At my Christian university, political science majors make up less than 10 percent of the student body. When I talk to other students about voting, politics and faith, they tell me that they lack interest partly because of the nasty arguments. The religious right, Red Letter Christians arguing with the religious right, fighting about gay rights, refusal to take climate change seriously – how can you stand it, they ask?
That’s unfortunate, because these students are Christian citizens in a country that badly needs thoughtful, loving followers of Christ. Those of us who care about faith and citizenship need to do a better job with this generation, and Harold Heie has given us a wonderful tool with which to wade into the challenge.
In 2012 Heie organized an online “alternative political conversation” with a group of six Christian policy analysts. He asked them to participate in a nine-month experiment in which they would engage each other on a number of difficult topics.
The participants, all evangelicals, did agree on a number of important principles:
• Truth-telling is essential.
• All human beings are created by God and in God’s image.
• Human beings are both fallen and capable of redemption.
• Government has been established by God to promote a just order in society that benefits the common good.
• The institutions of civil society are important.
The scholars presented their perspectives on the federal budget deficit, immigration, religious freedom, Syria and Iran, Israel and Palestine, poverty in the United States, marriage, health care, K-12 education, gun control, abortion and the role of government. The writers were at different places on the political spectrum. As their pieces appeared on the Internet, others were invited to respond to the conversation that emerged. It was a fascinating exchange: different perspectives, honestly shared; disagreements expressed within a framework of respect.
When I heard that Heie was going to write a book about the experience, though, it didn’t make sense to me. After all, the conversations were available for free. Why write a book? As it turns out, my hesitation was misguided. The book he has written does not repeat the online discussions but rather engages the conversations. Heie points out places of common ground within the disagreements, and he illustrates how much we all share even when we think we are in different places. His writing demonstrates the virtues of empathy and intellectual rigor while encouraging us to think more deeply about the positions we thought we held.
This is a book for introductory political science classes, certainly, but it is much more than that. First-year seminars, core classes that encourage faithful citizenship, leadership classes – all of these would benefit from the wisdom and careful discussion Harold Heie provides.
However, for those of us who followed the online conversation, the significance of the book is further highlighted by the essays that each of the six scholars provided after the online discussion concluded. The most compelling of these is written by Lisa Sharon Harper. She emphasizes something that Heie also was up front about: These six scholars are quite similar in educational background and even in their understanding of what “evangelical” means. She challenges us to expand the conversation to include in particular people of different racial backgrounds. Her own academic work illustrates that black and white evangelicals experience structures and systems differently. Because their experiences are different, their views of policy will be different.
I think Harper’s point is critically important, and I’d expand it with some additional points of caution. We have to be careful not to be too self-congratulatory when we communicate past differences but limit the differences that we include. Poor people think differently about the government than do people of means. The five principles of agreement can imply that God is male. A gay or transgender person reading the book would be aware of being excluded from the conversation. Finally, even the seemingly foundational principle that institutions of civil society are important requires some academic framework in order to be fully understood.
Now that Heie has demonstrated how tough conversations can occur, we need to be vigilant about expanding our efforts to listen to those whose voices have previously been left out of the conversation.