene Christian University Press, 2014 

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Excellent advice! We need to hear this message over and over again, particularly when we are not inclined to listen to one another. Unfortunately, shouting only begets more shouting. Listening, on the other hand, can produce a harvest of peace.

  2. This is entirely possible and even the natural, inevitable course of dialogue IF trust and an unalienated, authentic interest in others prevails over fear and anger. It is only perhaps “put of touch” to think that the mass media is capable of it, or most politicians in televised debates. They’re going to reflect and amplify where we are at as a people in most cases, and what they think will make us react favorably to them.

    The real challenge to me is the question of how far tolerance and good will can be extended before it becomes a moral crime. Is there “treasure” to discover in the views of someone who calls frequently for violence as a solution to problems, even fairly indiscriminate and arbitrary violence against particular, demonized groups? I am curious how a pacifist would respond to that, versus a Christian like Bonhoeffer. Where do you locate yourself in that dilemma?

    A second question that arises for me is why should we expect self-identified Christians to be especially capable — or capable at all — of this confident love that goes out to others without losing, or unduly fearing the loss, of itself and its ground of values? Is this a gift Christians just have conferred on them by magic, or does it require years of cultivation in good soil? Christians too are products of abuse, tragic losses, a lack of material or physical well-being, and sometimes not a lot of healthy intellectual or religious formation. Our psyches are not specially insulated against stress, anxiety and trauma. We’re also good at covering these things up and compensating. If we’re using faith largely as a coping device, whenever we run into someone or something that seems to challenge our deeper views and principles, we’re going to experience this as a big threat. It seems like your approach to dialogue would have to address this, at least indirectly, if it leads participants discover things about themselves.

  3. I think it is important to distinguish one type of “political disagreement” from another type. I use quotes because the one type isn’t really a disagreement, even if it constitutes the majority of exchange in this election cycle. When candidates call the other a liar, or dishonest, or “little Marco,” or “lying Ted,” or low energy, or some other label, they are usually not expressing disagreement about anything at all — or even discussing something about which one could “disagree.” Rather, they are doing a childhood chanting equivalent of “na na, na na na” (please supply the rhythm and cadence from your childhood memory) so as to, hopefully and this year hopes are coming true, cause voters to emotionally dislike that other candidate, or perhaps to like the bully chanter, or both.

    Of course, while Donald Trump hasn’t invented this political tactic, he has expanded it in concept and usage, such that we have seen presidential debates in this election cycle like we have never thought we’d ever see. But, these are not disagreements of any kind. Indeed, the problem with the Republican side of the primaries this cycle is that there has been so little engaging in discussions, or even arguments, about actual disagreements. Indeed, I’d be happier, in this election cycle, if the “dialogue” descended into badly done arguments about actual political positions.