Monday, February 3, 2014

Are respectful conversations possible?

My New Year’s resolution is to endeavor to understand the views of conservative, evangelical Christians. When I heard that WyWatch, a conservative political action organization, was holding a conference, I decided to attend. The agenda provided an opportunity to learn how they understand the world and why they perceive liberal theologians as threats to their beliefs.

Alas, it was not to be. I was 44 minutes late emailing my registration and they rejected my request. “Mr. McDaniel…your email request was received after the indicated registration deadline.” The conference went on without me. An opportunity to understand one another was missed.

Honestly I don’t blame WyWatch for denying my registration. I wouldn’t have trusted me either. I haven’t always spoken respectfully of my evangelical colleagues. Additionally, I am vice-chair of the Wyoming Association of Churches (WAC), an organization to which WyWatch referred in its conference invitation as a “fringe minority” guilty of misrepresenting and undermining “your biblical views.”

Therein lies the problem. As Abraham told the rich man, “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.”

Our dialogue has been disrespectful for so long that distrust has become the way in which we relate. The conference banquet speaker, Kenyn Cureton, Vice President, Church Ministries, of the Family Research Council, titled his speech, “Losing your Right to Preach the Gospel: Impossible? Unavoidable? What's At Stake for Pastors?”

As a liberal theologian, I’d have learned what it is that evangelicals believe is “at stake.” The public wasn’t allowed to attend his speech, but did get a sense of what conservatives feel the following day when they gathered at the state capitol to protest abortion laws.

Two legislators spoke at their rally. Allen Jaggi (R-Uinta) said many lawmakers forget Biblical teachings. 
“Some of the people that I work with in the Legislature are pretty smart people. But the trouble is that they don’t listen to God.”

 Legislator, Rev. Nathan Winters (R-Thermopolis) said the country and state “must return to God.”

I don’t completely agree. People of good faith who “listen to God” can and often do reach different, though honest conclusions about God’s word. Nonetheless, Jaggi and Winter’s expressed their views respectfully and I respect the sincerity with which they hold them.

Then there was Frank Eathorne, chairman of WyWatch Family Action. He spoke after the legislators, attacking other religions for promoting “anti-biblical views.”

The WyWatch leader claimed, “Atheism is growing at a record pace and Satanism, Hinduism and Islam, they all persist.” Lumping Muslims and Hindus together with Satanists and Atheists is gratuitously incendiary.

That’s an example of when sincerely held beliefs are nevertheless disrespectful.

Those with whom Jesus disagreed might not have considered his responses to them as “respectful” conversations. He once called them “a brood of vipers.” (Matthew 12:34) But in the same breath, Jesus then warned that on judgment day we’ll “render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."

Being certain about that which is uncertain breeds disrespect. Last month Dr. Jim Ryan, head of the Colorado Council of Churches, spoke at a WAC event called “Respectful Conversations.” Ryan raised the most divisive issue, abortion. Most, not all, in attendance were probably pro-choice.

He asked how we’d react to a hypothetical Supreme Court decision giving parents the right to kill a child for any reason prior to the child’s first birthday. Ryan asked the pro-choice believers in the audience to understand that is how right-to-life believers react to Roe v. Wade as we’d react to his hypothetical.

Ryan’s point is that each of us has a fundamental basis for our views and that a respectful dialogue can take place only if we start by questioning our own opinions even as we acknowledge the sincerity with which others hold theirs.

The question is “who will go first?”


  1. I appreciate this reflection very much. I have come to my progressive views somewhat late in life, and I confess that I therefore have a hard time conversing with people who cling to a worldview that I have (finally) questioned and grappled with. I am surprised to find I'm more useful in conversation when I'm honest about my journey from so-called "pro-life" to "pro-choice." Recently, I got up the nerve, at a lunch with progressive friends, to tell them I once belonged to a "pro-life study group." It was hard for me to admit that I was once "on the other side," apart from these friends whose passions I share now. But the ensuing conversation allowed me to explain the passion of the friends I used to agree with on the subject of abortion. It was a good conversation at that lunch table. Now, how to apply truthfulness with the friends I used to have . . . on the other side?

  2. Thanks for the comment. I also wonder how hard it might be to go from pro-choice to pro-life…and what the reaction would be among friends? I was pro-life once and later believed I could not make that choice for others, particularly when I am a man…but I do wonder…does an accident of birth, i.e. I am a man rather than a woman make this determinative? Tough question…thanks for your comment