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How Interfaith Dialogue Can Help Us This Debate Season

Religion and politics are notoriously divisive topics. Conventional wisdom tells us they should not be discussed in polite company, but success stories of interfaith dialogue offer hope.
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Like Hurricane Isaac, the 2012 nominating conventions moved across our screens and off into the past. How many Americans simply withdrew and waited for both storms to pass?
Many watched from the bunkers of their homes. Because I had no desire to repeat the bloodbath that ensued in my family during the 2004 nominating season, I felt the temptation to hunker down, surrounded only by like-minded folk.

As we prepare now for the ideological onslaught of the debate season, can we resist these impulses? Instead, we might learn something from courageous people who speak to one another across religious lines. Religion and politics are notoriously divisive topics. Conventional wisdom tells us they should not be discussed in polite company, but success stories of interfaith dialogue offer hope.

Consider the similarities. Political and religious affiliations form the bedrock of deeply held notions of truth, authority, and identity that guide our actions. In both realms, converts and the disaffected hold their convictions with particular passion. The entire world is at stake in political and religious disagreements.

The parallels also include the surprise and delight that can result from genuine interchange. The flash of recognition, the ability to see old problems in a new framework, and the reminder of a common humanity are some of the fruits of crossing religious and political lines.

Interreligious dialogue offers a helpful set of habits and dispositions for this election season. Taking my cue from Leonard Swidler's "Dialogue Decalogue," I suggest five ground rules:

1. Assume the best. Be honest and sincere, and expect the same intentions from those who differ from you. This first principle may be the most difficult to practice because it requires us to crack the armor of cynicism built up in the face of talk radio, sound bites, and political ads.

2. Allow others to define themselves. You are not talking to a stereotype or a caricature, but a living, thinking person. When you describe their position, they should be able to see themselves in the picture you paint.

3. Compare apples to apples. It is unfair to compare the lofty ideals of one side with the missteps, gaffes, and constrained actions of the other. Policy proposals belong beside policy proposals, track records beside track records, contexts beside contexts.

4. Develop a capacity for self-criticism. We can only learn from one another if we are able to acknowledge past mistakes. Every party is made up of fallible human beings. If we admit that we do not have all the answers, we open ourselves to cooperation and mutual correction.

5. Watch the flow of power. Observe: Who gets to design the party platform? Whose voices resist the platform or go unheard? This exercise alerts us to the internal diversity of political parties. Tracking power also illuminates how factors such as race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, national origin, and religion alter (or fail to alter) the conversation.

Much injury results when we violate these principles in debates on politics and religion. At root, the principles reflect the Golden Rule, which is found in many religious traditions: treat others as you want to be treated, and refrain from doing what you would not want done to you.
If we set out with the purpose not of changing our dialogue partners but of learning from them, what we learn changes us. We become more likely to see others as complex, thoughtful human beings. If we do not cling to preconceptions about where our differences lie, we can move beyond caricatures toward genuine conversation. We discover that there are never only two positions. We recall that policies and ideas often migrate across party lines. We may even get a sense of how things look and feel from the perspective of the other side. Although this "passing over" (John Dunne's metaphor) does not require anyone to convert or to forfeit their identity, deeper understanding can enrich the internal dialogues of each party.

Are these ideas naïve and Pollyannaish? Before you dismiss them, remember that they have set the tone for interfaith dialogue for decades. Even when embodied imperfectly, they work. They shape the kinds of citizens we need if our pluralistic society is to succeed.

In our talk radio climate, the risks of dialogue are great, but we cannot afford to give up on the civility and trust we will need to brave the storm together.