How to Break Through the Impasse

This government shutdown is imposing real hardship on thousands of Americans as they experience a sudden loss of income, all while their work piles up waiting for their eventual return. But there are some valuable insights that can be gleaned from the experience. Chief among them is the understanding that the dominant political parties have allowed their differences to become so insurmountable that they've shut down the inter-party dialogue which is so essential to keeping the engines of democracy running.

There's nothing wrong with having political and philosophical differences, but the unwillingness to engage in conversation is forestalling any compromise. There are some members of the much maligned tea party, whose hyper-conservatism might prevent them from reaching consensus on a number of issues, but they are few and shouldn't be permitted to sew broad divisiveness. Conservative and moderate Republicans and Democrats alike therefore have a responsibility not to be swayed and intimidated into obstructionism by the small number of their hyper-partisan colleagues.

The good news is that this problem of intense disagreement and blocked communication can be fixed, and a good example for how to fix it can be found among the religious and the nonreligious communities.

Much like the current inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together, members of different faith communities and of the nonreligious community used to be unable to work together. A key cause of this constant confrontation was the lack of dialogue between groups, which caused both sides to misunderstand each other's intentions. Rather than working together to grapple with poverty, racism, religious freedom, and international conflict, members of these groups ignored or even attacked each other for perceived slights and philosophical differences.

Some years ago the Garrison-Martineau Project was created to get non-believers and believers talking. This idea took off and is now incorporated into the everyday work of humanists as well as people of faith who want to advocate for a better world. When religious and nonreligious groups engaged each other in conversation, both sides discovered that they could work together on certain issues. And even though differences remain between the groups, both sides agree that these differences should be dealt with respectfully and without harmful types of confrontation. That's because after finally speaking with each other on equal terms both communities realized that they have much more in common than they have differences.

People often say that the two topics that shouldn't be discussed in polite conversation are politics and religion. But organizations that deal with religion have shown that people of vastly different views can work together and co-exist peacefully. When I discussed this with Marty Shupack, the director of advocacy for the Church World Service, he agreed and stated that "people of conscience and compassion today readily work together across religious divisions, and so can policy makers. Our philosophical differences matter, but a commitment to the common good can and must bring us together." Indeed, politicians should follow this example and engage in conversation not only to learn more about those that they disagree with, but to figure out ways that they can work together on issues where they do agree.

While there will always be some who will refuse to work with anyone who disagrees with them, the vast majority of individuals in and out of government have the potential to engage in meaningful work with those of different viewpoints if they get talking. As human beings, it's only natural for us to work towards compromise, which is why it is so important that we get back to basics and start talking to each other again.