We are delighted to have this guest post from Michael Austin, Dialogue Board member, friend of BCC, and Provost of Newman University in Wichita, KS.
A Review of Common Ground/Different Opinions: Latter-day Saints and
Contemporary Issues, eds. Justin F. White and James E. Faulconer
As citizens, we must argue with each other about important things. Participating in an inherently adversarial political system means proposing arguments and defending positions. Both our nation and the Constitution that governs it are built on a process designed to turn vigorous discussion and debate into manageable lumps of compromise that permit us to move ahead.
As Latter-day Saints, however, we must be of one heart and one mind. Becoming a Zion people means that we covenant to bear one another’s burdens that they may be light, to mourn with those that mourn, to comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God in all times and in all things (Mosiah 18:8-9).
These are not mutually exclusive responsibilities, of course, but they can be difficult to reconcile in the real world. To be good citizens and good saints, we must either learn how to agree with each other about everything, which is impossible, or we must find ways to disagree as loving brothers and sisters, which is really hard.
It is really hard because human beings are not good at disagreeing while remaining friends. Our evolutionary programming works against us. For one thing, our religious and our political beliefs come from the same cognitive places. They feel the same to us emotionally, so we have a hard time accepting that one group of beliefs can be morally essential ways that others are not. Furthermore, when somebody disagrees with us, we feel personally attacked and our fight-or-flight reflex kicks in. We immediately label the offending individual as other—crazy, stupid, evil, and “them.” Definitely not “us.” People are tribal that way.
“The natural man” then, is an enemy, not just to God, but to anybody who sees things differently. People used to kill each other over major differences of opinion; now we just unfriend them on Facebook—a step forward, to be sure, but still far short of mourning with them and bearing their burdens. And this is precisely the problem that Justin F. White and James E. Faulconer set out to address in their new and excellent collection of essays, Common Ground/Different Opinions.
“Our disagreements over questions for which there is no revealed answer must not create a break between us,” writes Faulconer in the introduction. “Loving brothers and sisters can disagree, even on important matters and continue to love, respect, support, and comfort one another. They can disagree about many things yet stand together as witnesses of God” (x). From this starting point, White and Faulconer have produced a lively collection of essays from a politically diverse group of contributors—all of whom are active, professing Latter-day Saints.
The main purpose of the collection, Faulconer tells us, is to model ways of discussing controversial issues within a loving and supporting ecclesiastical community. Here the volume succeeds splendidly. Everybody comes in with their shields down and their phasers on stun. Most of the participants argue their case vigorously, while, at the same time, acknowledging that reasonable, faithful people might disagree. And a few of them even admit the possibility that they might be wrong. The discussions are respectful without being subdued. This matters.
And the essays themselves matter too. After three solid essays laying out different ways of thinking about “Church doctrine,” the volume’s contributors engage with some of the most controversial issues of American politics today: feminism, same-sex attraction, race relations, environmentalism, stem-cell research, etc. Occasionally, the essays are presented in a fairly straightforward “pro-and-con” pairing—such as David A. Jenson’s “An Argument against Embryonic Stem Cell Research” and Sariah Cottrell and Steven Peck’s “Becoming a Person: Stem Cells and LDS Teachings.” More often, though, the essays talk around each other. They do not engage each other directly but present sustained meditations on a controversial topic from several distinct points of view.
Both are useful approaches, though the pro-con essays add a nice dramatic flair to the colelction that I would like to have seen more of. One might wish, for example, that former US Senator Bob Bennett’s excellent “Why I Am a Republican” could have been paired with an essay by current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called “Why I Am a Democrat.” But editors can only work with what they’ve got, and Richard Davis’s “Partisanship and the Gospel of Jesus Christ”—while not quite a rebuttal to Bennett—is an important and well-crafted alternative perspective that anybody who reads Bennett’s essay should consider.
A few of the essays transcend the deliberately contrarian nature of the volume and model more of a reflective process than a rhetorical one. Here I would include three essays in particular: Kristine Haglund’s “For Louisa,” Bruce Young’s “Following Christ in Times of War,” and George Handley’s “Heaven and Earth: Thinking through Environmentalism.” These were my favorite contributions in the volume because they demonstrate what can happen when a powerful intellect combines with a profound faith to think about hard things. I might never be able to duplicate such efforts, but I can, and do, appreciate them deeply.
Of course, one can always find plenty of fault with an edited collection by simply painting it with the inherent limitations of the genre. The quality of the writing in such volumes is always uneven, and their coverage of the declared topic is always inconsistent. Unless the essays come from a prior symposium, they rarely engage each other directly. There is usually some level of awkward duplication among the contributors, and there are always important areas of inquiry that should be covered but aren’t. All of these criticisms apply to Common Ground/Different Opinions as they do to every other edited collection in the history of books. Some of them, I suspect, apply even more.
But I could not admire the intent of the volume more than I do, nor could I agree more strongly with its overall argument. The Church needs books like this. And the members of the Church need to understand that political disagreements do not nullify our baptismal covenants. Half of the contributors to the volume took significant personal and professional risks by appearing in print with the other half, and as long as the world doesn’t blow up as a result of this book, we can hope that more people from more perspectives will take such risks more often.
So, paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin’s wise words on the last day of the Constitutional Convention, I will conclude simply by saying that this is a good book. A very good book. And I am willing to sacrifice my opinions of its weaknesses to secure the public good—and because I am not sure that, in the present rhetorical environment, it is not the best that we can get.