Faith in Citizens

September 20th I was invited to share the Living Room Conversations story at the Religions of the Earth Conference in NY preceding the climate march. I was thrilled because faith leaders are natural champions for respectful open-hearted civil engagement. These leaders were gathered to lift up the role of moral leadership in conserving nature for future generations.

Why Living Room Conversations?

1998, six months into the impeachment scandal I co-founded MoveOn.org when my husband and I shared a one sentence petition asking Congress to "censure the president and move on to pressing issues facing the country." Many people have forgotten that MoveOn's first petition was unifying -- love Clinton or hate Clinton -- a huge number of Americans agreed that the impeachment obsession was not good for our country. ( Republican MoveOn members delivered thousands of Republican MoveOn petition signatures to GOP headquarters.) At the time Wes and I thought MoveOn was a "flash campaign," after the election we would go back to our real work. But then two weeks after an election in which pundits largely agreed impeachment was not popular -- the House voted to impeach. Good citizens work to elect leaders that reflect their values. Having just engaged hundreds of thousands of citizens politically for the first time it seemed wrong to drop the ball. So we launched the "We will remember" campaign with the goal of electing leaders that better reflect our values. Elections are inherently adversarial. This is when MoveOn began to develop as a leader in progressive organizing.

I'm a mediator by training and inclination. Finding common ground is what I find most gratifying. In 2006, inspired by a set of unifying goals -- "Who hates mothers?!"-- I co-founded MomsRising in hopes of working successfully in areas where there is substantial core agreement. I reaffirmed that a dysfunctional system performs poorly no matter the issue. Consider our budget fiasco last year, or our medical system -- we pay more per capita for health care than any other country in the world yet our health outcomes are not in the top 10 or even top 20 by most metrics. Adversarial solutions are substandard. Only when we work together, collaboratively so that we benefit from the insights of all and address the needs of all will our solutions transcend or current limitations.

I've come to believe that even if there was agreement in the U.S. that climate is a key concern, we would do a poor job of addressing the problem. Adversarial solutions will not suffice -- we must learn to hold the tensions of our differences and use this tension to inspire solutions that are better than we have yet imagined. How can we reboot our political dynamics so we can embrace this superior way of working together?

It is increasingly evident that climate activists are fed up with skeptics and skeptics are fed up with the activists. Both groups have lost patience to some extent. This results in an uncivil atmosphere when the topic comes up in communities and even families. When I point out to my conservative friend Lawry that many folks that believe climate change is happening are now panicked -- hence the willingness to be arrested, he is sympathetic. He is also inclined to avoid the climate conversation with family and friends that are strong advocates because the disrespect and aggression he has experienced is damaging to relationships he values. How do we develop empathy and respect on both sides?

The data that fewer Americans believe climate change is a problem today than three years ago is evidence that this dispute is less about science and more about human relationships. The science is getting more persuasive. Why then a shift toward more skeptics? Is this about tribal differences becoming increasingly defined and rigid? Science reveals that a group of like minded people talking about an issue will have more extreme views after their discussion. Might this be happening in our increasingly segregated communities?

Research shows that our executive reasoning is in service to our emotional preferences. We are far more likely to remember information that fits with our world view. Not only that, "facts don't convince people." The source of facts has a great deal to do with if we accept "facts" as facts. And assuming I convince a conservative friend that climate is an urgent issue we must attend to, if he goes back to a conservative community and expresses this without restraint he is likely to be shunned -- the evolutionary equivalent of death. No wonder people tend to reflect the values of their communities. Yet most of us continue to think of ourselves as primarily driven by reason. How do we lovingly and intelligently address this hot culture clash that is undermining our relationships and our future?

There are ways to begin to address this need to build relationships that extend beyond our increasingly homogenous communities. Living Room Conversations are one simple granular opportunity to reweave the fabric of our communities. Typically two co-hosts who hold differing views, each invite two friends to join the conversation for an intimate six-person conversation. Co-hosts may be from different ethnic groups, socio-economic backgrounds or political parties. Conversation participants follow easy to use guidelines and a set of questions for getting to know each other. By the time the conversation turns to the chosen topic these friends and their friends are listening to each other in a more open-hearted way because they have gained appreciation for everyone in the room. Fact is most people are caring, intelligent and share core values. Living Room Conversations are designed to diminish the social segmentation that has undermined our ability to work collaboratively. We hope that citizens and communities will use them and adapt them to begin to fix what is broken and discover how to be in right relationship so that respectful engagement becomes the norm.

Faith leaders call out to people's spiritual growth and higher purpose. Might the faith communities lead our citizenry to more open-hearted respectful conversations about how we are going to pass on to our children and their children a world as wondrous and beautiful as we dream for them?