COMMENTARY: Agreeing to disagree

c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Dale Hanson Bourke is publisher of RNS.)

UNDATED _ Somewhere between all-inclusive political correctness and exclusive bigotry is a place where people who hold strong and divergent opinions can disagree respectfully.

It is not an easy place to find. Humanly, we feel most comfortable with those who share our beliefs and biases. And the more time we spend with others of like mind, the easier it becomes to demonize those who disagree as ignorant, misguided or evil.

Those of us in the media don't help much either. It's news when people disagree vehemently. It becomes front-page fodder when the debate turns ugly. Shouting matches become instant news sound bites.

But as citizens we recognize there is something precious and delicate in our right to disagree with one another. It is not upheld by mind-numbing inclusiveness nor is it illustrated by polarized polemics.

The importance of that right is most evident when thinking people come together and debate with dignity. It is most valuable when people can listen to one another and begin to understand even if they never agree.

Recently a series of meetings have sprung up across the country bringing people of very different mindsets together to"dialogue"as they often bill the occasions. One of the most recent and visible meetings occurred last weekend when the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Mel White met to discuss their very different views of homosexuality.

But there have been others. Harvard Divinity School was the setting for women who held widely divergent religious views to find common ground during a weekend of discussions and presentations. The Ethics and Public Policy Center hosted Southern Baptist clergy and Jewish leaders in a series of meetings to discuss the Christian notion of evangelizing Jews.

These and other meetings have been mostly off the record, meaning media either weren't allowed into the sessions or were not permitted to report on the content.

But the spirit of such meetings has been remarkable by most accounts, mostly because the participants have been willing to openly and strongly express their views without ascribing motives to their counterparts. In the end people have walked out of such sessions with changed hearts if not changed minds.

Falwell, a well-known conservative pastor and founder of the Moral Majority, and White, a former ghostwriter for Falwell and other evangelists and now an activist for gay rights, made headlines because of their high visibility. Other meetings were never reported not only because of their off-the-record status but also because people getting along simply isn't news.

Yet in one of the meetings I attended as an observer, it was clear a rabbi and a Southern Baptist minister had started out as potential combatants and had become true friends. The rabbi hadn't converted and the minister hadn't stopped evangelizing. But the two had come to understand one another in a way that seemed to profoundly impact each of them.

That may not be news but it certainly is a story.

And the most wonderful part of the story is that it can be duplicated in other places and with people of all different backgrounds.

As a nation we must get back to discussing the hard questions with one another. We must find ways to set up safe environments where we can meet and disagree without shouting. And we must teach our children to do the same with one another.

A strong democracy is built on lively debate. A vibrant community grows out of diversity. But underpinning it all is communication with one another.