Reforming American Politics (Harold Heie) -- A Review


REFORMING AMERICAN POLITICS: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation. By Harold Heie. Foreword by Richard Mouw. Canton, MI: Front Edge Publishing, 2019. Xx + 426 pages.

The American populace is, to put it mildly, divided politically. We seem more polarized than ever before. The two parties have increasingly moved farther and farther apart. While the general populace is said to inhabit the middle, there is no political middle to inhabit. Some of this reality is rooted in the process of gerrymandering, where partisans have worked hard to protect their seats in government. Thus, in many cases, the only competition for a seat will come in a primary. That doesn’t bode well for working across the aisle. What is happening in the political world seems to be happening in the religious world as well. Thus, just as there are red and blue states, there are red and blue churches/denominations. What is occurring in these two spheres is taking place within families. Dinner time can be dicey, especially when the whole family gathers. So, what should Christians do about this? Do we retreat from the political sphere to protect the church or do we engage the political sphere? If the latter, how should we do so? Scripture seems to suggest (at least as I read it) that we have a responsibility for the broader community. If so, then retreating (the so-called “Benedict Option”) doesn’t seem workable. Yet, how do we engage the political sphere without becoming swallowed up by it?

When it comes to reforming the political sphere, as a Christian, I confess that I have my doubts that we can transcend our differences to the point of being able to accomplish such a goal. I say that as one who is, by nature, optimistic, even idealistic.  In fact, I have tried to live as a bridge-builder not deconstructionist (though there is a place for deconstruction, it’s just not in my nature). Despite my doubts, I do believe that Christians have resources that lend themselves to the task of healing our national and global woes. To deploy them will, in my estimation, require humility, courage, and wisdom.  It’s with this mixture of realism, optimism, and pessimism, that I read Harold Heie's book Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation. I bring to this conversation a life-long interest in politics as well as my vocation as a pastor. In many ways, I've spent much of my life talking about two things that aren't supposed to be brought up in polite company—politics and religion. Perhaps that makes me the right person to review a book such as this.

Regarding the author of this book: Harold Heie is an evangelical Christian committed to creating opportunities for respectful conversations/dialogue about contentious issues about which Christians often disagree. He is a senior fellow at the Colossian Forum, which according to its website has a mission “to equip leaders to transform cultural conflicts into opportunities for spiritual growth and witness.” He has a doctorate from Princeton in aerospace sciences and has served as a math professor. Rooted in his commitment to creating space for respectful dialogue, he created a website aptly named: www.respecfulconversation.net. He uses this site to conduct what he calls ecircle discussions, and this book is rooted in the conversations that took place on that website.

For this particular book, Heie brought together twenty-three people, in most cases pairing persons of opposing viewpoints on the conservative/liberal spectrum. He gave them a topic/prompt and then invited them to engage in dialog on the website. Participants were asked to agree to a set of rules that required them to listen to each other and treat each other respectfully. At the same time, they were encouraged to be forthright in their statements so that the conversation might prove enlightening. Standing at the core of the conversations is Jesus' call to love one's neighbors, including those with whom one has disagreements. The hope of this project is to offer a model for others to emulate as they engage in conversation. The hope is that people will learn from each other, even if they’re not convinced by the other side. By and large, the conversations were civil and respectful. The partners in the conversation seemed willing to learn from the other. I’m not sure many changed their minds, but understanding emerged. Now, it’s important to note that the participants in these conversations might differ strongly, but they weren’t ideologues.

The book is composed of four parts, with the first two parts focusing on the nature of political discourse and politics itself. In other words, they focus on the theoretical. Part three focuses on three policy issues—immigration, wealth and poverty in America, and health care in America. These are three of the most contentious issues (though not the only ones) of our day. Finally, in part four, Heie offers two case studies of situations where some of these principles have been put into practice. Each chapter is composed of Heie’s distillation of these conversations. Then in the final chapter or conclusion, Heie offers his take on a way forward. Whether his suggestions will work depends in large part on one’s willingness to engage in dialogue. None of this will be easy, as the author reminds us, though if we can work out the process first, we might be more successful in our attempts to understand one another. This requires that we not talk past one another, which occurs regularly in our conversations, especially those modeled by the media (pick your news network!). We don’t get very far, because we tend to gravitate to echo chambers, listening only to those who agree with us. It’s understandable, but is it profitable?

With that in mind the chapters that form Part One focus on political discourse. He begins by inviting two conversation partners, one from each political party to discuss the problem of talking past one another. By and large, they are in agreement about the difficulties of listening to one another and finding nuance in the age of soundbites. This leads to a conversation about what it means to love one's neighbor, and finally the question of limits to civil discourse. In an age when civility isn't always valued, how should we frame our conversations? What limits might there be?  Then, in Part Two he focuses on "The Nature of Politics." These conversations focus on political parties and money. In the course of the discussion, it is revealed that the American system assumes the existence of parties and that this system requires lots of money. Even local elections require increasing amounts of funding. Both of these revelations are not new, but this is a good reminder of the realities that we face. The question is, what should be done to bring equity and fairness into the system?

These first two sections, all of which involve the author summarizing broader conversations among the participants in his ecircles, provide the foundation for discussions in Part Three of three important and divisive issues of our time. These are immigration, wealth and poverty, and finally health care. At least in this book, he avoids the other "issue" of our day, which concerns human sexuality. Nevertheless, these three issues provide opportunities for us to see if it's possible to have a civil and fruitful conversation among those who differ. One thing I noticed in reading the summaries is that the participants, though they tended to disagree generally didn't represent extremist positions. This might be necessary for any conversation to take place. Again, it is clear that it takes a lot of diligence and willingness to listen to recognize the need for nuance. Unfortunately, the system as it exists means you are either on one side or the other, and the river dividing the two is deep and wide. 

Part Four offers three case studies of communities engaging in politics of a sort. Two of the studies involve congregations in Kalamazoo, Michigan. One is Mennonite and the other is from the United Church of Christ. The third case study focuses on a relief/social justice entity rooted within the Christian Reformed Church. While the two congregations differ in their political engagement, from what I read, I don't think they're all that different in their orientation. Both were concerned about social justice.  Regarding the CRC effort, it doesn't look, from the study, that much different from a mainline church. In other words, there are lots of places we can work together if we’re willing to see the other as a friend and not enemy.

In the conclusion, Heie attempts to lay out a vision for how Christians can contribute to the reformation of our American politics. He assumes the Christian community has something to offer. He encourages humility and the principle of love of neighbor. To those who suggest that the church and Christians have no responsibilities, he points us to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25. Concern for the least of these should be our guide. He also addresses the American propensity to individualism. In fact, in the conversation about health care, the "conservative" voice suggested that in our context there is not any real interest in a communal vision that would lead to universal care or a single-payer system. In our culture, there is strong resistance to being required to contribute to the common good. While he's pessimistic and doesn't support a single-payer system, he does see room for improvement. Isn't that a start?

One of the principles standing at the center of the book is Heie's belief that both/and solutions are better than either/or ones. In other words, success comes when we can expand the level of participation and community buy-in. He believes that civil discussion in which we listen to each other may lead to solutions to the challenges of our time. In principle, I agree, though I don't see much interest in either side to reach out and touch one another. Yet, maybe this is the way forward. Thus, the value of the book as it provides a model for conversation if not solutions to all our concerns. That in itself is of value (I write this review in the aftermath of two grievous mass-shootings). Something needs to be done to bridge our gaps if we’re going to achieve anything of lasting value. Hopefully, the Christian community can contribute to this process of Reforming American Politics, rather than simply become part of the problem.

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