Discovering Common Ground

The other day, I wrote about Disagreeing Generously, a topic that I think’s incredibly important.

In a recent speech, President Obama tackled some similar issues, albeit in a much more eloquent way than I did.

Here are some excerpts from the speech and some comments from  Jim Wallis and the God’s Politics blog that I find to be very inspiring.

The media coverage and analysis of President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame on Sunday largely focused on the issue of abortion. And he did speak on that issue, clearly and strongly reiterating his own approach of finding the common ground of abortion reduction between the polarized options of “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” and naming practical solutions that many on both sides of the divide can support.

Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually; it has both moral and spiritual dimensions. So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions; let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause …

But the speech was much more than a culmination of another abortion controversy in the media. After re-reading it, I think it was likely the most significant speech Obama has made in his presidency so far in regard to many of the concerns and work of the faith community. As columnist E.J. Dionne wrote:

There were many messages sent from South Bend. Obama’s opponents seek to reignite the culture wars. He doesn’t. They would reduce religious faith to a narrow set of issues. He refused to join them. They often see theological arguments as leading to certainty. He opted for humility.

President Obama began by recognizing that our difficulty in finding common ground too often lies in our imperfections – our sin – dominating us rather than calling us to work together.

We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see here in this country and around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.

But, at the same time, he emphasized the importance of civility and how we should engage in public dialogue on issues where strong, conflicting opinions can lead us to discover that common ground.

The question, then, is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without, as Father John said, demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side? … When we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe — that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground. … Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

And the new president reminded us all that the strength of faith should produce genuine humility, rather than easy certainty, in our views, and can help lead us to a commitment to social justice.

Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen. It’s beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what [God] asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that [God’s] wisdom is greater than our own.

And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.

As I wrote on Monday, this president’s willingness to confront controversy with an appeal to common values could help to change the way we address a number of divisive and controversial issues. We live in a country where we certainly know everyone will not agree on everything. In fact, it is quite an accomplishment to even get half of the country to agree on anything. Our differences, and our ability to maintain this union in spite of them, are some of our country’s greatest strengths.

President Obama laid out a strong and positive vision for how people of faith, and the nation as a whole, can work together to face the most difficult moral questions of our time in both disagreement and unity. If you have not yet read the speech, I urge that you do.


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19 thoughts on “Discovering Common Ground

  1. I’m a follower of and occasional commenter on Unreasonable Faith (under a different name), and I thought that as you seem to be a thoughtful type I’d come have a look at your site. I haven’t got anything much to say about this particular post apart from it’s nice to see that there are some Christians who don’t conform to that well-known stereotype of cherished ignorance and intolerance. Common ground and a willingness to find some, not to mention a willingness to disagree generously, are pretty important concepts.

    1. Welcome.

      I do wonder what our world might look like if we focused on what we agree upon.

      That’s not to say we should ignore our differences — that’s simple naivety. However, I can’t help but think that we have a lot more in common with each other than we readily admit.

      1. I wonder a bit about the whole concept of there being two distinct sides. I find I disagree with large portions of both, and agree with ideas from both. I’m not a card-carrying atheist, actually I seem to be a believer despite myself (and given my history, that surpises me as much as anyone). I find some of the more outspoken and extreme “new atheists” rude at the very least, but there’s so much of the modern Christian culture in all Western countries, not just the US, that appears to me to be anywhere on a scale from pointless, through disturbing to outright dangerous. I sure can understand the anger in some of the things said by Dawkins et al.

        As to the specific issue that Obama was addressing here, well, there’s at least gradations of opinion rather than two polar opposites. Like a lot of life’s issues, really! I was raised on the “no way ever!” side of the fence, and my first full-time job out of Uni was at a women’s hospital which provides abortions as just one of the many aspects of women’s health care. They also had a teen mothers’ program, a program to care for mothers who had drug addictions, and so on. It was very educational, and helped me to develop a less black-and-white attitude. It does not mean that I think abortion is fantastic, but I do think that I have no particular right to revile anyone who thinks differently from me.

        1. I wonder a bit about the whole concept of there being two distinct sides.

          I don’t doubt that the two sides exist.

          But I do agree with you in that I don’t identify with either side exclusively. I think there are very legitimate concerns on both sides. Like leathers3 said, “We’re not even talking anymore… we’ve just picked a side.” I think that’s true for a whole lot of people, unfortunately, at least on the pro-life side, the side I’m most familiar with.

          I find some of the more outspoken and extreme “new atheists” rude at the very least, but there’s so much of the modern Christian culture in all Western countries, not just the US, that appears to me to be anywhere on a scale from pointless, through disturbing to outright dangerous.


          Do you mind sharing the name you use at UF? If not, I understand; but, I am curious. If not here, you can tweet it to me or send me a FB message (links to both in the right sidebar).

        2. “well, there’s at least gradations of opinion rather than two polar opposites.”

          I agree. My point below about the polar extremes was based on my upbringing in which there was an absolute right and everything else was wrong. I think there are many people who are far more open-minded and have beliefs somewhere between pro-life and pro-choice, but my experience has been with the “pro-life and nothing else” group. I probably didn’t state that correctly below.

          “It was very educational, and helped me to develop a less black-and-white attitude.”

          It’s interesting to me that an experience helped shape and change your original opinions and beliefs, considering I had a similar revelation through experience. Unfortunately, I worry that since many people will never have those experiences, they may not ever realize there are other opinions that are correct or fair beside their own. It’s hard to bring up conversation about topics such as abortion because, as brgulker said, “instead of having intelligent conversation about complex issues, we opt for ‘black and white.'” It’s a difficult task to promote open conversation with anyone, no matter how open-minded we believe we are, don’t you think?

        3. @ leathers3
          I think one of the major problems with the “Christian culture” is the sheltering of people from other lifestyles and points of view (without necessarily being “Christian” themselves!). I look at some of the Christians I know who are even in positions of some influence within their church, and think “you have no idea how the real world works, do you?” They have never seen another way of approaching life. They limit themselves to a small, small world, when there’s so much more, and then put pressure on others to adhere to the same limits.

          you should be able to work out who I am if you look at the email address I’m using. I was interested to see that someone at UF got attacked the other day for expressing the possibility of a conservative view on the abortion issue. Taking sides indeed.

        4. I’m not so good at posting, and I think my comments may not be going where they’re supposed to….so if they seem out of order, forgive me.

          @birdisflown: You’ve taken the words out of my mouth. I often think of friends in the exact same way – they grew up in church, never went to any other church, never went to college (not that everyone has to, but it’s a good chance to consider different worldviews), and they interact with “the world” as little as possible. I worry they’re in for a major shock if/when they leave their current circle, and I’m afraid that they’re setting up those they lead for a rude awakening as well.

  2. I was really impressed by this post. I wrote a post about Obama’s speech on my blog as well. I focused on the need for Christians to reach out and address the issue now that the notion of common ground had been introduced by one the most influential people in America.

    BTW found your blog through STR.

  3. @birdisflown
    It is just as refreshing to find someone who is thoughtful, polite, and holds a contrary opinion than most Christians. I have found that most people who have opposing viewpoints from Christians often do not care to hold a thoughtful and respectful conversation.

  4. Since much of the President’s speech was about abortion, I suppose I’ll stick with that issue as my example. So far, I’ve been fairly impressed with President Obama’s attempts to bring the country to a place of common ground, and this speech only proves the point further. It is interesting to me that so many Christians have opposed him solely for the fact that he is “pro-choice,” and therefore, an immoral person. Long ago I realized that disagreeing on one issue with a person did not mean that person (or I) was wrong or right, it just meant we viewed that issue differently.

    Having experienced an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy myself, I suddenly found myself in the place of so many women faced with the choice between having a baby and having an abortion. I’d be lying if I said that abortion never crossed my mind. I never gave it serious consideration, but I quickly realized that until we begin to look at both sides of an issue, we will never fully be able to understand each other – or at least “disagree generously.” I am not “pro-choice” now, I personally still believe that abortion is wrong, but I also know it is an extremely difficult decision to make and many women choose abortion and regret it, and they live with that guilt and shame for the rest of their lives. You won’t see me out with a t-shirt that reads, “Abortion Is Murder.” What about that will help a person who struggled with and finally chose abortion – and is living with pain and guilt from it?

    I say all that to show as an example how important it is to view both sides of an issue. I’m not suggesting all unwed women go get pregnant just to see what they would do with that responsibility, but this, like any other issue, typically has polar opposite beliefs, and there doesn’t have to be a one-or-the-other mentality concerning truth or “rightness.” Between those two poles, there’s a whole spectrum of in-between, and until we take a moment to consider what life might be like on the other end of the spectrum, it’s hard to consider that anyone is right except the ones on your side, much less realize that you typically do have much “common ground.”

    Another note – actually an interesting comment from “The View” (of all places!): Joy Behar told Elisabeth Hasselbeck she is not “pro-choice” because she is “anti-life.” She said she is personally “pro-life,” but absolutely stands behind a woman’s right to choose, and then called Elisabeth “anti-choice.” I thought it was an interesting comment about the terminology we use to define those polar extremes.

    1. Another note – actually an interesting comment from “The View” (of all places!)

      Good thing you didn’t mention this first, because you would have lost me right there 😛 I kid, I kid.

      I wonder, Stina, do you think that we as Christians will ever get to the place of respecting the “in-between” as you put it?

      Or, has the rhetoric about this issue so polarized us that we’re destined to throw stones across the aisle?

      1. I don’t know that the Christian community will be able to respect the “in-between” anytime soon, because, as you said, we’re too busy throwing stones. I’m as guilty of it as anyone else, of course, so I don’t claim to be exempt from this, but often Christians, while defending their values, become accusatory, judgmental, and very self-righteous about what’s right and wrong. It’s like that on both ends of the spectrum – people can be so certain that their opinion or belief is the right one, it’s impossible to tell them there are other, possibly correct, opinions.

        This very thing worries me about Christianity today. I worry that there is so much rhetoric about “the issues” in every election, in every church, in every college Bible study, that I fear we’ve become so caught up in the great battle of right and wrong that we’ve stopped thinking for ourselves. We’ve simply picked sides.

        What do you think, Ben? I worry that there’s no way to bring up discussions like this without offending people. I’m actually quite choosy about who I talk to about these sorts of things – about the idea that there is more to see than just the view people already have. Am I, then, supporting the polarization?

        1. that I fear we’ve become so caught up in the great battle of right and wrong that we’ve stopped thinking for ourselves. We’ve simply picked sides

          Yes, I’m sure that’s true in a lot of places and for a lot of people.

          What do you think, Ben?

          I’m fairly choosy as well. As you may have noticed, I’ve never posted about the “hot button” issues, save torture, for a few reasons.

          First, my views on the “hot button” issues are far from the evangelical norm, and I don’t often feel the urge to have stones thrown my way.

          Second, there are very few opportunities where real, back-and-forth dialogue happens. I’m not going to take up arms with someone who’s already made up their mind. Doing so will only entrench both of us further into what we already think about the issue.

          Third, about offending people. I don’t mind offending people, but I’m not going to say something if the only possible outcome is offense. What’s the point?

          Fourth, and probably most importantly, the “hot button” issues (abortion, homosexuals in the church, creation vs. evolution) are all very complex conversations that demand more than “black vs. white” thinking. It’s not just Genesis 1-2 and Leviticus 18:22 when it comes to these discussions; there’s an entire conversation that we completely ignore, i.e., scientific discovery, because science threatens us, and we’re afraid of it.

          And to put the icing on the cake, so often these discussions morph into conversations about public policy and legislation. We have it ingrained in our heads that God is no longer merciful and loving but consumed by wrath… and is just waiting for the opportunity to destroy America. So, instead of having intelligent conversation about complex issues, we opt for “black and white.” Personally, I have to believe that God is patient and merciful… and if we are created beings, then God fully knows our complexity as living organisms and fully knows our struggle to discern “right and wrong” on this issue.

          So, to answer my own question: Will we ever respect the “in-between”?

          I really hope so. But I also know how hard it is. I consider myself to be a fairly generous person and rather open-minded to differing perspectives. And I went to a seminary with a lot of similar people. But even we had a very hard time living harmoniously together — and we were future church leaders!

          That said, the pessimist in me is skeptical. I don’t think that most Evangelicals — at least those I’ve met and studied — are very open to change with respect to this conversation. For most, a human being becomes a human being at the moment of conception, and consequently, killing the fetus is tantamount to murder.

          If we are going to change to terms of the conversation, we have to start by talking about the complexity of what constitutes a human being … and that is no easy task.

    1. Oh, and yes, I do think the way we think about many public policy issues (and moral issues, for that matter) in a way that’s very different from Jesus…

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