This ground-breaking op-ed by Mark Osler and Randy Potts appeared in the Christmas Eve edition of the Dallas Morning News. Historically, opinion leaders in the Christian conservative and social progressive camps have viewed one another as ideological opposites and, regrettably, frequently bolster their fundraising efforts by attacking the other side of the culture war stand-off. Having worked with folks from both sides on both sides, Osler and Potts see more similarities than differences.
Law professor, Mark Osler, will be familiar to our readers. Randy Roberts Potts, a former social worker and middle school English teacher, is a freelance writer who wrote about his coming out experience as the grandson of televangelist Oral Roberts in the recent book, It Gets Better.
Some people see the occupy Wall Street and tea party movements as a manifestation of that divide, but such an analysis (though true in part) obscures the fact that that both sides of the culture wars now feel ignored by a power structure that most values the rich and large institutions. Within this truth lies an opportunity for reconciliation between two groups that in many ways are natural allies. Like estranged relatives who find themselves welcome again at Christmas dinner, we need to drop our guard and open our hearts.
Why should we have hope that such reconciliation is possible?
First, that sense of alienation is real and justified. Even as they have rejected one another, progressives and religious conservatives have been rejected by a political structure that responds to big money, not the moral conviction both groups stand upon. It is no wonder that so many have turned to the tea party and occupy Wall Street in their efforts to be heard.
Second, changes in the media make productive discourse easier. Media has become decentralized, and this has brought to a close the era of powerful televangelists and others who have dominated these conversations. With 350 channels, a figure like Oral Roberts becomes a part of the crowd.
Third, in the midst of war and economic hardship, our nation is crying out for what churches offer at their best. Progressives tend to ignore the fact that conservative Christians are very often the ones who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and even visit those in prison. They welcome soldiers back from war, they create community in isolated places, and they offer hope to those who suffer from our nation’s economic problems. If we, as social progressives, want to do some of those same things (as we should) we must engage with those already on the ground.
Finally, there is a generational change going on in conservative Christianity that is seeing the rise of new leaders who are looking to connect in new ways to the broader society. We must seek them out, as well. These new leaders are seeking ways to make their faith relevant in modern society, and we can help them do that.
In working on the death penalty we have found that conservative Christians are very often principled, even when they disagree with us. When we talk about Christ as the subject of an unjust execution, or about the Eucharist as the last meal of a condemned man, they listen and consider it fairly. The discussion is worth it.
Even on the politically charged issue of gay men and women, we often find common ground. When we talk about reducing things like drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and homelessness in gay teenagers, we find that many pastors, youth ministers and lay people share our concerns. While many conservative Christians do not believe that the Bible permits same-sex marriage, they do agree that concepts of grace and charity as taught in the New Testament argue for a more loving, affirming approach to gay men and women.
Christmas is a season of reconciliation, and this could be one of the most significant reconciliations of all. Both social progressives and conservative Christians are fellow travelers who care about something more than money, who seek deep meaning, and who take joy in the uplifting of others.
Jesus broke bread with a man he knew would betray him, and another he knew would deny him; the least that any of us can do is seek the same with those who have opposed us.
Mark Osler is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota and serves as the head of the Association of Religiously Affiliated Law Schools. His email address is Mark.Osler@StThomas.edu.
Randy Roberts Potts, a former social worker and middle school English teacher, is a freelance writer who wrote about his coming out experience as the grandson of televangelist Oral Roberts in the recent It Gets Better book. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.