“[Society is living in] a new tribalism…that is driving us ever more angrily apart…Any attempt to impose…an artificial uniformity in the name of a single culture or faith, represents a tragic misunderstanding of what it takes for a system to flourish.” -Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference
Few public conversations in recent memory have stirred more passionate disagreement than the one surrounding gay rights. Over the last fifteen years, in particular, challenges to the status quo by the LGBT community have gradually (and suddenly) taken center stage in societal consciousness. While a large group of people has embraced these developments as a modern day civil rights movement – another substantial group continues to harbor concern – seeing the questions involved as not simply sexual or civil, but also profoundly moral and spiritual.
The contrasting emotions could hardly be more striking. When California’s Proposition 8 passed in 2008, religious conservatives said things like: “What a wonderful day where our country’s highest ideals were preserved” and “Thank you God, for smiling down on America.” In the same moment, liberal citizens said things like: “Where is the country I thought I loved?…God’s message is one of inclusive love” and “I cannot express enough how disappointed I am in the people of California. Shame on you!”
Several years later, when the Supreme Court struck down a part of the Defense of Marriage Act, the celebration was flipped on its head. In that moment, conservatives were now saying things like, “I feel scared for what is coming in this country” and “as Americans reject God’s ways, consequences are coming.” In the same moment, liberal-leaning Americans were saying: “Tears of joy are streaming down my face…I am so proud of this country!” and “It’s history in the making…I feel Harvey Milk smiling down on the scene from heaven.”
So is Harvey Milk smiling down from heaven – or God…or both? (Or neither?)
What a divide! One lawyer called it “a cultural clash of unprecedented proportions.”
You might think this kind of a profound and deeply personal clash between religious conservative and LGBT communities would call for an especially careful and fair-minded attempt to explore the many questions involved. Rather than thoughtful exploration, however, the disagreements at play have more often been approached by hyper-emotional sound-bites, stereotypes and slurs than nuanced attempts to understand the competing worldviews coming into conflict.
As a result, this conversation hurts…for many people on all different sides. For sure, if the pain of this conflict is inevitable in our collective march to progress (or destruction), well then – let’s swallow hard and soldier on.
But is it? Does it have to be this hard? Or are we perhaps doing different things that inadvertently MAKE the conversation this painful? For one, instead of sitting face-to-face with those who see things different than us, it’s much easier to do something else. Many of us now spend hours listening to others-on-various-screens tell stories about Those People – providing just the perfect evidence we need to continually reinforce the believe in our own rightness.
In that gap between Our Story about Those People…and, well, Those People, the authors of this book believe a vast complexity of rich experience and tremendous opportunities are being overlooked.
What if, at the center of the religious conservative/LGBT conflict, there were super-interesting questions just begging for thoughtful exploration – issues about which good-hearted people can and do reach very different conclusions? How might the nature of the conversation change if both sides were to simply acknowledge this – and view each other in this way? And finally, if much that we think is true about Those People is actually not, what if anything might be preventing us from seeing that?
The problem of cultural isolation. In Bill Bishop’s instant-classic sociological text, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” he documents how, in nearly all aspects of life, we’ve become less connected to those who don’t share our views. This is true in the churches we go to, the clubs we join and even the neighborhoods we live in. Bill draws on statistical analyses to document a literal “sorting” of people into like-minded groups – a subtle gathering that keeps happening over recent decades.
As the national director of the Village Square, Liz Joyner, puts it: “We’re increasingly choosing to associate only with our ‘tribe’ rather than bravely disagree face to face. Bunkered up at home with information sources that serve as a virtual amen chorus for everything we want to believe, we can’t seem to tolerate the people we used to share town meetings with.”
Surrounded by our customized news outlets and online communities, each of our tribes are regularly served up with announcements about the latest offenses by Those People that assure (and reassure) us that We, of course, are on the unquestionably Right Side of history.
We have to wonder, within these kinds of air-tight echo-chambers, how will any of us gain new insight – especially the kind that challenges our own tightly held worldviews?
This book’s second author, Arthur Peña, is a gay Christian man who writes, “The fault lines of the culture war run straight through my heart. And I find I have no choice but to seek dialogic bridges over those fault lines in order to heal my own fractured soul…and maybe, just maybe, even get a glimpse of the whole truth.”
Not only are these glimpses less likely to happen in the echo-chamber, research suggests that like-minded conversations frequently increase the level of polarization.
How committed are we to seeing and understanding new things that we haven’t seen before? How willing are we to hear questions about – and even challenges to – what we each hold to be precious?
If there is a common motivation for talking across difference it goes something like this, ‘yeah sure – I’ll spend time with Those People…as long as there’s a chance to get them to join our side?! Otherwise, why waste my time?’ 
Flirting with another possibility. That’s not what the authors of this book believe. In fact, our life experiences – and that of our review team – offer abundant proof to the contrary. As a collection of people on the right and left, secular and religious, with various experiences of sexual orientation (and even more varied ways of describing them), our lives are fuller, richer and more joyful because of conversations, relationships and friendships we’ve had with, yes…Those People (who see the world very differently than we do).
For that reason, we’re naturally interested in helping others experience what we have seen and felt, especially since all around us, we see people having a completely different experience. At best, Those People have become a source of major annoyance to us – and at worst, they’re the cause of ongoing pain, even a seeming threat to our freedom and very existence. As dark emotion takes a hold of us, we can become even more suspicious of others’ motives and convinced that they (“those gay activists” or “those religious people”) must be consciously trying to hurt other people (and society as a whole).
In every direction, civic and family relationships continue to be strained and soured in this conversation in a way that has metastasized into an alarming level of hostility, even violence, across the country.
Although the authors of this book disagree (even vociferously) on virtually every meaningful question in the LGBT/religious conservative discussion, what we agree upon has brought us together in this project.
Starting with this: we’re convinced the quality of public conversation has real, tangible and long-term consequences for all of us. As Phil Neisser, at State University of New York, argued in his first book, United We Fall, Americans seem to be losing their capacity to disagree in healthy ways. If nothing changes (to preserve and defend and nourish that capacity), we’re part of a growing number of Americans who believe that the increasing heat of our current socio-political “climate” may prove disastrous down the road.
An invitation. For anyone with similar concerns (and especially for anyone carrying around their own frustration or suspicion over LGBT questions), thank you for taking a minute to hear us out. In lieu of meeting face-to-face in a cozy Living Room Conversation, we hope this book can function as a kind of proxy exploration that opens the space in a similar way.
For instance, here are some questions we’ve posed to people ourselves: Are you open to the possibility that the ‘other side’ in this conversation has acted in recent years with integrity according to their own sincerely-held convictions and beliefs (in other words, in line with what they feel the world really needs)? More specifically, to liberal-leaning readers, are you open to the possibility that religious conservatives have spoken and acted out of any motivation other than hate or fear? And to conservative-leaning readers, are you open to the possibility that progressive folks have acted out of any motivation besides anger or evil itself?
If you’ve been listening in to the larger American conversation, you may already know what many people would say in response to these questions: absolutely not!
Baffled. This brings us to one of the stand-out themes from our analysis of thousands of online comments gathered since Proposition 8 – labeled simply, “bafflement.”
It shows up on both sides – like these comments from the right:
Or comments like this from the left:
As reflected here, those with concerns are frequently depicted as lacking in basic intelligence or humanity. Following Windsor v. United States, other people said this:
With surprising frequency, those resisting LGBT affirmative changes are portrayed as embarrassingly regressive – somehow wanting a “return to the Dark Ages” – or as “fanatics” who are as “bad as the Taliban.”
As noted above, there’s plenty of Bafflement on the right as well, everything from ‘don’t they care that they are destroying America’ to a wonder at how quickly the country has turned against a more orthodox understanding of sacred text and teaching.
What each side has in common, then, is utter astonishment at how Those People could possibly disagree. After the same U.S. Supreme Court decision, one person described it as “a temporary victory for sanity.”
In a conversation where insanity, evil, malevolence, fanaticism, ignorance, lack of intelligence and being un-civilized have become go-to explanations for why others disagree with us…how in heaven’s name are we supposed to have any sort of a productive conversation together?
Moving in another direction. Despite what some people hope, religious conservatives aren’t going away. Neither is the gay community. So what to do?
For starters, how about meeting each other? In person. And long enough to let the other’s experience, insights and humanity sink in.
If, after this kind of an encounter, we are only more convinced of the malevolence and evil of the Other – well then, at least we can sleep better knowing we’ve given Them a chance. (:
But in fact, many of us have found that meeting Them in person almost always generates interesting new insights…including this one: thoughtful, good-hearted people can disagree on lots of important things.
If that’s true, then other things might follow. For instance, maybe we could simply insist on a space where everyone at least gets heard?
What we’re trying to do. Since 2003, Jacob has been exploring different kinds of evidence to better understand basic themes and patterns across the national conversation on gay rights. First in original interviews, then in discourse analyses of online comments, he has been consistently struck at how nuanced and rich the contrasts in understanding are across virtually every aspect of the conversation. Although each of these many questions seem fruitful as sources of potential learning and dialogue, remarkably little attention is being given to any of them. Encouraging greater (and more productive) space for these kinds of meaningful questions has subsequently become one of Jacob’s main interests.
But what would that really take?
The one thing Jacob was sure about was that it would take the involvement of more than one person or side or perspective. As Kadlec and Friedman have summarized, healthy conversation settings – especially on contested issues – share the following feature: “no single entity with a stake in the substantive outcome of the deliberation should be the main designer or guarantor of the process.”
In other words, even after reviewing hundreds of stories, comments and articles, I (Jacob) still had only one pair of eyes. And as much as I tried to hear out and understand diverse views and perspectives, I could still only write from my own standpoint. Among the best methods I’ve found to discover blind-spots are dialogue and collaboration with people I disagree with…experiences that have been life-changing for me in so many ways.
Arthur Peña, in particular, has become a confidante and critical accountability partner in this learning process– with his quotes, insights and influence permeating much of what you’ll be reading here. Indeed, this book would not have half its insight or power without Arthur.
In addition, we’ve reached out to recruit a team of other writers and thinkers to help provide broader accountability for a sufficiently nuanced finished product. This bigger team represents maximally diverse life experiences, political persuasions, sexual preferences and identity constructs.
How is a group so ‘at odds’ supposed to do something together, let alone write something half-coherent? If not for our own past experience with this kind of collaboration and dialogue, we would be skeptical as well. But some of our most powerful writing experiences have involved intense disagreement among the various authors.
In other words, we’re getting a little help from Those People in order to learn what it would take to have a more productive LGBT/religious conservative conversation.
We realize that isn’t quite as exciting as VANQUISHING the ENEMY.
And compared to the latest in-depth look at who has been offended by what insult today, we really won’t be able to compete…unless people are looking for real, honest-to-goodness intimacy across this divide. If that’s what they’re looking for, we can help.
And here’s the thing…WE CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS. Can’t we?
We believe it’s time to move beyond superficial and aggressive LGBT/religious conservative conversation, doing what it takes to collectively leave behind chronic disgust, resentment and yes, maybe even some of the bafflement (on both sides!) that others don’t happen to share our most cherished convictions.
Trust us: It DOESN’T have to be this way. We’ve experienced for ourselves what a more nuanced and generous LGBT/religious conservative conversation looks like and feels like. And we’re writing this, in part, simply to remind people that it’s both possible and worth fighting for!
Looking forward. Even if you don’t feel the same way (yet), thanks for at least hearing out this proposal for another way forward for LGBT and religious conservative communities.
A bigger, more spacious way.…a less aggressive and more generous way. A more enjoyable and less painful way.
Essentially, we’re pitching the exact opposite of the homogenized echo-chamber that has become Tribalized America – experimenting with a larger infrastructure within which people with real disagreements not only come together, but do so productively.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote with concern about the “incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.”
More than simply “tolerating” each other, we believe it’s time to look for opportunities to each move beyond the relentless, wearying battles to persuade and convince, and increasingly reach what Tinder calls “the attentive society” – a more mindful place “in which people listen seriously to those with whom they fundamentally disagree,” and where is cultivated a “widespread willingness” to talk openly with each other in pursuit of ever-greater understanding.
That’s the purpose of this book – to FIGHT for a better conversation – and provide everything we know that might offer some kind of inspiration and practical guidance to move those with interest in that direction.
“That direction,” by the way, isn’t a land of Milk and Honey where we hold hands and sing songs together.
As Arthur has written extensively about, there’s a war going on, and on a fundamental level, we believe that for many disagreements there may be no ultimate “reconciliation” to be found.
That means there are difficult moments ahead and challenges to navigate across the LGBT/religious conservative impasse.
But what would it mean to navigate them together – with some degree of trust in each other’s integrity, a bit of generosity in the process – and better and better understanding.
Indeed, if we move in this direction, maybe we will end up saying (or thinking) a little less frequently– ‘I can’t BELIEVE they’re crazy enough to think THAT?!”
Honestly, the authors of this book don’t really say that anymore (well, hardly ever). By sitting down regularly with our own political and social opposites, not only has our understanding of others’ experiences grown, but our appreciation and affection for these newfound friends overpowers any lingering fear and anger.
For Jacob, rather than “those liberals,” it is Phil, and Nicole, Elaine, Wendy, John, Tracy, Dave and Joan – who have taught him wonderful things. And for Arthur, rather than “those religious conservatives,” it is John, Patricia & Jon. As a result of knowing (and loving) these life-long friends, in other words, it’s no longer hard to see how someone could disagree with us and still be “a good person.”
And we’re not unique! For anyone who experiences this work for himself or herself, it’s simply impossible not to appreciate the nuance of our richly diverse world.
And the curiosity only grows…The more time we spend time in this dialogue, the more complex and rich it becomes – with so very much more yet to understand. As our understanding grows, it also becomes increasingly possible to find solutions that honor the humanity of everyone.
In what follows, we’ll share what we’ve learned in this process. Although this very much remains a work in progress, in what follows we share an overview of our beta drafts of the whole project.
Overview. After providing more extensive details about this proposed Third Space (Ch. 1), we turn to look more squarely at critiques and concerns about the idea (Ch. 2) – as well as its possible benefits.
Following a deeper inquiry into the logistics involved in creating a broader infrastructure for talking (Ch. 3), we then take up some of the many questions we’ve seen at the heart of LGBT/religious conservative disagreements (Ch.4). In each case, we provide example of the contrasting ideas, considering the practical impact they have in people’s lives.
Directly related to these contrasting narratives is the question of pressure, power and control (Ch. 5) – with different takes on who is “imposing” on whom and whose freedom is most threatened.
Subsequent chapters detail several ways to nourish the Third Space – including the good faith attempts to describe our differences in a way recognizable to both sides (Ch. 6).
Given the tendency of both sides to insist that research “proves” their position, we next consider the ‘weaponization of scientific research’ (Ch. 7) and how to get beyond the related threat of ever expanding echo-chambers (Ch. 8).
We then ask, can we disagree about ‘who who are’…without becoming enemies? (Ch. 9) – and turn our attention to the especially thorny and sensitive question of religious authority (Ch. 10). Finally, we look at the fundamental decision facing all of us: which narrative do we accept as true? (Ch. 11).
We conclude with a rousing We Can Do This (!!) Pep-Rally in conclusion – sure to leave goose-pimples on your dialogue-craving skin.
So what do you think. Are you in?!
If so, welcome to the conversation. Bring all your questions, concerns – and especially your disagreements.
We can’t wait to hear what you think…
 Although we frame conversation here as happening between the “LGBT” and “religious conservative” communities as a generally accurate description of the overall discourse, clearly there is significant overlap between the two – especially with (previously or currently) religious conservative individuals who identify as part of the gay community. A second group of religiously conservative individuals who ‘experience same sex attraction’ (as it is described in these communities) do not typically identify with the LGBT community or its socio-political goals. Both groups are centrally relevant to this text with its focus on the larger (especially American) conversation.
It should probably also be pointed out that the divide we speak of here is between conservative and liberal worldviews, not between religious and secular worldviews, inasmuch as many LGBT folks and their supporters are deeply religious and believe – as do their conservative opponents – that “God is on their side.”
 For example, group members of the same nationality who start out by disapproving of the US, and are suspicious of its intentions, will end up with greater disapproval and suspicion after they exchange points of view. Roger Brown, Social Psychology: The Second Edition (New York: Free Press, 1986), 206–207.
 There’s nothing wrong with persuasion (or a desire to persuade) – and nothing about PASSION for your cause or convictions that disqualifies someone from offering great contributions to this conversation. As we’ll be exploring later, it all depends on the details of intention and how that conviction is brought into the conversation. For now, just know that conviction and passion are (most) WELCOME in dialogue!
 Sometimes Jacob, as the primary author, will write in first person describing his experiences (“I”). Other times, Jacob and Arthur will write together (specifying their names). And other times, the entire writing team will refer to itself (“we”).
 All direct quotes taken from the discourse analysis research described in a later chapter. When a quote is not direct, single quotation marks are used.
 Even Supreme Court Justices are portrayed as not smart enough or good-hearted enough (when they reach conclusions we disagree with). For instance, when a decision was reached on Windsor v. United States, public comments included:
 Because Jacob has done most of his writing (and all of his living) from a standpoint within the Mormon faith community, he necessarily writes from that standpoint – with many examples reflecting wrestles within Mormonism and between Mormonism and the larger culture. Arthur likewise has his own standpoint informed by a variety of sources.
 The goal has been to achieve, in qualitative research lingo, literally a “maximum variation” sampling of perspectives and views.
 For instance, in a paper on contested views of mental health recovery, it was hugely helpful to have both the conventional and critical psychiatric views. And in another related project, the Red Blue Purple Dictionary (now called the All Sides Dictionary), I’ve found the diversity of our team not only helpful, but essential and even indispensable to achieving our writing goals. And I feel the same way about this project.
 Without necessarily relinquishing our desire to persuade and convince…all invaluable aspects of healthy dialogue and deliberation – in their proper places and degrees.
 Clearly not everyone, as we’ve discovered. Some are satisfied with the current conversation – indeed, are dependent upon and grateful for the terms of the current conversation in different ways. To these we say, we hope you at least hear us out and understand our passion – even if you never feel our enthusiasm about a broader conversation itself.