We sorely test our ability to live together if we readily question each other’s integrity. It may be harder to restrain our feelings when moral principles are at stake, for they go to the deepest wellsprings of our being. But the more our feelings diverge, the more deeply felt they are, the greater is our obligation to grant the sincerity and essential decency of our fellow citizens on the other side. – Senator Edward Kennedy, October 3, 1983
During my second year of law school, I read with mild amusement in The Washington Post that then-Senator Ted Kennedy had accepted an invitation to speak at Liberty Baptist College (now Liberty University) in Lynchburg, Virginia. Liberty Baptist was established by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the arch-conservative founder of the Moral Majority, an organization many credit with the rise of the Christian Right in American politics. To Falwell and most of the students at Liberty Baptist, Ted Kennedy represented everything wrong with American society. A liberal Democrat and symbol of the American Left, Kennedy was on opposite sides of the Moral Majority on almost every conceivable issue. Kennedy supported abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, opposed prayer and the teaching of creationism in public schools; he was instrumental in helping to enact federal civil rights laws, which many southerners believed undermined states’ rights and local control. Kennedy was a passionate advocate for national health care and government’s role in alleviating poverty, pollution, and discrimination. Even his support for a nuclear freeze offended the anti-Communist, Cold Warrior Falwell. A Catholic from secular leaning Massachusetts, Kennedy’s world view did not fit well on a college campus that embraced Falwell’s social and political conservatism and belief in biblical literalism and fundamentalist Christian theology. To many students at Liberty Baptist, Kennedy was a modern-day Devil. I had difficulty imagining how a Kennedy speech in Falwell territory could possibly go well.
I was wrong. On October 3, 1983, Kennedy appeared before a packed house and gave one of the best speeches of his career. Kennedy mixed humor with insight and spoke from the heart. He joked that many people in Washington were surprised that he was invited to speak at such a conservative school, and even more surprised that he had accepted. “They seem to think that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a Kennedy to come to the campus of Liberty Baptist College.” But Kennedy understood the importance of dialogue and respect for opposing views:
I have come here to discuss my beliefs about faith and country, tolerance and truth in America. I know we begin with certain disagreements; I strongly suspect that at the end of the evening some of our disagreements will remain. But I also hope that tonight and in the months and years ahead, we will always respect the right of others to differ, that we will never lose sight of our own fallibility, that we will view ourselves with a sense of perspective and a sense of humor.
Kennedy reminded this mostly conservative Baptist audience that, as a Catholic American, he too loved his country and treasured his faith. But he warned of the perils of absolutism and self-righteous certitude. “I do not assume that my conception of patriotism or policy is invariably correct, or that my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society.” He noted that the nation’s founders were men of varying faiths and that, while the United States shared a history of religious pluralism and tolerance, it also had experienced periods of prejudice and discrimination. “Let us never forget: Today’s Moral Majority could become tomorrow’s persecuted minority.”
It is doubtful Kennedy changed many minds that day, but his willingness to address the students and faculty at Liberty Baptist College, and the polite, respectful reception provided him, helped promote, if not agreement on the substantive issues, at least mutual understanding. Falwell had personally extended the invitation because, he said later, although most of the students opposed Kennedy’s politics, it was important that they hear and consider opposing views. That Falwell and Kennedy could share the same podium served as witness to the importance of civil discourse and the exchange of ideas. It demonstrated that, while liberals and conservatives may disagree on matters of policy, they share many of the same values and, as Americans who love their country and wish to make it better, differ only on how to make it so. If we wish for a vibrant, healthy democracy, Kennedy said, “We must respect the motives of those who exercise their right to disagree.”
Philosophically and politically, Kennedy and Falwell were diametrically opposed all their lives. But they remained on friendly terms with each other. When Falwell’s son applied for admission to the University of Virginia Law School (Kennedy’s alma mater), Kennedy volunteered to write a letter of recommendation and later invited the entire Falwell family to dinner at Kennedy’s house in McLean, Virginia. Years later, when Rose Kennedy was in failing health, Kennedy invited Falwell, who at the time was in south Florida, to stop by the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach and pray with the family. In 2005, when Falwell was hospitalized with severe pulmonary edema, he received a kind and encouraging letter from Kennedy, wishing him a quick recovery. As Jerry Falwell, Jr., later reflected, “Both of these men understood that they could disagree without being disagreeable. They were both lightning rods for their respective causes, but they treated each other with civility and respect.”
I note the Kennedy-Falwell story because it seems nowadays we have a diminished ability to engage in appropriate political discourse and disagreement, that we have lost a spirit of mutual respect, are less open to differing points of view, and rarely acknowledge our common humanity and good faith.
It may simply be that we are in the midst of a presidential election campaign, where every four years the airwaves are filled with out-of-context sound bites and false and misleading campaign ads (from both sides). Democracy is a messy business. It is why I am more comfortable with the world of ideas and policy than with the day-to-day clash of politics.
We live in an increasingly polarized world. The rise of online news and the proliferation of cable news channels have made the world a more ideologically-entrenched place, less open to rational, civil discourse. The American political scene operates increasingly on a mix of emotion and insecurity. Our political leanings are reinforced, and not challenged, by the ascent of intentionally-biased news outlets, from Fox to MSNBC, and by ideologically-inspired blogs and websites. Acerbic commentators and demagogues, mostly but not exclusively on the right (e.g., Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, Ed Schultz) demonize anyone who disagrees with them and successfully energize large swaths of sheep-like followers to view Democrats, or the Obamas, or whoever needs to be attacked that day, as the enemy.
I understand that politics, religion, and similar human endeavors do not always lend themselves to easy conclusions and reasonable disagreements. But there are ways to discuss differences that promote honest, good faith debate, where each side has the opportunity to learn from and be challenged by the other. Consider the days when William Buckley Jr. debated the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith and other liberal intellectuals on Firing Line. Reasoned dialogue cannot occur, however, when people absolutely convinced of the rightness of their cause begin demonizing their perceived enemies. I see it almost every day on Facebook, where a small group of “friends” post angry, bitter, ad hominem attacks (“Obama is a liar” or “Obama’s a socialist out to destroy America”), and discussion stoppers (“If you hate this country so much, why don’t you leave”).
Name calling serves only to suppress genuine debate and disserves the democratic process. When language is used as a weapon, it closes down debate. Take an emotionally charged issue like abortion. If I am called a “baby killer” or am told that to be pro-choice is to favor a new Holocaust, there is no room for reasoned discussion. Perhaps if my pro-life friend understands that I do not think he is a woman-hating fascist, and if he accepts that I am not in favor of infanticide, we can try to reach some common ground. Tone down the rhetoric and my opponent may learn that I, too, believe abortion is morally wrong in most cases and that, as a society we should attempt to find reasonable ways to reduce the total number of abortions. I will never agree that abortions should be outlawed, but we may find other areas of common ground. Perhaps if we start from a position of mutual respect, my pro-life friend will learn that I understand the intensity of his feelings and agree that abortion is indeed about the termination of a human life. We will not need to debate the philosophical issue of when life begins. But perhaps I can show through statistical studies that abstinence is ineffective and that prohibiting abortions will not eliminate them, but only make them unsafe and threaten our civil liberties.
If we can acknowledge the good faith of the other, perhaps we can agree that improved sex education and access to birth control more effectively prevents unwanted pregnancies, thereby reducing abortions. Even if we cannot agree, at least we can acknowledge that the issue is not only about the morality of abortion – no one is actually “pro-abortion” – but its legality. At issue is not the sanctity of life, a subject on which we both agree, but whether the government has the right to force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term simply because she and her partner made a mistake (yes, human beings are flawed), or their birth control failed, or she was raped. The issue is not whether abortion is morally good or morally bad, or whether one of us is “pro-life” and the other “anti-life”. No, the issue is who gets to decide? And when does the Government have the right to force a woman, or a teenage girl, to carry an unwanted pregnancy to full term?
I understand that, on some issues, like health care, liberals and conservatives disagree about the fundamental values at stake. Liberals believe that health care is a right and that a compassionate society should ensure basic health care for all its citizens. Conservatives believe that health care is no different than any other commodity, that only those who work and earn sufficient pay are entitled to buy health care services in the free market, and that society’s only obligation is to provide emergency hospital services to those who have no other option (such as the victim of a shooting or a car accident). In today’s political environment, such disagreements take on the dimension of a moral crusade – compassion vs. freedom; socialism vs. free enterprise. But perhaps we can agree on certain objectives. Can we agree that an appropriate societal goal is to develop a system that will maximize the number of people who can afford health care without undermining advances in medicine? Can we agree that increased preventive care is an effective means of reducing health care costs? With respectful dialogue, we can at least define common objectives and find a basis for compromise. But this can only occur when mutual respect and good faith prevail. It is when America works best.
“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress,” said Mahatma Gandhi. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, will continue to disagree on many issues. But if our disagreements do not once again become civil and respectful; if we refuse to acknowledge the inherent goodness of the other and proceed with humility, recognizing that none of us has all the answers and that good ideas exist on both sides, we will no longer progress as a democratic society or find a common basis for our citizenship. And then our democracy will be troubled. As Senator Kennedy told the students at Liberty Baptist College nearly thirty years ago, “[T]he choice lies within us; as fellow citizens, let us live peaceable with each other; as fellow human beings, let us strive to live peaceably with men and women everywhere.”