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Risking Civil Dialogue

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When Newsweek recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Forty percent couldn’t identify our enemies during WW II. Sixty-one percent didn’t know that a senator’s term is six years. Some high school history teachers are reportedly pulling out their hair. Try taking the civics test to assess your basic knowledge.

Newsweek rightly acknowledged that educating voters on entitlement reform is critical to balancing the budget and that civic ignorance is “a big problem going forward.” They quoted many experts on why we’ve become “incurious know-nothings.” They listed everything from the complexity of our political system to income inequality and market-driven programming in television. None mentioned the absence of good old-fashioned political dialogue across our political divide.

Do we avoid talking politics for lack of knowledge? Was it our mothers who warned us not to talk about God or politics? Is it our fear of being attacked by our political adversaries? Are we lacking in knowledge, confidence or courage?

After posting and commenting on Facebook about a political YouTube video, one friend responded: “I am actually commenting on the fact I have no comment. Last year, I stopped all political Facebook posts.”

My response still reflects my view: “I understand your choice, but I have made a different one. Too many have stopped having conversations about political differences. It's those conversations that make liberty count. The trick is not to demean those who disagree. I value difference and know that many very wise and well-meaning citizens disagree. I try to be sensitive, but I think political discussions are more important than ever today.”

My friend wrote what many feel: “I find people just become angry. The Republicans post horrible things about the Democrats, and Democrats post horrible things about the Republicans. Both sides seem to refuse to see any good in the other side. I’m surprised we don't have a civil war soon!”

We must treasure our differences, not silence or demean them. Our commitment to freely allow people to disagree and to influence others helps keep America strong. It’s freedom of speech and our exchange of different ideas that helps provide the course-corrections our country needs as it finds its way into the future. In America, we manage some heavy tensions that require frequent adjustments. These tensions aren’t going away: Do we need more government or empowered individual responsibility? Does caring require a government program or local charity and a hand up? Is war never the answer or sometimes the answer?

Without diversity of opinion, we’re robbed of the value of dissent. If a minority opinion is right, the majority is deprived of the option to exchange error for truth. If dissent is proved wrong, the majority is deprived of its deeper understanding and commitment to that truth by testing it against the anvil of criticism.

Too many citizens have become “political tourists” who occasionally visit the political flow just prior to elections. Such short excursions into issues seldom open minds; instead, they just reinforce existing views. They vote out of habit, not depth of conviction.

The issues facing America today require more from citizens. When was the last time you sat down with someone who disagreed with your political views, listened, and even dared to try their views on for size? I’m sure you are thinking of others on the “other side” who ought to be reading this. No, what about you? Instead of quickly rejecting their position, seek clarity by truly understanding why they hold their views so strongly. Risk acknowledging points that help you understand their position. You don’t win a debate by belittling anyone’s position; you do it by changing hearts and minds. That starts with respecting the people you are trying to influence.

Saint Peter’s advice on discussing matters of faith fits politics: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (I Peter 3:15)

Political dialogue needs a lot more gentleness and respect. Seek first to understand and then to be understood. None will be perfect, but let’s each work to do our part to disagree without being too disagreeable.

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