Recently, while visiting my in-laws in Point Roberts, Washington, I was jostled out of a deep sleep. It was Saturday morning and still dark outside. My eyes unfocused, I heard my wife whisper in my ear “coffee group.” At that, I leapt out of bed, put on my clothes, and met my father-in-law, Dave, outside.
We were off to the Wood N Frog.
As Dave tells it, the coffee group started twelve years ago, when he walked into a Starbucks just across the Canadian border and struck up a conversation with a fellow patron there named Harry, a retired Jewish pharmacist with white hair as wild as Einstein’s. They got into a dispute about the lumber trade agreement between the United States and Canada, drank their mugs of coffee while debating the matter and then decided to meet again the next day to continue the conversation.
After that, they began meeting for coffee nearly every Saturday, discussing politics and religion, subjects typically anathema to the formation of community among people of differing viewpoints. Soon others joined them – a business executive, a professor, a Christian conservative, an agnostic, a socialist – and they transitioned to the Wood N Frog Coffee Company down the road. Quickly, the coffee group grew from two members to nine.
“There’s a willingness to listen and learn and respect other viewpoints,” Dave says of the group. “We try to learn something new every week. There’s a sense of acceptance, a sense of community, a willingness to speak honestly and challenge each other. And we all have a pretty good sense of humor and generally have fun even if the discussion is intense.”
The “Far” Country
It’s hard to become political absolutists when we share community with others of unlike mind. In isolation, online and in listening to news media outlets of our choice, it’s easy to become entrenched in particular political ideologies because no one is there to challenges us. What’s more, we’re not inclined to call someone a homophobe, racist, baby-killer or communist if we’re sitting right across the table from that person and have formed a relationship with him or her. We’re forced to look for ways to make our arguments and civilly discuss and understand the basis for our differences.
Encountering the coffee group made me think about the current political environment in America, where liberals and conservatives alike often view each other, or at least each side’s ideology, as the enemy. Maybe we feel the stakes are too high, that we are at a crossroads in America and the threat to our respective ideals is just too great.
But perhaps, as the saying goes, we have met the enemy and the enemy is us.
Henry Clay, a nineteenth-century Senator known as the Great Compromiser, argues:
“There are, no doubt, many men who are very wise in their own estimation, who will reject all propositions of compromise, but that is no reason why a compromise should not be attempted to be made. I go for honorable compromise whenever it can be made. Life itself is but a compromise between death and life, the struggle continuing throughout our whole existence, until the Great Destroyer finally triumphs. All legislation, all government, all society is formed upon the principle of mutual concession, politeness, comity, courtesy; upon these, everything is based.”
But we seldom seek to interact, let alone seek political compromise, with those who think differently than us. Often avoiding political conversations with our neighbors, we might turn to online communities and other media sites to connect with likeminded people who lambaste those whom they consider the political opposition.
While Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron often speaks about how to have a religious argument, we need a primer too on how to have a political argument. Remember William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line? Often on opposite sides of an issue, Buckley and his guest would spend an hour sitting face-to-face and debating a topic. There was a kind of community spirit in the exchange.
Compare that to what we often see on television and radio today, where a political commentator brings on a guest for a minute or two to debate an issue and, as the discussion soon gets heated, the commentator quashes the guest by abruptly cutting to a commercial break. There is no attempt whatsoever to understand the basis for each other’s point of view, much less to seek common ground.
Toward a Long-term Stay
All this is not to suggest compromise is always the best choice. Issues surrounding abortion, gay marriage and transgenderism, for instance, challenge the notion of compromise, particularly for many conservatives who see such issues not simply as political, but as being tightly intertwined with their religious convictions.
“Democrats will be around,holding office, and exercising power for a long time to come, so pro-life activists who devote all their political energy to beating them should use some of it to try to win them over instead,” Frankovich argues. “I don’t mean try to win them over to unqualified support for the protection of unborn children from the moment of conception – not even Republicans dare to agitate for that much, in practice. I mean that pro-life activists should do what they can to show the largest political party in the United States that it could help itself by making, at least in the hard cases of late-term abortion, concessions to the conscience of the average American.”
In regard to the issue of gay marriage, Bishop Barron’s approach is similarly nuanced. During an interview on The Rubin Report in 2017, Barron says he would not press to reverse the legalization of gay marriage in the United States right now. Doing so, he maintains, would probably impede the efforts of evangelization. Changing hearts and minds first requires, more often than not, more education and hearing the positive aspects of the Gospel – that is, “the good news.” Only after that are people typically ready to hear its more moralistic aspects.
“If the only thing a gay person hears from the Catholic Church is, ‘you’re intrinsically disordered,’ we’ve got a very serious problem, if that’s what the message has become
,” Barron says. “The first thing a gay person, like any person, should hear is, ‘You’re a beloved child of God.’”
Mind you, winning others over on abortion, gay marriage or any other issue is tough. But my father-in-law points out that some of the members of his coffee group, through the influence of one another over the years, have changed their minds on key political issues. That’s how lasting change usually occurs anyway, not at the political level so much as at the grassroots, cultural level.
At the very least, there should be a greater desire among people to seek common ground and budge from absolutist positions on issues where reasonable people can disagree. Issues surrounding immigration, health care and national defense spending, for instance, come to mind.
Compromise cannot be done unilaterally, however. I know those reading this, who are either liberals or conservatives, are thinking, “But, what about….” I get it. To be sure, this is not reaching for the Benedict Option. But neither is it abandoning religious principles.
We would do well to remember that politics is not religion: while the Christian faith stems from absolute commandments handed down by God, politics is about the art of compromise. As such, both conservative and liberal politicians should strive earnestly to seek agreement with one another more often than not. And they will, as long as enough of their constituents do the same – perhaps by forming their own coffee groups and engaging fellow members in the same way the group to which my father-in-law belongs has done.
If, as the poet Robert Frost says, a poem is a “momentary stay against confusion,” the formation of diverse communities like the coffee group is a start in promoting the social localism necessary for fostering not just a momentary, but a long-term, stay against political absolutism.