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Columbians tread murky waters between politics and religion

Tuesday, October 28, 2008 | 10:18 p.m. CDT; updated 9:18 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 29, 2008
The Rev. Amy Kay leads the discussion for the "Liberty and Justice For All" group on Oct. 8 as Richard Underwood, left, and Harsh Brown participate. The discussion is part of the eight-week-long class regarding politics and religion.

COLUMBIA —They turn the most heads, stir the most controversy and carry the most passion: religion and politics.

These words elicit intense feelings and conversations.

"This" instead of "that"

Instead of saying:                            Say:

·    "You're wrong about..."                   "I have had a different experience..."                                                                                   "I also heard this information..."                                                                                         "What information do you have on that?"                                                                         "I see it differently because..."

·    "You people don't think/care..."    "I understand this is difficult and that we
                                                                  each have different experiences.  I would                                                                          like to better understand your position."                                                                        "What experiences led you to this view?"

·    "Everybody knows that..."            "I'm thinking about this too, can I share                                                                            my experience with you?"

 

 Source: Sarah Read, president of The Communications Center Inc., Columbia


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Columbians striving to preserve not only civility but family relations and brotherly bonds have launched an assault on these culprits of the great social divide.

With all the controversy over the faith of presidential candidates and whether it should affect votes or party platforms, Americans often seem to be butting heads about this issue rather than discussing it.

But just as the hope of civility was showing signs of fading, two Columbia churches began talking openly and honestly about the divide . They became proactive in their search for commonality, understanding and conversation that could build the bridge between gaping views of religion and politics.

Faithful Politics

It was a need to promote civil dialogue that prompted Otto Steinhaus.

Steinhaus, co-chairman of the Columbia-based Faith and Education Collaborative, an organization developing models for conversational unity among faith and education groups and is associated with MU's peace studies department, helped host "Civil Dialogue in an Election Year." The conference took place at the Missouri United Methodist Churchon south Ninth Street.

"We need to promote a culture of peace, which begins with an individual who is willing to listen, be respectful and engage in conversation," Steinhaus said.

Sarah Read, a keynote speaker at the conference, said: "If you're looking for a clear definition of politics in Scripture, you'll find no affiliation. It does say to watch out for divisions, don't become conceited, rid yourselves of malice and don't bear false witness."

Read, president of the Columbia-based Communications Center Inc., said the values found in many faith groups encourage people to put their communities above their political affiliations.Read's company is a corporate mediation firm.   

After the workshop, Christopher Robinson, a Columbia social worker that works with children,  walked away with a fresh outlook.

“I realized if people were to stay true to their religious convictions, there would be a way for people of all faiths to direct those values of love and service to work together and accomplish things for the good of all,” he said.

Robinson described how his Presbyterian upbringing has evolved into an “eclectic” worldview.

He said he has noticed that nearly all religions focus on the same core values of compassion, charity and love — principles he believes are the most basic and fundamental aspects in religion. But he said that he has a more difficult time reconciling religion with politics after witnessing what he calls cutthroat tactics of the current Republican presidential campaign.

“There has been a lot of exploitation of religious values, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” he said.  "There is a lot of judgment associated with political leaders who claim a strong religious faith and there is little focus on commonalities.”

Read identified the root of this problem: a failure to genuinely listen.

Bound by faith

It wasn't so much the lack of listening as their stubbornness and word choices that caused a communication gap for brothers Harsh  and Dick Brown. Harsh took a faith-based politics class in Columbia, which strengthened his relationship with his brother, Dick, of Ojai, Calif.

It’s hard to believe that having the same parents, going to the same seminary and fighting in the same war would yield such differences in political and religious views, said Dick.

For Brown brothers, their opinions about politics and theology aren’t only different, they are polar opposites.  Growing up in California, the brothers were reared in a conservative, fundamental Christian family — almost.

 “My father was extremely conservative, and my mother tended to be a little more liberal,” Dick Brown said. After his father died in 1934, Dick said he "tended to lean in his direction, and my brother Harsh went my mom’s way.”

Dick Brown, 86, said that while their father's death marked the initial separation of convictions, it was their personal experiences through seminary that separated these siblings on theological and political matters.

Harsh, 84, attends First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Columbia, and is currently taking part in a class at the church titled “Faith and American Politics: Liberty and Justice for All.”

Harsh Brown, a religiously liberal Democrat, and Dick, a religiously conservative Republican, echo each other’s memories of the discussions they used to have about faith and politics.  However, a time came when both recognized that 57 years of discord was precious time cast away by arguing over ideologies that weren’t going to change .  

“Both sides are needed and can contribute to good order in society,” Harsh said.  “Since agreeing to disagree, our convictions, our conversations have certainly been more amiable.”

A chuckle slipped out as he recalled their last parley, knowing the passion felt on both parts is equally preserved.

“The topic at hand was gay marriage,” he said. “We obviously disagree on some levels, but it was a civil conversation.”

Unifying a community

“Liberty and Justice for All,” facilitated by First Christian's Associate Minister Amy Kay Pavlovich, was an opportunity for discussion that was too important to let slip by, she said.  The congregation affirmed her feeling. After only expecting eight participants for the class, 22 people showed up. The class will continue through Nov. 5, conveniently the day after the election.

“This is a passion of mine because a lot of friends have said how hard it is to navigate political conversation.  As a church, we need to be relevant for the day in crisis time, we need a safe place for people to dialogue what they care about,” Pavlovich said.  “Because we are a community of faith, we’re already together in a journey and we affirm the ability to discern for ourselves where we are on different issues.”

The class utilizes personal experiences, group discussions and a topic-driven 30-minute movie each week to draw attention to the liberty each person has as an American to hold his or her personal values.  Members are reminded of how to avoid “killer statements” by thoughtfully constructing their words, being inclusive and remembering the need for balance.  

Healthy conversation


As Harsh Brown gears up for the last class, he reflects on how the tools and conversation learned has affected his approach toward related dialogue.

“It has helped me be more understanding of how people have strong views of religion and politics, and I’ve come to accept them,” he said.  “Just because I disagree with them doesn’t mean they don’t have any less of a right to believe what they do.”

A theme he always tries to remember comes from a quote by 20th-century scholar Norbert Guterman: “I disapprove of what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

This concept is the cornerstone of Sarah Read's instructions for forming peaceable unions despite differences in values and opinions. She outlined several word exchanges that demonstrate an effort to tear down communication barriers and lay some common ground.

These exercises of healthy conversation have been a saving grace for those such as Robinson, who have replaced their distaste toward religion and politics with a growing hope for their coexistence.

"They can cooperate, everyone just needs to do their part," he said.


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