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“The Village Square creates a place for civilized conversation”

By Sharon Kant-Rauch

When Pastor Rick Warren was invited to give the invocation at President-Elect Barack Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration, gays and others on the left raised a loud and vociferous chorus of protest about Warren’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion.

Some on the right were also offended – they say Warren isn’t conservative enough and shouldn’t share the stage with someone who supports a woman’s right to choose.

It’s exactly that kind of political polarization that Liz Joyner and The Village Square, the group she helped found, hope to break. For more than a year, Joyner has brought Democrats and Republicans together every quarter for dinner and what she calls “civilized” conversation – no name-calling and yelling allowed, just thoughtful, engaged discussion.

At Tuesday’s dinner, a bipartisan panel will tackle a particularly thorny topic: Faith in the Public Square.

“We seem to be living in a time when we’ve stopped talking to people we disagree with . . . and we aren’t having good conversations about things that matter,” Joyner said. “I think we can do better than that.”

On Tuesday, Joyner said, she is going to tell the panelists to fight like the Founding Fathers.

“Have a real discussion, but do it with civility and grace.”

The relationship between the co-chairs of The Village Square – City Commissioner Allan Katz and Tallahassee Community College President Bill Law – provides one example of the possibilities for dialogue. Katz, a Democrat, and Law, a Republican, have different views on how to solve social problems, but during periodic jogs together and informal monthly get-togethers, they’ve learned to respect and trust one another’s judgment.

“We come from different places, but we realized that just sitting down together with our talking points wasn’t going to get us anywhere,” said Katz, who will act as moderator for Tuesday’s panel discussion. “We had to be willing to really listen to what the other one was saying.”

Lea Marshall, a Republican who has attended all of The Village Square dinners, said she goes to listen to the speakers she supports. But she often comes away with some truth from the other side.

During the last dinner, for example, which took place before the election, one speaker said that people who believe that only “their guy” could save the country were verging on idolatry.

“That made me look at the election differently,” Marshall said. “The take-home lesson didn’t come from the person I originally went to hear.”

Ken Connor, one of Tuesday’s panelists, said it was important to create a calm atmosphere where people have a chance to listen to the merits of an argument. Connor, an attorney, is the former president of Florida Right to Life and the author of “Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty.”

“If the volume is loud and the face is red, there is little opportunity to convince and persuade one another,” Connor said. “Sounds to me like what The Village Square is saying is ‘Look, we want people to have equal access to the marketplace of ideas.’ I think the outcome of that discussion will demonstrate that some ideas are better than others.”

Connor’s fellow panelists include:

W. Dexter Douglass, an attorney who has practiced Florida law for half a century, was the lead counsel for Al Gore in the infamous “Florida Recount” of 2000 and is a 16-year member of the board of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind.

The Rev. Allison DeFoor, who served as vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida from 2002 to 2006, is an Episcopal priest who works in prison ministries and an environmental consultant who has served as director of the Florida Audubon Society and president of the Florida Land Trust Association.

Leo Sandon, a professor emeritus of religion and American studies at FSU, longtime religion columnist for the Tallahassee Democrat and ordained Presbyterian minister.

Nonsectarian religion in our schools: a mini-history

I’m delighted to make persuasively argued edits to the following, if advanced with civility.

(Corollary: I don’t even care if you’re right if you’re rude…)

1. Framers of our Constitution had a wild and crazy idea (that was more likely than not to get them hung) about people being the bosses instead of kings. Not only would we run the whole dang country, but we’d make our own decisions about God. No one, really NO ONE had ever had the unmitigated gall to do this before. They were pretty dang sure that God looked favorably upon their endeavor because they succeeded against some ridiculously long odds.

2. Many of their ideas were firmly planted in Protestant soil, more or less the only religious game in town at the time. The idea of liberty of conscience (the basket the Framers put all their eggs in) was very mushed up together with the Protestant concept of a personal relationship with God, vis-a-vis direct study of the Bible, not mediated by the Catholic dudes in funny hats or even those bossy Brits in purple.

3. All those old guys in tights and wigs saw religion and talk of good behavior and the threat of a good eternal comeuppance as an important influence on the masses of people who might otherwise have been a bit prickly and hard to manage.

4. Sooner or later, they figured out that well-educated citizens would make better bosses, so – tada – they formed common schools. Religion and morality were fundamentally critical to that education.

5. But, hmmm, since this new country of theirs had a bunch of bosses with a bunch of different Protestant religions, exactly whose religion and morality would be taught? They decided to agree where they could and not get too fussy about doctrinal differences. Nonsectarian Protestant Christianity was officially the coin of the realm in schools.

6. A lot of Catholics died in Ireland during the Great Famine.

7. A lot of Catholics came to America because the word had gotten out about all these people who could be their own bosses in America. And when they got here they noticed that when they went to school they were taught things that the Pope didn’t exactly intend to teach them. So they asked if they could not come during the Bible reading part of the day, or if they could have their own schools paid for that the Pope liked better.

8. They were pretty much told “no” because of the republican ideas and Protestant ideas that were pretty mushed up together. (And, truth be told, because there were fewer of them to squawlk about it.) They learned to live with it and some of them paid to go to their own schools. (Some states even passed some laws making it so government wouldn’t ever pay for the Pope’s sort of schooling.) The Catholics did learn a lot about being American in these schools and pretty soon started to fit right in.

9. Then, because the word got out about this country that let people be their own bosses, Mormons came. And Jehovah’s Witnesses came. And eventually just about every stripe of religious people came. Even people who didn’t believe in God liked the idea of liberty of conscience. And they came too.

10. Darn it if there weren’t just so many different sorts of beliefs that they had a really hard time agreeing about what they agreed about.

11. Eventually some of these people started speaking up about their different ideas about God and the dudes in black robes agreed with them that they had liberty of conscience too and told the schools they couldn’t read the Bible anymore. The schools can teach the things that you need to know to be an American, but without the religion part of it that we can’t possibly agree on.

12. Many of the Protestants who had actually started this whole ball of a country rolling considered it so fundamental to the success of their country that morality be teamed with democracy that they were very worried indeed and also pretty seriously sore at the dudes in black robes.

13. Some of them even started to reconsider those laws that say government can’t pay for religious schooling, even the Pope’s kind.

14. They were in a bit of a pickle. But, then again, this country full of individuals had already learned a lot about working things out…

Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Written by Thomas Jefferson in 1779, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is worth a read. At the time of its writing, the Church of England was Virginia’s official church and there had been a run of violence against Protestant dissenters. It was the hotbed of religious disagreement in the founders’ day. Here’s a clip:

…that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry…

Armstrong on “logos” made lethal

From Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God:

One of the worst atrocities had been perpetrated by Germans, who lived in one of the most cultivated societies in Europe. It was no longer possible to assume that a rational education would eliminate barbarism, since the Nazi Holocaust revealed that a concentration camp could exist in the same vicinity as a great university. The sheer scale of the Nazi genocide or the Soviet Gulag reveals their modern origins.

For decades, men and women had dreamed of a final apocalypse wrought by God; now, it appeared, human beings no longer needed a supernatural deity to end the world. They had used their prodigious skill and learning to find the means of doing this very efficiendy for themselves. As they contemplated these new facts of life, peofle became aware as never before of the limitations of the rationalistic ethos. Faced with catastrophe on such a scale, reason is silent; there is-literally-nothing that it can say…

The Holocaust was an example of scientific and rational planning, in which everything is subordinated to a single, limited, and clearly defined objective. Born of modern scientific racism, the Holocaust was the ultimate in social engineering in what has been called the “garden” culture of the twentieth century. Science itself was also deeply implicated in the death camps and the eugenic experiments carried out there. At the very least, the Holocaust showed that a secularist ideology could be just as lethal as religious crusade…

The death camp and the mushroom cloud are icons that we must contemplate and take to heart so that we do not become chauvinistic about the modern scientific culture that so many of us in the developed world enjoy.

Armstrong also writes that many Christian thinkers blamed Darwinism for the tragedy in Nazi Germany. If true, could this speak to the error of turning logos (Darwinian evolution*) into a mythos that powered a genocide?

*Yes, I know, some would disagree that evolution is logos

Liz Joyner: The Seesaw

tree-small.jpgNeither of my kids spent much time on the seesaw at the park in their younger days. If I had to guess why, it would be that it was a little too much work for a day at the park. It was rare when they got a seesaw partner who didn’t require serious weight and momentum adjustment—sliding forward or backward, pushing hard at the bottom to get your end back up in the air, or, as was more often the case with my slender little girls, perched suspended three feet up, pretty much unable to control a thing.

As my sixteen-year-old has grown into a young woman, she’s been exposed to many a political dinner table conversation from the perspective of my side of the political seesaw. But as much as she’s heard me yammer, I’ve only now just noticed that she’s suspended in mid air with her feet dangling, no where near solid ground. I’m afraid I’ve been responsible for providing her only half the argument in a country that requires citizens to understand the whole one.

Trying to give her a shove back down to terra firma, I’ve had a series of conversations with her about—ultimately—what I deeply believe. There’s been a bit of personal political archeology involved here, as, in the daily shuffle, there are times when I’m too immersed in the veneer to reach for the foundation. Here’s where I found my foundation: What lasts, what matters from all of our daily political struggles is what keeps America who we are. What matters is the two-party system that creates a tension of opposites, the left keeping the right from marching into fascism, the right keeping the left from slipping into communism. What lasts is the best ideas that rise to the top, the product of our endless, sometimes painfully difficult dialog. Were it not for the tension, the struggle, we wouldn’t be America.

When power concentrates on one side of this non-stop American seesaw, it’s time for the grown-ups to give it a firm shove on one side. I sense the American public is ready to give a firm parental shove right about now too. But there is risk in this weight adjustment when we’ve been so used to pushing hard and having nothing happen… we risk that we’ll send the other guy miles into the air. Okay, so I’ll admit it, right now that may not seem so bad, but pause for a moment to consider what happens after the other guy’s fanny lands back on the seesaw. I never took physics but I’m fairly sure that all that energy has to go someplace and it may not be pretty when it does.

So, here’s to keeping the big picture in mind as each “side” shoves to get more momentum… hoping there are enough grownups to keep the traffic on the seesaw well-behaved.


Liz Joyner is the cofounder of the Village Square. You can reach her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org.

**This post represents the genesis of the thinking that would ultimately become The Village Square. I first wrote “The Seesaw” in March of 2006, when the Democrats had no political power. Now they control both Congress and the presidency.

The seesaw works both ways, folks.

Team of Rivals; Team of Neighbors


Back when The Village Square was just a gleam in a few of our eyes, the concept of “A Team of Rivals”, as described in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book of the same title, was highly recommended to us as intellectual fodder by journalist, friend, thinker and all-around-smart-guy Neil Skene.

Perhaps our Village Square version could be best described as a “Team of Neighbors”?

We’re glad to see that President-Elect Barack Obama is finally falling in line behind our “Big Idea.” (Yes, it should be duly noted that we had this idea well before Barack Obama, although – to be honest – a few years after Lincoln.)

To be sure, Lincoln’s team contained a component of the adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” But political calculation aside, a connection between divergent camps of prominent thought yields an expansion of creative thinking (even if difficulty comes in holding its hand), serving to improve the success of any solution chosen.

Better discover the weaknesses of your “side” with an “opponent” before finding out in blood and money.

“A more perfect union”

As we move forward with civility after Tuesday’s election, it’s worth it for critics on the left side of the aisle to note the grace demonstrated in the loss on the right side of the aisle. Do I hear the sound of bygones being bygones? Well, you just never know…

“I urge all Americans … I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited…” —John McCain

“No matter how they cast their ballots, all Americans can be proud of the history that was made yesterday. Across the country citizens voted in large numbers. They showed the watching world the vitality of America’s democracy and the strides we have made towards a more perfect union. It shows a president whose journey represents a triumph of the American story. It will be a stirring sight to watch President Obama, his wife Michelle and their beautiful girls step through the doors of the White House.” –President George Bush

“One of the great things about representing this country is that it continues to surprise, it continues to renew itself, it continues to beat all odds and expectations. You just know that Americans are not going to be satisfied until we really do form that more perfect union and while the perfect union may never be in sight, we just keep working on it and trying…” –Condoleeza Rice

The “Power of &” goes economic

Are you like me and horribly confused by just how we got to this economic precipice? Have you noticed two distinctly different versions of the story from each political campaign? Well, as usual, the operating principle – when seeking truth – is to find the AND rather than the EITHER/OR. Thanks to Fact Check.org and Time Magazine for this exercise in AND.

So, who’s responsible, using the “Power of &”?

The Federal Reserve, which slashed interest rates after the dot-com bubble burst, making credit cheap.

Home buyers, who took advantage of easy credit to bid up the prices of homes excessively.

Congress, which continues to support a mortgage tax deduction that gives consumers a tax incentive to buy more expensive houses.

Real estate agents, most of whom work for the sellers rather than the buyers and who earned higher commissions from selling more expensive homes.

The Clinton administration, which pushed for less stringent credit and downpayment requirements for working- and middle-class families.

Mortgage brokers, who offered less-credit-worthy home buyers subprime, adjustable rate loans with low initial payments, but exploding interest rates.

Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who in 2004, near the peak of the housing bubble, encouraged Americans to take out adjustable rate mortgages.

Wall Street firms, who paid too little attention to the quality of the risky loans that they bundled into Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS), and issued bonds using those securities as collateral.

The Bush administration, which failed to provide needed government oversight of the increasingly dicey mortgage-backed securities market.

An obscure accounting rule called mark-to-market, which can have the paradoxical result of making assets be worth less on paper than they are in reality during times of panic.

Collective delusion, or a belief on the part of all parties that home prices would keep rising forever, no matter how high or how fast they had already gone up.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson: Hunkering down in ideology

In discussing one deceptive ad from each of our presidential campaigns, Kathleen Hall Jamieson was asked by host Bill Moyers “how is the audience to catch up to the truth of this?” Jamieson:

“The audience has to break out of the partisan media context that reinforces the belief that these ads are accurate… you hope that that partisan audience has enough exposure to places that give you both sides so they’re able to hear the other side and is able to hear credible sources… to indicate when their side is wrong and when the other side is wrong. It’s easy to hear those times when the other side is wrong, it’s much harder to be in places to hear that your side is wrong. First, because increasingly we’re not going to those kinds of places, it’s also difficult – because of the way we hunker down in our own ideology – for us to hear when our own side is actually not telling us the truth.

Paraphrasing, Jameson said “buy Village Square tickets.”

The low road, version 1.0

As news from the campaign trail get uglier and uglier, as fact takes a back seat to whatever the character assassination flavor-of-the-day, as one needs to bathe after the simple act of watching the evening news, it’s about time for this blast from the past:

In 1800, the Federalist Gazette suggested that if Jefferson were elected over Adams, they would see a devastation of “those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin – which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence.”

In their version of today’s editorial endorsement, they wrote:

At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is “Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON AND NO GOD!!!”

Worth noting for an advocate of civility in politics (and perhaps duly noted by media critics)?

Jefferson won anyway.

Peggy Noonan: “hit our game in a higher way”

More from Peggy Noonan, author of “Patriotic Grace”, on Meet The Press yesterday:

We may in our country may face difficult days ahead. And even immediately ahead. When you keep your mind on that you release, whoa, this whole partisan gamesmanship is OVER, it’s yesterday. What we need now is grace. We need real patriotism in which patriotism isn’t used as a weapon in a campaign. Patriotism actually needs grace in order to function. We need to be our best selves right now, we’ve got to hit our game in a higher way. We’ve got to be forbearing. We’ve got to be adults. I sometimes think one of the problems in America is there are too many people who don’t want to embrace the role of a grownup.

Declaration on Civility and Inclusive Leadership

From the Center for the Study of the Presidency comes an intelligent and inspirational work, Declaration on Civility and Inclusive Leadership, setting an appropriately high bar for our nation’s leadership. It’s high time we stop being primarily Republicans and Democrats and become (deep breath now, this is radical) Americans. As David Abshire (this week’s Village Square speaker) and Max Kampelman write:

Civility does not require citizens to give up cherished beliefs or dilute their convictions. Rather, it requires respect, listening, and trust when interacting with those who hold differing viewpoints. Indeed, civility and inclusive leadership have often been exercised in the American experience as a means of moving to higher, common ground and developing more creative approaches to realize shared aspirations.

“Beware the terrible simplifiers.”

Bill Moyers commentary on the week of political goings-on with the Reverend Wright media blitz contained in it both a finger-wag at politics as usual (hard not to love that) and the daggone best quote I’ve ever heard. Moyers:

Politics often exposes us to the corroding acid of the politics of personal destruction, but I’ve never seen anything like this – this wrenching break between pastor and parishioner. Both men, no doubt, will carry the grief to their graves. All the rest of us should hang our heads in shame for letting it come to this in America, where the gluttony of the non-stop media grinder consumes us all and prevents an honest conversation on race. It is the price we’re paying for failing to heed the great historian Jacob Burkhardt who said: “Beware the terrible simplifiers.”