We do not all need to believe the same thing

How Better Angels is restoring civility to political discourse

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Former Simpson College professor and U.S. Marine, Dr. Steve Rose.

Editor’s note: Dr. Steve Rose was the pastor who married The Wayne County Independent’s Jason W. Selby and Jennifer Pruiett-Selby, while Dr. Christopher Peters prolonged Dennis Alley of Corydon’s life with skillful heart surgery, before running as a Republican for a seat on the U.S. House of Representatives.

At first, I hoped it wouldn’t happen, a Better Angels workshop on the Graceland University campus on March 24. Not that I was afraid of stating my views, far from it. As a retired professor, I was used to having my say, often to a captive audience. But for a while it seemed touch and go: the organizer, Christian Sarabia, soon to be a graduating senior from Graceland, had warned me that the event might be called off if he couldn’t get enough liberals. That made me important, or at least necessary.

Sarabia would have no such problem if he were organizing the event in Indianola, or adjoining Polk County. But evidently it was important, important enough that he convinced me to skip the interfaith Lenten service I had helped organize for the Indianola faith community so I could participate to represent the “Blue” perspective.

Better Angels is a nationwide organization that brings members of conflicting ideologies—let’s call them conservatives and liberals to keep it simple—into genuine, civil conversation. People attending these meetings learn an organized, honoring way to truly listen to each other, and the goal is to make more civil the American discussion of politics and policy. The meeting I attended was geared to just that end.

Currently there have been Better Angels workshops and debates in 34 states, Iowa obviously one of them. About 7,000 folks are dues-paying members (yours truly included), and nearly 23,000 people subscribe to Better Angels newsletters and so on. Iowa is fairly recent in coming on board with workshops, encounters and debates. Better Angels is a growing organization; as of January of 2018, there were about 48,000 members, so the organization has increased membership by two-thirds in seven months. The organization was spawned by the growing incivility in politics, in particular the Presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton and the aftermath of that election.

The phrase Better Angels is drawn from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address (March 4, 1861). Old Abe hoped, vainly as it turns out, to persuade the “slave states” from seceding from the union. He concluded that speech with this plea: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Back to 2019. Less than a score of souls gathered on a March morning at Graceland University’s library. We participated in a day-long workshop designed to get people of marked different ideologies to listen to each other, to show each other that each side could be understood by the other, but not necessarily to change the participant’s ideology. We were there to understand, not persuade. F.Y.I., there are also skillbuilding classes and debates put on by the Better Angels organization, and many of the participants in the workshop I attended had also attended a skillbuilding event held the day before. An actual debate sponsored by Better Angels has not occurred in Iowa, to my knowledge.

There were seven self-defined liberals, a.k.a. Blues and an equal number of conservatives, i.e. Reds. Each side included one Graceland University professor, five Graceland students/alumni, and one “outsider.” I was the liberal outsider, and Dr. Chris Peters of Iowa City joined ranks with the conservatives. Two moderators headed up the meeting.

We started by introducing ourselves by something other than their political “side.” A nice array of academic and personal interests and aspirations emerged, including one Red who had a thriving taxidermy business that included preserving baby giraffes. Then we got down to work. the first task involved members of each group “breaking out” into another space with one of the moderators. Each group compiled a list of positions and traits which they believed represented them, in the perspective of the opposite side. We liberals brainstormed that the “cons” perceived us to be “snowflakes” and that we were soft on crime. The conservatives decided that the “libs” believed them to be bigoted gun nuts who were anti-immigrant, anti-environment and pro-Trump.

After that session we shared a modest lunch. Interestingly, the two groups tended to intermingle without being instructed to do so. As an “old guy” over 60 I found myself in conversation with one of the other “old guys,” Dr. Peters, and we developed a rapport and friendship that has continued to this day, including Chris joining my RAGBRAI bicycling team The Skunks for this year’s Great Bike Ride Across Iowa [which will pass through Wayne County in 2019].

After lunch, we gathered in our separate groups and brainstormed why the other side might perceive us by the negative qualities we assigned to ourselves. For example, we Blues believed that a lot of Hollywood media types had trumpeted our positions so loudly and dramatically that the American public might perceive us as being softheaded and insolated from the rough and tumble of the real world. Likewise, the Reds decided that support for the Second Amendment was construed as supporting the use of weaponry to create atrocities like school shootings, and that supporting a crackdown on illegal entry across the Mexican border (Build that wall!) could be passed off as disregard for human life.

This process continued for quite some time: each side had to look at the other side’s positions with an attempt to understand, not to denigrate or deny. In my opinion, this was the most important part of the brainstorming process: to really delve into the possibility that “the other side” might have a point. It’s easy for me, as a Christian, to say that all human beings are to be treated as the children of God, but harder for me as a pragmatist to figure out how to deal with the flood of emigrants who seek asylum in the USA. And I know from listening to other side’s later conversation that an equal level of soul searching was drawn to the same issue: immigration and the Biblical perspective on asylum.

Next, we met as a large group and shared our brainstorming, aided by sheets of butcher paper that recorded our thoughts. Both sides seemed buoyed by realizing that their counterparts had some understanding of what they thought. We explained our notes to the other group, attempting with gentle admonitions from the moderators not to poke holes in what we thought were the other side’s opinions about our positions.

After that, we gathered in our own groups and compiled a list of our separate positions from a positive perspective. I’ll freely admit that I played the “Christian card” extensively as my group defended its choices on immigration, the death penalty, and so on. Others in my group shared my beliefs but from a more secular perspective. As we Blues went through this process, we were relatively subdued and nuanced. There wasn’t much drum beating or bear baiting. I’ve no doubt the same was true of the Reds.

The workshop concluded with each group presenting their positions from a positive perspective—as they saw them. The other (note that I did not use the term opposing) group was to listen, just listen. They might ask for points of clarification, but they were not to do so in a corrective or antagonistic manner. It was amazing how much we felt heard from the other side, not necessarily agreed with—far from that—but heard, understood. Were anyone’s opinions dramatically changed—I doubt it. But could we sit down with members of the other group and work together on a common project? I believe emphatically that the bridges of civility were built strongly enough that we could.

An old adage tells us that “All politics is local.” I’d bend that a bit. I believe that most politics are relational in their origins, driven by who we know, what they think, and what we share with others we know and respect, much more than they are shaped by abstract ideology. Case in point—my newfound friend Dr. Peters may well run again for U.S. Representative Iowa’s second Congressional District where the incumbent, Democrat Dave Loebsack, is retiring. I thank God I do not live in that district. Now that I know Chris as a thinking, feeling, and highly intelligent man, I’d have a hard time voting against him.

Why? On one hand I’ve been a staunch liberal since I left the U.S. Marines in 1971 and subsequently became a student activist for the Presidential campaign of George McGovern who lost by record numbers in 1972. I’ve been a card-carrying ACLU member for nearly that long. But I know Chris! He’s razor-sharp, committed to the public good as he sees it and honest to the bone. Despite our differences, I have ultimate faith in Chris trying to do what’s right in a way that would never have happened had I not gotten to know him via the Better Angels.

I believe in my heart that Chris is indeed a Better Angel, and I believe my participation in this process has moved me a step closer to my harp and wings.

This article will give one a great sense of the Better Angel’s organization and origins. “The Bipartisan Group That’s Not Afraid of Partisanship. Rather than seeking a centrist compromise, Better Angels is treating division as a given—and trying to foster conversations across it.” David A. Graham Dec. 29, 2018.

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/12/better-angels-affective-polarization-political-divide/578539/.

This url will help the reader to better understand the Better Angels organization: https://www.better-angels.org/what-we-do/.