Return to civil discourse goal of faith groups
BY BILL SHERMAN World Religion Writer
Saturday, February 02, 2013
2/02/13 at 6:18 AM
As the inauguration of President Barack Obama brought to an end one of the most acrimonious election seasons in memory, some people in faith communities are looking for ways to return civility to American society.
"We don't have political opponents, we have Nazis. ... We don't have economic crises, we have fiscal cliffs," said Gary Peluso-Verdend, president of Phillips Theological Seminary, which sponsored a two-day conference last week on faith and civil discourse.
"You can't have civil discourse that way."
Peluso-Verdend said the recent election cycle did not help Americans focus on the critical problems facing the nation and the "very deep change that we all know needs to happen. ... There was more heat than light."
He said he was encouraged that Obama said in his inaugural address, "We're all in this together," but beyond that, he saw little effort in the address to reach across the political divide.
After the speech, more than a million people expressed their opinion on the Internet that their state should secede from the United States.
Faith communities, which see themselves as agents of peace and harmony, have instead sometimes contributed to the acrimony, Peluso-Verdend said.
The Rev. Scott Anderson, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, told conference attendees that in the wake of Wisconsin's recent governor's crisis, some churches found their fellowship hours divided into two camps, those who supported the governor and those who did not.
He said congregations across the state formed civility groups to get people talking to one another, and some participants said they planned to use the same principles to improve relationships in their marriages and families.
David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, described the process by which the Oklahoma Legislature was persuaded to drop a plan to abolish the state income tax.
He said that experience taught him that civil discourse is possible.
Other lessons he has taken from that battle include:
"Ideologues win the battle of the airwaves but not the war," he said.
- Voters are sensible and recognize that if the income tax is dropped, other taxes will have to make up the difference
- Voters take seriously issues of funding public safety, roads, schools and care of people in need
- The loudest voices often don't speak for most people
"People may not agree on everything, but they can still engage in civil dialogue, at least in Oklahoma," he said.
Blatt said he was less encouraged about the national discourse and what is going on in Washington, D.C.
Among the conclusions reached at the conference, Peluso-Verdend said, is that attaining civil discourse is "incredibly hard work."
He said civil discourse is unlikely apart from being in a relationship and getting to know people face-to-face.
The conference also concluded that people in faith communities can play an important role in restoring civil discourse to society.
He said Americans are frustrated that at the national level, it is winter, and relations are cold.
"But at the local level, where snow is on the ground, there are green shoots coming out of the snow," he said.
Original Print Headline: Return to civil discourse goal of faith groups
Bill Sherman 918-581-8398
Gary Peluso-Verdend: He said the recent election cycle did not help Americans focus on the critical problems facing the nation and the "very deep change that we all know needs to happen. ... There was more heat than light."