If you've seen the news you know that Americans are more polarized than ever. We have strong opinions about politics as the presidential debates and protests (almost riots) associated with Trump make very clear. Sadly the same thing is happening with differences over religion. For example, in Texas earlier this year a small group of Muslims gathered to speak out against the terrorist activities of ISIL, only to have a small group of protesters, including well meaning but misguided Christians, who stormed the podium and stole the microphone. We have become a deeply divided set of tribes, creating tension and conflict.
This means that not only do Americans have strong differences of opinion, we've also lost the ability to talk with each other about these things. In recent research the Barna Group documented this troubling state of affairs. In relation to evangelicals and those in other religions they write:
"Evangelicals seem to have a particularly difficult time talking to those outside their group...This is consistent across the board. Evangelicals consistently report higher levels of difficulty toward other groups than those groups report toward them. Nearly nine in 10 evangelicals (87%) think it would be difficult to have a conversation with a Muslim, but only two-thirds of those with other faiths (66%) report difficulty in conversing with evangelicals. Similarly, when it comes to speaking to atheists, 85 percent of evangelicals think it would be difficult, but again only two-thirds of atheists, agnostics, or those who do not have any faith (66%) say they would have a hard time talking with evangelicals."
The article discussing this phenomenon included a chart that points to the groups we have the most difficulty talking to. Note that members of various groups that evangelicals tend to have the most concerns about top the list, including Muslims, Mormons, and Atheists.
This research was done in connection with David Kinnamon. He is associated with Q:ideas as well as Barna. While I appreciate his work in many areas, at times I have felt that he is better at identifying challenges rather than being aware of the solutions that can address them. However, in this instance I think he recognizes that standard responses to a divided America simply don't work. He writes:
"'In order to have meaningful conversations, we must first realize that it's not enough to be nice,' continues Kinnaman. 'Though important, being winsome often means leaving some of the more inevitable conflict at the door, which limits meaningful dialogue. It also causes an uncomfortably large segment of Christians to agree with people around them rather than experience even the mildest conflict. We must embrace the hard edges of dialogue, extending kindness and hospitality, but doing so in the face of inevitable, but healthy and constructive, conflict.'"
Kinnamon is exactly right, and his thoughts dovetail with a religious diplomacy approach to conversations over irreconcilable religious differences, or differences of any other kind. We often hear the call for civility and tolerance in public discourse, and while that is important, it misses the mark, particularly if it ignores our differences and conflict in the process. The problem is not conflict per se, it is engaging in healthy forms of conflict. This means that we don't avoid conflict, and it involves holding our differences in peaceful tension. This can only happen through relationships and conversations that re-humanizes "the other," and transforms our mutual perceptions from enemies into trusted rivals who can work together through our differences for the common good.
At the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy we have a prescription that overcomes the negative aspects of our tribalism, and our inability to talk to each other. We welcome partnership with the Barna Group, Q:ideas, and any other organization or individuals as we work toward a better day for America.