At a Mormon church in Chevy Chase, Maryland, over one-hundred 20- and 30-somethings spent Saturday attending a series of workshops covering issues of religion, race, economics, social justice, and communications as part of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington’s DC Young Adult Faith Leaders Summit.
Facilitating a conversation about Pope Francis and interfaith outreach during the summit, I was struck by the participant’s enthusiasm and praise for the pope. The room included Catholics, as well as Jews, mainline Protestants, and Mormons. Nearly everyone had something positive to say, or were curious and wanted to learn more.
I began by asking what they had heard about the pope. Some mentioned his comments on abortion. Others, homosexuality. A couple mentioned the economy, and others women in the church. It was that last topic that made things interesting.
Because in my circles, people tend to support the ordination of women, or, at a minimum, more opportunities for women to serve in the church, I take it for granted that this is the default for young people of faith. So I was surprised when a thoughtful Mormon spoke up for the status quo, explaining that the pope should be commended for refusing to budge on women’s ordination in the Catholic Church. She said that her own church was grappling with the issue, and that she feared it might give in to what she described as secular values.
A woman across the room nodded and then chimed in. An observant Jew, she explained that in her tradition, religious leaders found incremental ways to include women, and expressed hope that the Catholic Church could do the same.
More than the religious diversity, I was struck by the ideological diversity in the room. I wondered how long had it been since I had engaged in candid yet cordial conversation with those who strongly disagreed with me. So I decided to check out the breakout group on religious liberty, knowing it would attract a conservative crowd.
The session was led by a staffer at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the law firm representing Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor in their efforts to win exemptions from the Obamacare contraception mandate. Among the participants, though, was an atheist who worked at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They expressed their disagreement on some issues, including the Affordable Care Act, but perhaps more interesting, they explained how their two organizations had collaborated on other projects.
In Coming Apart, Charles Murray posits that the nation is growing bitterly divided because we are segregated by money and ideology, and we no longer mix with people who are different. It’s easier to demonize those we don’t know than those we share a meal with. My own experiences confirm this, as most of my friends share, with some minor exceptions, my worldview.
At the interfaith workshops, I was reminded that bright, funny, articulate, thoughtful people disagree with me. They’re not necessarily ignorant, uninformed, or bigots. And while I may think they’re wrong, it’s important to remember that dialogue is possible, and even enjoyable. These conversations could be a lesson in coming together.