Addressing polarizing divisions at Seattle Pacific University

Dr. Middeljans gives an inside look at faculty discussions on building bridges over political differences

In September 2019,  before the presidential primaries, the Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy gathered 523 registered voters from across America to discuss several major political issues. This experiment, called “America in One Room,” attempted to gauge how polarized we truly are as a nation, and whether deep conversational engagement could mitigate political entrenchment.

The results were surprising. After lengthy discussions (supported by moderators, experts, and an evidence-based policy booklet), both Democrats and Republicans significantly shifted their positions on political policies toward more consensus. Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy, of The New York Times, reviewed that “95 percent agreed that they ‘learned a lot about people very different from me.’”

These encouraging results were, however, hard-won. James Fishkin and Larry Diamond explained, as part of the researchers’ “deliberative polling” approach, participants studied a 55-page handbook “prepared by policy experts from both parties, offering arguments for and against each proposal”; small group discussions were facilitated by neutral moderators; the plenary sessions “featur[ed] experts and presidential candidates from both parties who answered questions from participants.”

At SPU this quarter, a group of eleven faculty and staff attempted a kind of “SPU in One Room” experiment, gathering to discuss opposing political perspectives at the invitation of Dr. Melani Plett and Dr. Caleb Henry. As Republicans, Democrats, Independents and Undecideds, we spoke for hours about complex, deeply moral questions like these: What does systemic racism and racial justice look like? What does it mean to “value life”? What is the relation between politicians’ moral character and their policies? What is America’s responsibility toward other peoples of the world? When should the rights of the individual supersede the rights of the community? What constitutes a serious threat to democracy?

We did not have the luxury of Stanford’s robust deliberative framework. Discussion was often frustrating and stressful, and I raised my voice more than once. But this experience gave me hope that thoughtful and respectful disagreement, while difficult to achieve, is still possible in the current climate. Together we learned how diverse experiences drive diverse beliefs. We learned how even with a shared Christian faith, believers can come to very different but understandable political conclusions. Most importantly, we learned how much more time we needed to really talk.

In the aftermath of another highly contentious election, many of you are experiencing distressing divides at home, at work, and at school. Students tell me they crave models for how to have respectful, fruitful, face-to-face conversations about political differences. 

To be frank, we faculty have tended to avoid such difficult conversations, though we are beginning to consider how we might more frequently and publicly practice with you this demanding spiritual discipline.

In the meantime, here are some principles I have found helpful when engaging in difficult political conversations with colleagues and family.

Reject grand narratives in favor of little narratives. The pollsters and the pundits, the tech companies and the Twitter mobs, all believe they have us pegged in the grand narrative of red votes vs. blue votes. But behind every single vote is a microcosm of little narratives—a human constellation of doubt and belief, lessons and memory, wounds and rituals, hope and fear. It’s these little narratives that we must investigate, to help us map the invisible lines that connect star to star, tracing the shape of the other.

Be curious, not confrontational. I entered the SPU group with a deep interest in how others were thinking and a secret hope that I might persuade them otherwise. I quickly found that when I tried to persuade, I couldn’t listen, and defenses went up. Fortunately, the group espoused curiosity rather than coercion. Disagreement and objection was always cordially received because they were presented as invitations, not judgments: I see things from this perspective, but tell me what you are seeing. Eventually, there might be an opening for persuasion, but the prerequisite is mutual trust.

Unearth a shared value. At the root of many political disagreements, there often lies a value that is shared but approached from different directions. One way to excavate this value is to ask, “What do you fear?” Many political choices are motivated by fear that something we love or value is being attacked.

Risk being vulnerable and open to the other’s view. This is the toughest one, and I am not very good at it. This is also a lot to ask from the already vulnerable, those who must constantly assess and negotiate the risk of suspicion, disdain, or violence when entering white, hetero-dominant spaces. Being open to the other is dangerous, and it can feel self-compromising. But it seems to me that vulnerability is required on both sides for us to see each other as fully human subjects. If I risk no part of myself when I engage with you, and leave no part of myself open to seeing your perspective, I am (as theologian Martin Buber would say) treating you as an “it,” not as an “I.”

Embrace the “not yet.” I don’t know if democracy is the closest human government can get to approximating the kingdom of God on earth. But I think each is suspended in a perpetual process of becoming. Democracy (not unlike the church) does not dwell in parchments or masonry—it lives and takes shape in people.

Democracy is, in short, a conversation, one that we cannot stop participating in, lest we veer entirely off-course from peace, justice, love, and reconciliation. Casting a vote is the easy part; now the hard work begins.