How to Create a 'National Conversation'

Have you noticed that "national conversations" are really hot right now? There seems to be a new one starting every week. And there seems to be a really simple formula for creating one: Take a memoir that only a handful of the author's close relatives (and maybe a few fans of the genre) would ever actually read and re-brand it "a controversial how-to on parenting." Oila! Instant "national conversation" -- and millions of book sales to boot.

But this isn't really how national conversations work, is it? It's easy to tell this artificially manufactured PR stunt from the real thing because it's already beginning to fade from the spotlight. And besides, we were having a perfectly good "national conversation" before the Tiger Mom stole all the headlines. It was a discussion around civility in our public discourse, following the Tucson shooting tragedy. Remember that?

You see, this is how real "national conversations" get started: in the wake of real earth-shattering events. 9/11 got us talking about international terrorism (and the U.S. role in the world). The Oklahoma City bombing got us talking about domestic terrorism. And so on.

The national conversation about civility is still desperately needed because our political discourse remains caustic and is heating up again quickly (on both sides of the aisle). While President Obama spoke eloquently on civility just 12 days ago at the memorial for those killed in Arizona, I suspect the subject won't receive much (if any) airtime in his State of the Union address. And yet we need it to be addressed again. And again and again.

This discussion is also very important for our religious and theological discourse, as we engage with those of other faiths and even (especially?) those with whom we disagree within our own faith tradition. While I suspect many of us reside in the moderate middle, the louder voices on both ends of the ideological spectrum still seem to get most of the attention.

Speaking to his tribe recently, evangelical Christian leader Billy Graham touched on this point, asking his fellow evangelicals to avoid getting "caught up in our own internal affairs or controversies" and becoming more "inner-directed" rather than "outer-directed." The fundamentalists in evangelical clothing -- those who attack other Christians in the name of doctrinal purity rather than reach out in grace and love to everyone -- should heed Graham's advice.

There is, finally, another "national conversation" that deserves our attention. During the 48-hour news cycle around MLK Day, there was a good bit of reflection on the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. There's much more conversation that we need to have around the challenges that Dr. King was addressing during his time -- specifically, the thing that ultimately got him killed: poverty. So many other issues, including health care, education, crime and punishment, etc., are all tied to this larger issue. With 43.6 million people living in poverty in this country (as of 2009 data), how are we and our faith communities going to address poverty in this nation?

There may not be an earth-shattering event that triggers it -- I hope there is not (nor that we need one) -- but that is still a real "national conversation" worth having. I hope and pray we will.