Weathering the Conventions

Published: September 6, 2012

With Hurricane Isaac, the 2012 nominating conventions have moved ominously across our screens. How many Americans simply wanted both storms to pass?

Many watched from the bunkers of their homes. Because I had no desire to repeat the bloodbath that ensued in my family during the 2004 nominating season, I felt the temptation to hunker down, surrounded only by like-minded folk.

In the flurry of political ideologies, we can learn something from courageous people who speak to one another across religious lines. Religion and politics are notoriously divisive topics. Conventional wisdom tells us they should not be discussed in polite company, but success stories of interfaith dialogue offer hope.

Consider the similarities. Political and religious affiliations form the bedrock of deeply held notions of truth, authority, and identity. In both realms, converts and the disaffected hold their convictions with particular passion. The entire world is at stake in political and religious disagreements, yet genuine interchanges can surprise and delight us.

Interreligious dialogue offers a helpful set of habits and dispositions for this election season. Taking my cue from Leonard Swidler’s “Dialogue Decalogue,” I suggest five ground rules:

1.      Assume the best. Be honest and sincere, and expect the same intentions in those who differ from you.

2.      Allow others to define themselves. You are not talking to a stereotype or a caricature, but a living, thinking person. When you describe their position, they should be able to see themselves there.

3.      Compare apples to apples. It is unfair to compare the lofty ideals of one side with the missteps, gaffes, and constrained actions of the other.

4.      Develop a capacity for self-criticism. We can only learn from one another if we are able to acknowledge our own mistakes and admit that we do not have all the answers.

5.      Watch the flow of power. Observe: Who gets to design the party platform? Whose voices resist the platform or go unheard? This exercise alerts us to the internal diversity of political parties (and religions). Tracking power also illuminates how factors such as race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, national origin, and religion alter (or fail to alter) the conversation.

Much injury results when we violate these principles in debates on politics and religion. At root, the principles reflect the Golden Rule, which is found in many religious traditions: treat others as you want to be treated, and refrain from doing what you would not want done to you.

In our talk radio climate, the risks of dialogue are great, but we cannot afford to give up on the civility and trust we will need to brave the storm together.

Michele Voss Roberts
Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture