WASHINGTON (BP) — Americans, including conservative Christians, should seek to persuade others — not pigeonhole them by classifications — to promote civility in a religiously diverse culture, Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore said in a Washington, D.C., panel discussion.
Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, spoke during a Sept. 13 event hosted by The Brookings Institution on the role of religious freedom in building public civility.
The American Charter Project (ACP) sponsored the program in an effort to offer guidance on how to overcome polarization in the United States along ideological and religious divides. ACP will release the “American Charter of Freedom of Religion and Conscience” later this year as part of its effort.
In his remarks, Moore pointed to the need for Americans to follow the example of the late pastor and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
King “was not speaking only to those who were already with him,” Moore said. “He was speaking to my grandfather in Mississippi that he never saw as being anything less than a potential convert to his cause and to his way of seeing things.
“[O]ne of the great problems that we have in American life across the board is that we don’t ultimately believe that we’re going to be able to persuade one another of anything,” Moore said. “And so we assume all we can do is push one another into their categories and to speak about them rather than to them.”
The panel addressed the reasons for the growing divide over religious liberty since the mid-1990s, with Moore citing the “loss of transcendence in American public life.”
“When there is not a sense of transcendent purpose and meaning, people are going to try to find substitutes for that,” he told the audience. “And what we have largely seen happening in American life is people finding tribal identities in political movements or cultural arguments in a way that often really isn’t about coming to a solution to those arguments but about identifying: ‘I am the sort of person who stands here as opposed to the sort of people who stand there.'”
This happens on both the left and right, Moore said.
He observed that progressives often assume “religion is going to go away, and so if there is just enough cultural or political pressure put upon religious believers of whatever stripe, we’re just going to nudge you along to where you’re going to be anyway,” Moore said.
Some people in his own tribe of conservative Christianity “have also acculturated to this sense of statecraft as ultimate,” he said, adding they assume the Gospel “doesn’t matter as much as achieving some legislative wins. I think that’s been a loss in American life across the board.”
Religious freedom advocate Katrina Lantos Swett said progress for some in American life should not result in loss for others.
As America makes what many consider progress in areas “that have hitherto been untouchable that relate to bringing people who were previously marginalized, really left out and not included,” she said in an apparent reference to the expansion of rights to such groups as lesbians and gays, “we [must] find a way to embrace the good of that without disqualifying and putting on the margins and excluding as unacceptable the very deep and sincerely held religious convictions of a huge percentage of our country.”
Swett — president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and a former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom — acknowledged she was “dismayed” “and “alarmed” when senators confronted a judicial nominee the week before with questions “that sounded uncomfortably close to a religious test for office.” Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Richard Durbin of Illinois seemed to question Amy Coney Barrett’s suitability to serve as an appeals court judge because of her Roman Catholic beliefs.
“It felt so wrong; it felt so troubling,” Swett said.
Joshua DuBois — chief executive officer of Values Partnerships and former executive director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Obama — said the lack of relationship between groups has made it difficult to navigate divisive issues. He cited the absence of a basis for relationship between the conservative Christian community and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“[I]t’s hard to play catch-up when communities believe that the other side has denied their dignity for so long, and so why would they come to the table now?” DeBois said. “[A]t the time when relationship is needed perhaps more than ever, it doesn’t exist and the stakes are so high it’s hard to come together.”
CNN political analyst David Gregory told those attending, “Let’s allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Let’s remember to start out with love. Let’s remember humility. Let’s remember that everyone has something to give and to contribute in this, and then we can have a dialogue from there.”
In the keynote address before the panel discussion, John Dilulio — professor of politics, religion and civil society at the University of Pennsylvania and the first head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush — said religion can be a “civic tonic” or a “civic toxin.”
Dilulio offered some suggestions, including:
— “Let’s try to be as fact-based about faith-based matters as we reasonably and feasibly can be, and let’s also try to be open ourselves to hearing each other and hearing each other out on each or all sides of given religious freedom and church-state issues.
— “Let’s celebrate how in a demographically dynamic and diverse representative democracy like ours the civic intersections of religion and politics … are bound to be, and ought to be, busy and boisterous, not calm and quiet…. But let’s also at the same time insist emphatically, unambiguously, non-negotiabl[y] that one and all always stop far short of the civic equivalent of road rage. There are lines that cannot be crossed and should not be crossed.”
William Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings, moderated the event.