“There is little doubt that the relationships that [a LGBT/religious conservative dialogue organization] has built in Chicago…would, for now, be unimaginable in many cities around the world.” – Christopher Landau, BBC report
In a 2013 American survey, 70% of respondents reported believing that incivility had reached crisis proportions in the country.
With this kind of a majority expressing concern, it’s easy to take for granted that “most Americans” want to see the hostility and separation decrease. That’s partly why I (Jacob) used to believe dialogue was SO great and that pretty much everyone would appreciate it on some level, in some way.
Then I decided to knock doors in my neighborhood – inviting people to gather in fairly low-key dialogues about any issue they picked. These neighbors I had known and grown up with were people who would have to buy girl scout cookies from me…and yet right and left (and in the middle too), they turned down my (super simple) offer.
Apparently when these same Americans (who overwhelmingly agree that polarization and hostility are huge problems) are offered a chance of doing something about it, they just can’t necessarily stomach what would be required to see things change. One woman told us, “I cannot even begin to imagine trying something like that…”
Calls for dialogue have invoked considerable resistance from virtually all sides of the political spectrum.
So what’s up with that?
Making space for resistance. As appealing as dialogue might sound to some, one thing we’ve realized is that it is simply not a ‘no-brainer’ for many people. Instead, we’ve found many people torn when it comes to these conversations – wanting better relationships with political opposites, but feeling overwhelmed by all sorts of things that could “go wrong” if they venture to try.
Rather than ignoring or writing off these concerns (and pretending that these conversations will be celebrated and embraced by everyone), what if we made space for the resistance that exists – examining all its variations carefully? From our own review of blogs, reader comments, internet columns and newspaper articles associated with dialogue organizations, we decided to do just that. In what follows, we’ve summarized many of the major objections raised in public discourse to these kind of dialogue and bridge-building efforts (especially those specific to the LGBT/religious conservative divide).
Instead of somehow resolving all these concerns, we hope to acknowledge them as real and legitimate questions that deserve attention (and a whole lot of conversation). Instead of settling the questions, then, our aim here is to facilitate a deeper exploration of how to navigate them. In some cases, we add notes by way of response, especially since many of the concerns reflect significant exaggerations and misunderstandings. In other cases, we let the concerns stand as significant questions for all of us to consider.
By first acknowledging how NON-obvious and intuitive these kinds of conversations are to many of us, we hope to literally make space in the conversation for many people that may otherwise find it ridiculous and even dangerous to engage.
Staying open to surprising possibilities. Of course, these conversations do more than raise concerns. To many others, they have shown all sorts of promise and positive possibility. Drawing on the same review off feedback from dialogue participants, we’ve also compiled a parallel list of potential benefits and possibilities of LGBT/religious conservative dialogue.
In a third separate list, we’ve also gathered different insights about potential common ground that we’ve noticed across the LGBT/religious conservative divide – another refreshing and revealing benefit of dialogue.
Together, these benefits lay the groundwork for new (and deeper) relationships to emerge. Indeed, a common outcome of high-quality dialogue is the emergence of a tangible level of affection across the most profound of divides.
Below, we highlight a few examples of that happening.
Surprising affection in treasonous friendships. More often than not, participants in cross-boundary dialogue come away liking each other more, even while retaining deep disagreements. This is evidenced in the political culture more broadly, with relationships like the one between Justice Ruth Bater Ginsburg and Anton Scalia, whose friendship was highlighted in an L.A. Times article in 2015:
Scalia, 79, and Ginsburg, 82, frequently dine and vacation together. Every Dec. 31, they ring in the new year together. Their relationship has even inspired an opera, set to debut this summer.
In joint appearances, their mutual affinity and gentle joshing delight audiences, particularly at a time of bitter partisan differences that have made friendships across the aisle difficult.
“Call us the odd couple,” Scalia said this year at a George Washington University event with Ginsburg. “She likes opera, and she’s a very nice person. What’s not to like?” he said dryly. “Except her views on the law.”
Their friendship…is based on mutual respect and common interests that transcend their ideological differences.
“She has very warm feelings” for him, said Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor who clerked for Ginsburg. “There is a personal connection with him unlike any of the other justices.”
That friendship has done little to shade or soften their legal views. Scalia has never mocked her opinions in the way that he wrote dismissively of, for example, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor or Kennedy. But their areas of agreement are few.”
And more recently, following Scalia’s death, another commentator noted, “It’s not just atypical in contemporary American politics for people to be both ideological adversaries and close personal friends. It’s atypical for contemporary American political figures to even be close personal friends with each other. Justices Scalia and Ginsburg showed just how much everyone else was missing.”
Another example is the friendship between George W. Bush and Bill Clinton – two individuals who we might see as least likely to fraternize. Over the years, they have reached out with genuine human decency to develop a relationship. Our favorite vignette was where George called on Bill after his surgery to check up on him: “What do your doctors say? Are you sore? How much can you exercise? Are you using your treadmill?”
[Photo credit: Reuters]
Hey – if those guys can do it, anyone can!
So maybe it shouldn’t surprise us to see similar relationships flowering across the LGBT/religious conservative divide, including Elton John and Rush Limbaugh’s friendship or one between gay activist Shane Windmeyer and Chick-filet CEO Dan Cathy.
Here’s another great example, from an article called, “He saw her marriage as ‘unnatural.’ She called him ‘bigoted.’ Now, they hug.” Author Robert Samuels summarizes what he observed:
As the dynamics shift breathtakingly fast in the long-running battles over gay rights, some of the most hardened combatants are embarking on a surprising new strategy: being friends.
“We are winning,” Red Wing [the gay activist] said, “but I started asking myself, ‘What kind of winners are we going to be?’ We need to change hearts and minds. I’m tired of all the hate.”
The article continued: In Iowa, where the courts legalized same-sex marriage in 2009, Red Wing and Vander Plaats [a conservative activist with the Family Leader] were early to adjust to this new dynamic. A longtime political activist, Red Wing moved to the state in 2012 from Colorado so she could marry her partner. After a good friend died, Red Wing decided she would try to honor that friend by making peace with her biggest nemesis. So she asked Vander Plaats to coffee. She didn’t expect him to say yes.”
He did, and the two met at a coffeehouse near Drake University in Des Moines. “She was very Iowan,” Vander Plaats recalled. She came right on time and bore gifts of chocolate and pomegranate lip balm, which he still uses. They agreed to have coffee again. Then again. The two say they have formed a genuine friendship over coffee dates and phone calls that has fundamentally changed how their organizations interact.
No more calling Vander Plaats a “hater” or a “bigot,” Red Wing insisted at her group. Treat them with love, Vander Plaats said he constantly reminded his staff. “There are times when I ask myself, before I put an idea out there, ‘How would Donna receive this?’ Because I love her,” Vander Plaats said. Then he added: “Not that I’m changing my beliefs.”
He wouldn’t attend her wedding – “It would be disingenuous,” he said. “But I would attend her funeral, and I think she would be at mine.”
Soon after the Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage, they had the following interaction, “We need to get together sometime very soon,” Red Wing recalled saying. “We have a lot to talk about.” “Yes, we do,” he replied. “Given the day you’ve just had, you’re buying coffee this time.”
Learning from trustworthy rivals. The benefits of these kinds of “treasonous friendships” are more than just touchy feely – and have everything to do about whether we can learn anything from our differences. In Walter Lippman’s classic 1939 article “The Indispensable Opposition,” he argues that democracy itself depends deeply on the presence of enough space for people to hear out and learn from their political opponents.
Democracy, in other words, needs our disagreements. As Parker Palmer writes in Healing the Heart of Democracy, “How did we forget that our differences are among our most valuable assets?”
When the trust and affection reach a point where people can begin directly questioning and even challenging each other, that’s when it really gets fun. (Trust us on that one!)
That became a turning point in Jacob’s relationship with both Phil Neisser and Arthur Peña, as they began enjoying a deeper level of sincerity, curiosity and learning together.
When was the last time you were able to do that with someone on the ‘other side’?
Martin Luther King once called on people to “see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.” In this way, King proposed, it was possible for all of us to “learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”
Reflecting on this teaching by King, one gay journalist, Brandon Ambrosino writes, “when we listen to our enemies — no, when we listen to our brothers — we allow ourselves the opportunity to effect lasting change at relational levels. Further, by seeking to understand those with whom we disagree, we call bluff on the entire system of fundamentalism, which is the very condition that makes ideological tyranny possible in the first place.”
In this way, we can become what Charles Randal Paul, head of Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, calls “trustworthy rivals” – something that most people don’t even know is possible: Can I trust someone who is opposed to what I stand for?
Rather than being “opponents who seek to expose the weaknesses in each other’s arguments,” you might discover the adventure of participating in a conversation that starts with the assumption, as Thomas Schwandt describes it, “that the other has something to say to us and to contribute to our understanding.” “The initial task,” he adds, “is to grasp the other’s position in the strongest possible light.”
To illustrate, once again, from Justice Ruth Bater Ginsburg and Anton Scalia’s friendship, one commentator notes, “The respect that Ginsburg’s statement shows for Scalia’s intellect — that she could trust him to point out the flaws in her arguments — also reveals a respect for her own, to know the difference between a genuine agreement of principle and an error that needed to be corrected.”
Whether celebrity or not, these “unlikely bedfellows” tend to leave positive ripples among their respective communities who see them with both suspicion and hope. So are you ready to join the rebellion and give it a try?
As Love Boldly’s states in its mission, “We will not permit personal or communal loyalties to ideology, labels, or tribes to prevent us from befriending each other.”
Is conversation really (secretly) about conversion? This kind of open and vulnerable exploration, many are finding, can be invigorating, refreshing, and yes…even fun. (Hey, it beats stewing in our resentments!)
Even with the benefits of new relationships and decreased resentment, however, these conversations can still feel to many like an absurdity and a danger – as we detailed already. On the right, they may be seen as “liberal” tools to attempt and convert people, while on the left they may be seen as techniques to assuage concern in order to preserve the status quo.
What dialogue participants themselves find, though, is that rather than “liberal” or “conservative,” the practice is at its roots a basic human activity and arguably, a very American one too – going all the way back to George Washington’s own “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation.”
Without being specifically partisan in its agenda, dialogue does seem to have an agenda of revealing truth in all directions. Later in this manuscript, we talk more about this as an additional reason people pursue dialogue – namely, it’s ferocious and relentless power to reveal truth about the world we may otherwise hide from and avoid. As the philosopher Levinas once said, “Truth comes through the face of the Other.”
This is reflected in a recent comment from one of our dearest dialogue partners Tracy Hollister, the former program director for Marriage Equality U.S.A. On a trip to Russia for research on her upcoming book, Tracy writes of a realization that hit her as so “blindingly obvious that I’m embarrassed to even observe this”:
How everyday and normal life seems in Russia – driving on the right, autumn leaves, barking dogs, good chocolate, refrigerators, crowded subways, drops of rain, baby strollers. I don’t know what I was expecting, but when you are part of a culture that has long stereotyped another culture and have had wars (e.g., that Cold War) against them, I suppose it’s only human of me to think at a subconscious level how different – how foreign – they must be. And then you get to know them, and realize how much we really truly share in common. It reminds me of the culture war about marriage equality… and how much we demonize the ‘other side’ – only to find when we get to know each other the reality and simplicity of our shared humanity. To understand the ‘other side’ one must have a courage to go into ‘their territory’ or try to speak their language…this is how bridges are built and how we will recognize ourselves in the reflections of the others’ eyes.
Discovering fundamental wholeness. Among all the things dialogue can reveal and confirm, one insight stands out above the rest: discovering the fundamental beauty and goodness of others – at the deepest possible level.
It is during my own moments of intimate listening, hearing and dialogue where this has surfaced in undeniable ways. One magic moment for Jacob happened in the home of Tyler & Michael Mathie – a gay couple who courageously hosted one of our first Living Room Conversations.
None of us were sure what would come out of the conversation, and I (Jacob) was personally surprised what it ended up meaning for me. Simply put, I couldn’t believe how much I came away just really liking both of these guys. They were amazingly easy to love and to enjoy – people I wanted to spend more time with. Following the conversation, Tyler and Michael welcomed me back into their home multiple times – and became instrumental in Village Square’s first inaugural event.
Above all, what I saw in Tyler and Michael was an inherent, fundamental goodness. This didn’t mean I saw everything they believed or thought as right – and vice versa. And at times, I’m aware that they – like my friend Tracy Hollister – are probably nonplussed at why this affection hasn’t translated into seeing things the way they do (like some research seems to suggest it does for others).
It hasn’t – and it may never happen. But that, again, is where the paradox offers to teach something to us all.
After all, if we loved only those who agreed with us, so what? What would it mean to fall in love with those who disagree most vociferously with us?
Beneath all the disagreements, however, we both found something undeniably beautiful – namely, a common acknowledgment of the fundamental worth, value and wholeness of our deepest selves. Mindfulness practitioners call this “awareness” and Christians, “spirit.” Although not everyone might call this fundamental core “good,” it’s worth and value is something that many can find agreement on.
In recounting interactions with others around him, Catholic writer Thomas Merton described his own similar realization this way: “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Mormons might describe it saying, “we are all children of God.” Jews might say “we all have the divine spark.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, a mindfulness-teacher, talks about “inner wholeness” and “our own powerful inner resources for insight, transformation, and healing.”
Once again: is this, in fact, something both sides might agree on solidly: the profound value and fundamental wholeness of our deepest selves?
To be very clear, once again, this is not the same thing as saying “everything about a person reflects wholeness” or “everything that person believes or says or says is beautiful” or “everyone that someone does should be embraced as whole and valuable.”
It’s simply to emphasize that there is beauty and goodness and worth at the core of every individual.
Like other common ground possibilities, of course, this one has its limits. Certainly those religious conservatives who believe in the depravity of man would find this viewpoint far too liberal, while those who disbelieve God would contest any of its divine reflections. But for those with some conception of an inner core – and especially one that is profoundly good – this could really be something to rest upon together.
While this can be refreshing to realize in the abstract for anyone, it’s especially powerful on a personal, practical level with others – and even with ourselves. The impact of this simple realization is reflected in this story from a man who experiences same-sex attraction – speaking about progressing from the darkness of self-loathing to something else: “I’ve had moments where I thought death was the only way out. Where I thought I would be better off dead. That I wasn’t worth it. Where I was so scared to move forward because I didn’t know what the future held for me. But something within me kept saying, Spencer, hold on. There’s healing. There’s purpose. There’s joy. And it didn’t come at once. It’s come in spurts. But it has gradually become more and more and more evident as I’ve done this journey…It is worth it. That you’re worth it. That no matter how hard it gets at times. No matter how much you want to give up and throw in the towel or whatever, to not give up. That you are worth it and that there is hope, there is healing. … God doesn’t hate you. That God is aware of you, more than you even know. That he understands you to the depth of your core” (VH-SMT).
What follows from this fundamental wholeness is, once again, a place of many contested questions. For instance, if our fundamental core is good, does this also mean that anything we experience is likewise good? (or not) Should same-sex attraction also be embraced as fundamentally good? (or not)
Regardless of these other disagreements (and alongside them), we highlight this deeper beauty as powerful point of potential common ground. As Kendall Wilcox writes, “We assert that all our sisters, brothers, and families are inherently worthy of love and belonging…no matter where their life path may take them. This assertion means that we affirm the wholeness or innate divinity in every individual. We recognize the genuine, inherent worth of each soul as a child of God (without any insinuations about what that means in terms of life choices each child of God might make).”
 Full quote: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam”: Speech at Riverside Church Meeting, New York, N.Y., April 4, 1967. In Clayborne Carson et al., eds., Eyes on the Prize: A Reader and Guide (New York: Penguin, 1987), 201-04.
 This, of course, is a paraphrase and elaboration of Jesus’ own lovely teaching. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that” Luke 6:32-33 (NIV)
 In addition to Christian and Buddhist portrayals describe above, there are clearly many more ways to ‘narrate’ this inner core – including from people who are non-theist.
 Some Christians would certainly take issue with this – especially those who believe in the fundamental depravity of man. For Mormons who believe in the fundamental divinity of man (albeit living in a fallen world), they would be comfortable seeing inner goodness and beauty all around.
 Another person, a woman who identifies as gay, spoke of feeling “like my world was ending” and that “even just feeling that way meant I was less a person, less of a daughter in God’s kingdom” added, “that’s not the truth at all. No matter how you feel you deserve to be loved” (FB-ER).
One person spoke of “learning to love myself as I was right then. Not, one day I’ll be happy when I don’t have this, or when I do have this. Being able to say, right now with my struggles the way they are – I’m okay; I’m not the scum of the Earth.” He added, “For me, that was probably the hardest thing to accept – that I wasn’t this vile person…I was still part of the plan. I was still part of Heavenly Father’s grand scheme” (VH-JO).
For many, this insight comes from an encounter with the divine – in a way that changed their view of this Being:
Compared to the more despairing, dark view, the discovery of another way to think is experienced as profoundly liberating. One person describes his excitement that other LGBT/SSA individuals “were having the same spiritual validation that I was, and that we were still… we weren’t inherently evil, as it sometimes felt…I was able to escape that” (FB-AD)