I'm a left-leaning atheist. Last night I had pleasant interactions with a Christian conservative.
That was the goal of the Bridging Our Divide meeting at the IKE Box: to get people to listen to those with differing political views with empathy, respect, open-mindedness.
Here's part of how the Bridging Our Divide web site describes their mission (they're based in Portland, but hold meetings around the country):
Bridging Our Divide is working to promote constructive dialogue across political and ideological divides by creating forums for conversation.
Our work is focused on hosting Community Dialogue Events and Common Ground Debates in various cities around the United States.
As a nation, we're being split apart by an inability to communicate and see common ground. There's a growing sense of division and contempt fueled by partisanship, social media, and geographic separation.
We need to work together to improve communication between people with different ideologies and different visions of America, because our core values and needs overlap more than they differ.
Many on the left and right are failing to see the underlying values and humanity of those on the other side of the political divide. We're seeing a rise in extremist rhetoric on the right, and on the left, many have taken to labeling, shaming, and shutting down those with a different perspective. This drives away potential allies, pushes others further in the opposite direction, and creates a climate of contempt for everyone involved.
I saw two city councilors at the meeting, Chris Hoy and Jim Lewis. They occupy different ends of the political spectrum, which naturally was what the Bridging Our Divide organizers wanted -- diversity. Here's a slide that shows the self-described make-up of the people who registered for the meeting.
I put myself in the "liberal or left-leaning" category. Like I said, one of the women at our table said she was very conservative. The other three were a very liberal man, a left-leaning woman, and a man who didn't really share much about his political views. Here's a photo of my four discussion partners.
Prior to the small group part of the meeting, Shiloh Halsey, the Bridging Our Divide founder, explained what his group was all about and described how the evening would go.
Then five people who had volunteered to be part of a kick-off panel went up to the stage and answered questions designed to elicit how they view their political persuasion and the general state of political discourse in our country at the moment.
This took almost an hour.
There were two liberals, two conservatives, and an independent (a political science professor from Corban University who was one of the local organizers). In line with the warm and fuzzy tone of the meeting, the panelists did a pretty good job of not being too in-your-face about those with a differing political viewpoint.
Nonetheless, I probably wasn't the only person in the room who felt, at times, like what was being said was off-base. One reason I felt this way was that all five of the people on stage, if I recall correctly, said they were Christian. And one man in particular wasn't shy about bringing Jesus up when he defended his conservative worldview.
At first I thought this was strange, that all five were Christian, but since most people in this country are, I guess it wasn't really so surprising. It was mainly that, as an atheist, I don't feel the need to talk about my non-belief in God when discussing politics, so when the Christian panelists brought up their religious beliefs, that struck me as unusual.
My liberal mind also took issue with a prevailing perspective among the five panelists: that it is difficult to find unbiased news sources. Actually, it isn't. Just stay away from Fox News, and read the New York Times and Washington Post. That's what I do, daily.
After a short break the small group discussion part of the meeting began. To me, this was the best aspect of the evening. I wish the panelist part had been a bit shorter, so the small group discussion part could have been a bit longer. We got some tips ahead of time from Halsey (click to enlarge):
The small group part of the evening consisted of one of the people at a table choosing a question from a list provided by the organizers and asking it of another person.
This was an enjoyable experience. Mostly I talk with people who see the world pretty much as I do, from a non-religious liberal perspective. So it was refreshing for me to be able to ask the conservative Christian woman, "Do you believe in life after death?" Not surprisingly, she did.
I responded with "Well, I hope you're right." Which was absolutely true, even though I don't believe in an afterlife. Hey, common ground! The woman is certain she'll live on after she dies, and I wish this was true.
There's a power to simple non-judgmental listening. (Well, mostly non-judgmental; like I said, I couldn't help but mentally disagree with what some of the panelists were saying, because it struck me as factually wrong.)
I came away from last night's meeting feeling like I understood conservatives better. A theme of the meeting was that social media, like Facebook, exaggerate political differences, because we only get sound bites, by and large, and aren't able to directly experience the presence of the person expressing an opinion.
When I hear a conservative viewpoint coming from a person I'm sitting next to, I realize that they're a complex human being with whom I have much in common, aside from our political differences. Social media detract, and distract, from this realization.
The Bridging Our Divide meeting wasn't life-changing for me, but it definitely was life-affirming.
I came away determined to do two things simultaneously: (1) keep on expressing my own political views as strongly as ever, while (2) trying to do a better job of looking upon those with a differing view as people who are just like me, in that they feel they have good reasons for believing as they do, and also want to make the world a better place.